When the trailer for Disney’s live action adaptation of The Little Mermaid dropped in September, racists were up in arms over the casting of a Black actress as Ariel. Their image of Ariel was based on the 1989 animated feature, in which the mermaid is red-headed and white. Yet that version too is a far cry from the original rendering first presented by Hans Christian Andersen in his 1837 story. There, the mermaid is nameless. She allows a sea-witch to cut out her tongue so she can neither sing nor speak. Yearning to be human, she drinks a brew that transforms her tail into legs that feel on land as if she’s walking on swords. She considers killing her beloved prince after he marries another, only to eventually commit suicide.
Today, most scholars agree that Andersen, a bi-romantic, wrote the story after Edvard Collin rejected his affections.
Read through this lens, The Little Mermaid is a heart wrenching tale about a mermaid who wishes to live in a different body and literally gives up her voice in hopes of being with the man of her dreams. Though the Andersen tale may be the most common association with mermaids, the fact is mermaids have been a fixture of different cultures and regions throughout history, representing, among other things, queer identity.
In African lore, from Senegal to Tanzania, a water spirit called Mami Wata (Pidgin English for “Mother Water”)—linked to fertility, lust, wealth—is often depicted with long hair and a mirror to represent passage between both water and land, and the past and present. In Iran, a Luristan water-goddess dated between 3000 and 1000 B.C., with braided hair, breasts, and bisected fishtails evoked calls for fertility. Likewise, in Indonesia, Javanese lore tells of Nyai Roro Kidul, the “Spirit Queen of the Indian Ocean,” associated with fertility, reproduction, and prosperity.
It is, however, the Syriac fertility goddess Atargatis (‘Derketo’ to the Philistines, and, later, the Greeks) who’s said to be the first mermaid in the written record. Archaeologist R.A.S. Macalister credits the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus with offering the fullest and best-preserved mention of her. In the first century B.C.E., he wrote that Atargatis possessed “the face of a woman, and otherwise the entire body of a fish.”
Interestingly, in a 1925 paper, archaeologist W. F. Albright noted that Atargatis was “sexless,” and frequently assigned an “androgynous blend” of qualities by scholars of the time (he doesn’t expand on what these qualities were). Albright also observed that the shrine of Atargatis in Ashkelon was celebrated each spring with a procession to the sea, where “men and women probably bathed together” and the “lascivious” held a carnival.
Shortly after Alexander the Great conquered Syria around 333 BC, Atargatis, along with other Semitic deities, fused with Hellenic deities and Greco-Macedonian lore. In The Voyage of the Argo, written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the Third Century B.C.E., we get our first glimpse of mermaids as we know them today, as “naiads” or water spirits. When the Argo’s crew temporarily disembarks, Hylas, a young boy adopted by Hercules, sets off in search for water. He finds a spring, from which a naiad appears, kissing Hylas and pulling him into the spring in a kind of abduction.
“The naiad, like mermaids in the lore of mermaids a millennium later, is beautiful and mysterious, but impulsive, and at least from the point of view of the mariners, amoral,” writes Boria Sax in “The Mermaid and Her Sisters: From Archaic Goddess to Consumer Society.” In Hesiod’s Theogony, Sax points out, Aphrodite emerged from the ocean after it was fertilized from the sperm of the castrated Uranus. “The myth,” Sax concludes, “illustrates both the fecundity of the ocean and its identification with the female gender.”
It’s this fecundity and gendering that continually plays out in mermaid (or mermaid adjacent) myth throughout the world over time.
In his paper, “Siren-Mermaid,” Wilfred P. Mustard expands on the full breadth of the “mermaid myth” that’s been propagated through literature over the years. There are the sirens—sometimes described as women who are half-bird rather than half-fish—in the Odyssey, who are cemented in English literary tradition as fishtailed by the seventh century. Their archetype is further solidified with the addition of long locks and a “sweet song” they sing to lure sailors into danger, usually a storm. From the sea nymphs in Virgil’s Georgics to loose references in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Milton’s Comus, the threat of a dangerous siren-mermaid underscores one point in particular: mariners are not wary only of the mermaid’s feminine wiles; her tail—her otherness, her halfness—presents true peril.
Interestingly, this fear of mermaids crossed media. In “Edward Burne-Jones and the Nineteeth Century Fear of Women,” Joseph Kestner points out that painter’s “alteration from worship of women to fear of women” is most pronounced in The Depths of the Sea. The painting depicts a mermaid looking intensely at the viewer, as she grasps her captor underwater, covering his genitals. Kestner goes on to suggest that the mermaid’s arm, which “eliminates” her captor’s genitals, is “like her tail” in that it has “an affinity with the castrating sea-monster in The Doom Fulfilled,” another of Burne-Jones’ work.
Neither Homer nor Apollonius tell us what happens to sailors enticed by these “young, virginal, semi-divine beings,” according to Mikal J. Aasved in his article on cargo cults—which held that performing rituals results in ancestors’ spirits returning in ships carrying food and other goods. That said, we do know that the iconography associated with sirens clashes with the femme fatale stereotypes they engender. Specifically, writes Aasved, “most of the early [Greek] art works in which the Sirens appear portray them as bearded males, sometimes armed and sometimes unarmed. Only later are they depicted as female.”
