Of Sirens and Sorrow

**This post was originally featured on Rhonda Parrish’s blog.**


“The Mermaid and the Dolphin”
Arthur Rackham (1908).

The ocean. So beautiful. So mysterious. So “full of fish,” as Kevin Kline’s character from French Kiss observed.

And merfolk, maybe?

For thousands of years, man has thought so. As early as 2,000 B.C., the Babylonians worshipped a half-fish, half-human deity by the name of Era or Oannes.[1] From that time, tales of merfolk have cropped up across many cultures: from Sovann Macha, the mermaid of the Hindu belief system[2]; to the Tritons of Greek mythology[3]; to Yemajá, the mermaid who is the mother of all according to the traditions of Cadomblé, which originated in Africa.[4]

Yet often folklore concerning mermaids also involves great sorrow. Why is it that we associate merfolk with tragedy? Perhaps a review of some popular tales can help us find the answer.



French Heraldry—Melusine

At first blush, Melusina doesn’t seem to fit in our list of fictional mermaids. Although her mother was a water fairy associated with a fountain or spring, Melusina began life as merely another fetching fairy lass.[5] However, as a teenager, she inspired maternal wrath by mistreating her human father. For this sin, her mother cursed her to be a fish (or a snake in some tales) from the waist down every Saturday.

Afterwards, Melusina wandered for a time, occasionally stopping to participate in fairy revels. At one such gathering, she met a handsome human count. As you might expect, the count fell in madly love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. Melusina said yes, but with one caveat—after their marriage, he must make no attempt to see her on Saturdays. Whatever he thought of this strange condition, the smitten count could only agree. He took his bride back to his castle, and they were wed.

Predictably, the count was unable to keep his word. After years of being happily married, he was persuaded to peek in on his wife one Saturday. In some tales, curiosity got the better of him, while in others, he feared his wife was having an affair. As he peered through a crack in her bed chamber wall, he spied his wife in the bath. At first glance, she appeared to be her normal, lovely self. Upon closer inspection, he realized that she had the tail of a fish (or serpent) from the waist down. Oddly enough, his reaction wasn’t, “Holy crap, I married a mermaid!” No, the count sailed right past shock to guilt. He had broken his wife’s confidence, and if she found out, she would leave him. Wisely, the good count opted to stay mum.

He might’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Some time later, one of his children killed another, and the count was grief-stricken. Melusina came to comfort him. Unwisely, he lashed out at her, suggesting that the murderous son had inherited his nature from his fishy (or serpentine) mother. Sadly, Melusina rebuked her husband for his betrayal and disappeared. The count never laid eyes on his beloved wife again.

Interestingly enough, some sources suggest that Melusina is the inspiration for the Starbucks logo.[6] If true, this means that all the poor count needed to do to see his wife again someday was live long enough to order a half-caff, no foam, mocha latte.

Now that’s a tragedy.



One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Undine (1909).

Undines are a magical race of water spirits popularized by the novella, Undine, by Friederich de La Motte-Fouqué in 1811.[7] In that tale, a knight named Sir Huldbrand meets a beautiful, mischievous maiden named Undine while he is lost in a spooky enchanted forest. He is so smitten with her after a short time in her company that he decides to marry her.

After their wedding, Undine confesses her secret—she comes from a magical race of water spirits who live beneath the sea. They are fair and powerful, but lack an immortal soul, which they can only obtain by marrying a human. Undine’s father wanted his child to have one, so he sent her to live among mortals. Her uncle, Kuhleborn, the spirit of a nearby brook, used his magic to shepherd the knight and a priest into the forest to further the plan. Although Huldbrand is taken aback by this tale, he believes her. Since their marriage, he’s found her much changed from a whimsical, silly girl into a sincere and loving wife. Together, they return to the city he was visiting before his misadventure in the forest.

For a time, all is wonderful—for everyone except Bertalda, Huldbrand’s lady love, who has been waiting for him back in the city. When she finds that he’s married someone else, she does what any good noblewoman would do—she becomes Undine’s frenemy. Suspecting nothing, Undine accepts her friendship. Despite attempts by Kuhleborn to warn her, she decides to invite Bertalda back to Sir Huldbrand’s castle. Huldbrand and Bertalda immediately begin an affair.

Thereafter, Kuhleborn tries to punish the knight for mistreating Undine, but Undine uses her magic to block him at every turn. She still loves Huldbrand, though he’s often cruel to her now, and she won’t let her uncle hurt him. To keep Kuhleborn from coming into the castle, she seals up the fountain in the courtyard with a spelled stone and warns Huldbrand never to remove it. She also warns him never to reproach her while they’re near water, because her kin will take it amiss and she’ll be dragged back down to live in the depths.

As you might have guessed, Huldbrand doesn’t listen. One day as they’re sailing down the Danube River, he chastises Undine for conjuring Bertalda a gift, calling her a witch. Undine is snatched away into the water, and Huldbrand is very sorry . . . for a while. Then he gets over it and decides to marry Bertalda.

He receives a multitude of warnings that this is a terrible idea—the priest who married him to Undine tells him so, and Undine even sends him dreams in which he overhears her speaking to Kuhleborn. In the dreams, her uncle gloats over the fact that the laws of their people will require her to kill Huldbrand if he marries another. Undine reminds Kuhleborn that she won’t be able to enter the castle as long as the spelled stone blocks the fountain. Upon waking, Huldbrand presses forward with the wedding plans, undeterred.

After the wedding ceremony, Bertalda laments her lack of access to the waters in the courtyard fountain, which brightened her complexion so. Overhearing, an industrious maid sends workers out to uncover it. Out comes Undine, who kills her husband with a kiss, and Bertalda is a widow within hours of becoming a wife. At Huldbrand’s funeral, Undine becomes a spring, encircling her husband’s grave.

Little gems lie hidden throughout this tale. For instance, Undine’s name comes from the Latin word for “wave,” while Huldbrand’s name was modeled after that of the famous German hero, Hildebrand, mixed with a syllable to indicate “grace” or “favor.”[8] Kuhleborn, appropriately enough, means “cool fountain.”[9] Unfortunately, unlike the “cool fountain,” Huldbrand had zero chill, and his temper and his illicit passions brought about his ruin.



Illustration by Kay Nielsen (1924).

Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid,” by far the most familiar story on this list. It tells the story of a little mermaid who rescues a handsome prince from drowning, but is scared away before he awakens by a group of women coming down to the shore.[10] Afterwards, she learns that the only means for her people to gain an immortal soul is through marriage to a human. So enamored is she of the prince and the notion of having a soul that she makes a bargain with a sea witch to shed her tail in favor of human legs.

The price she pays is steep—every step she takes on her new legs brings a pain like being cut by knives. She can never return to the ocean, and if the prince marries another, the morning after his wedding day, she’ll dissolve into sea foam. Preparation for the draught of transformation also requires the sea witch to cut out her tongue. When she finally meets her prince again, she is mute and wracked with pain.

The prince treats her with great affection, but he views her as a child, and not a partner. He confides to her that the only woman in the world he believes he could love is the young woman who discovered him on the beach after the shipwreck. When his parents send him to meet a foreign princess, it turns out that the princess is the woman who found him on the beach. The prince enthusiastically agrees to marry her.

The prince and princess marry, and there’s a celebration aboard the prince’s ship. After the festivities, the heartbroken mermaid is alone on the deck when her sisters appear in the water. They’ve traded their long tresses to the sea witch in return for a knife. If the little mermaid uses it to kill the prince, when his blood washes over her feet, she’ll be a mermaid again. She takes the knife into the prince’s bedroom to do as she was bidden. When she looks down on him, sweetly sleeping in the arms of his beloved, she can’t do it. As the sun rises, she casts the knife into the sea and dissolves into sea foam.

Only, she doesn’t die. Instead, she becomes an air elemental with the ability to earn an immortal soul by performing 300 years of good deeds. When the prince and his bride come out on the deck to search for her, she kisses the bride, fans sweet air over the prince, and soars joyfully into the sky.