It’s likely that the liminality of water is what gave rise to expression outside the binary. “The coastlines were and are a source of cultural transmission as well as a site of anxiety about invasion,” writes Jason Marc Harris in a 2009 Mythlore article, “Perilous Shores: The Unfathomable Supernaturalism of Water in 19th-Century Scottish Folklore.”
Moreover, boundaries were blurred when myth and lore mingled with mariner culture, itself a deeply male space. Where the sea and ships were deeply feminine entities, crews were typically all male. Oftentimes, notes Sax, the sea was where men went to swear off women, and for sailors through the ages, mermaids were carved onto ships or tattooed onto their skin.
What’s more, the sea was also an escape for people we now recognize as lesbian, gay, non-binary, and trans. An oft-quoted example were the female pirate couple, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. In the early 18th century, the pair dressed as men and sailed the seas with the notorious Caribbean pirate, Calico Jack Rackham. Most of their crew mates knew Bonny and Read were women, and, historians today believe they were not anomalies. Rather, there was a tradition of female cross-dressing, especially on the high seas.
Additional nods to maritime homosexuality appear in John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill from 1749. In it, the protagonist and a sailor are in flagrante delicto when Fanny notes: “I feeling pretty sensibly that it was not going by the right door, and knocking desperately at the wrong one, I told him of it:—‘Pooh! says he, ‘my dear, any port in a storm.’”
Over years, scholars theorized that mermaid sightings were hallucinations of sailors desperate for female companionship. Others yet believe they might have been manatees seen from a distance, or, as Aasved suggests, people performing cargo cult rituals.
But despite the mermaid’s reputation as a product of heterosexual imagination, her “permutations often seem to illustrate the shifting gender norms and sexual ideologies of modern society,” writes Peter Mortensen in “‘Half Fish, Half Woman’: Annette Kellerman, Mermaids, and Eco-Aquatic Revisioning.” The mermaid’s power to fascinate, he argues, stems not only from her female identity, but her “uncertain species identity.”
By the time Oscar Wilde wrote The Fisherman and his Soul in 1891, the relationship between men and mermaids had expanded beyond the limits of heteronormativity; it included a gay subtext. In this fairytale, which leans heavily on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the relationship between the mermaid and the fisherman who loves her “falls into the category of sodomy,” writes John-Charles Duffy, ironic perhaps given Wilde’s later conviction for gross indecency. The Fisherman and his Soul may not be a straight love story—the couple cannot reproduce or engage in vaginal intercourse—but it is a love story, nonetheless. Out of love for the mermaid, the fisherman follows her into death, flowers miraculously spring from their grave—symbolic of their ability to procreate in spirit—and a priest acknowledges that their love “is not the abomination he had previously pronounced it.”
Over time, this emphasis on the “uncertain species identity” Mortensen discusses is what gives the mermaid her ongoing presence in our lives. She sells us everything from coffee (the Starbucks Siren) and canned fish (Sirena Tuna, Chicken of the Sea, Mermaid Smoked Sardines) to nautical-inspired clothes (Bella Hadid for Jean Paul Gaultier). By blurring human-animal distinctions, mermaids break through arbitrary social divisions of class, race, and identity.
Which brings us to the modern deluge of mermaids as unboxable figures embraced as a means of expanding gender identity and expression. In Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck, which won the 1974 National Book Award, the poet asserts that mermaids are frequently referenced to challenge male heroism. Yet most importantly, notes Alicia Ostriker in “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking,” Rich’s language points to an “androgynous being” using “fluid pronouns.”
Similarly, Cynthia Barounis observes that instances of “mermaid drag” in wheelchairs liberates and represents “gender and disability camp[ness].” Barounis cites Bette Midler’s 1978 mermaid cabaret persona, Delores DeLago, who donned a mermaid tail in a wheelchair, and Lady Gaga’s mermaid drag wheelchair alter ego, Yüyi, as proof that mermaids hold the “horizontal promise of a future that is finally welcoming to feminist, queer, and [disabled] bodies.”
How far we are from this inclusive future is difficult to ascertain, but it seems plausible (at the very least) that mermaids will continue to play a role in bringing this future about. A 2018 children’s book, Julián Is a Mermaid, which tells the story of a young boy who loves dressing up as mermaids, was recently included in a list of books published by National Education Association to support explorations of gender. In 2021, cartoonist Molly Knox Ostertag published a queer teen graphic novel about a girl who falls in love with a selkie (a seal-human creature in Celtic and Norse folklore).
Most recently, however, “mermaiding” and mermaid cosplay has continued to boom within the LGBTQ+ community. Slipping on silicone and neoprene tails encrusted with iridescent scales, people find comfort in lounging, swimming, or diving in their mermaid personas. Mermaids in local communities form “pods,” small groups of mermaiding enthusiasts, through which those exploring different facets of their identity—especially gender—find comfort. Notably, underwater diving certifications provide specialized mermaid diving courses, owing to safety concerns associated with diving while in a silicone tail.
In other words: mermaiding, as we know it today, is no longer a novel trend. To celebrate the mermaid, is no longer to fear femininity, otherness, or half-fishness; it is to celebrate diversity.