The author of this enchanting tale, Hans Christian Andersen, was inspired by folklore, although his own tales were original.[11] As a child, he used to accompany his grandmother to the insane asylum where she worked to listen to the old women in the spinning room tell stories.[12] Using the notions in those tales as a starting point and relying on his own creativity for the rest, he ultimately wrote 210 fairytales that are still wildly popular today.[13]


As you can see, when a fairytale involves romance between humans and merfolk, it often ends in tragedy. Someone typically ends up losing his/her life, his wife, or both. So what’s behind this recurring theme? Well, in the case of these three tales, it could be as simple as shared inspiration. Sources suggest that Fouqué was inspired by Melusina’s tale when he wrote Undine.[14] Similarly, Andersen took inspiration from Undine when he wrote “The Little Mermaid.”[15] It’s easy to recognize the similarities that support this theory. Undine, like Melusina’s tale, involves a water spirit who marries a human man. In each case, the man makes certain unusual promises to his wife, only to break them and lose her forever. In the “Little Mermaid,” as in Undine, a water spirit seeks to obtain a soul by marrying a human, who ultimately does not appreciate her, but seeks out another of his own kind.

Yet, there may be more at play. After all, these are not the only tales of merfolk/human romances that involve tragedy.[16] Additionally, fairytales often serve as metaphors for real life. In life, as in fiction, lovers are often divided by being from different worlds—separated by class, religion, or geography, for instance. Similarly, the lovers in the merfolk/human romances are trying to bridge the gap between two worlds—land and sea, mortality and immortality. In either case, the divide may prove to be insurmountable, and struggling against it can result in suffering. Indeed, author Terri Windling suggested in her article, “Hans Christian Andersen: Father of the Modern Fairytale,” that Andersen was inspired to write “The Little Mermaid” by his own realization that no matter what he endured to try to dwell in the upper class world he admired, he would never truly belong there because of his humble origins. [17]

In the introduction to Undine, C.M. Yonge points to the differences in kind as being the divisive factor in that tale. She writes, “we cannot help sharing, or at least understanding, Huldbrand’s beginning to shrink from the unearthly creature to something of his own flesh and blood. He is altogether unworthy . . . , [and] we cannot but see that Fouqué’s thought was that the grosser human nature is unable to appreciate what is absolutely pure and unearthly.”[18] This is a fair point. Humans are inherently flawed. It must have been difficult for Huldbrand to relate to his perfectly loving and forgiving wife. Similarly, Melusina’s tale seems to embrace this notion—that a human must ultimately prove unworthy of such an ethereal partner. Even the prince in “The Little Mermaid” could not appreciate the mermaid’s devotion, but looked past her to find a human mate. However, Andersen treats him a little more kindly in his tale. As author Rosellen Brown observes, the mermaid comes to him “deprived of her voice, of her personality, her self, left only with her looks, which are captivating but (to the prince’s eternal credit) insufficient compared to the pleasure of a complete speaking woman.” [19] Still, one wonders what would have happened if she had come to him with a voice. Would it have been enough to give the story a happy ending, despite the innate differences between the prince and the mermaid?

Ultimately, the beauty and tragedy of such tales is as intoxicating a combination as salt air and sandy beaches. They reflect the beauty and tragedy of the ocean itself—an unknowable world of hidden depths, dangerous creatures, and the husks of drowned ships and humans. Is it any wonder that we should view such an untamable and mysterious force and the creatures that might live there as a source of tragedy?

I drew inspiration from these tales and hid little nods to them in my own story, “The Fisherman and the Golem,” which will be published in the forthcoming anthology, Sirens, edited by Rhonda Parrish. To discover whether my characters escape the tragic fate of those whose lives are touched by water spirits, check it out when it’s released on July 12, 2016. In the meantime, if you’re looking for further reading material, try some of the fairytales mentioned in footnote 16.

[1] Radford, Benjamin. “Mermaids and Mermen: Facts and Legends.” Live Science. Web. May 22, 2016. http://www.livescience.com/39882-mermaid.html.

[2] “Sovann Macha—The Mermaid of the Hindu Mythology.” http://mamiwatafilm.com/sovann-macha/; “Suvannmaccha.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Web. May 27, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suvannamaccha.

[3] “Triton.” Greek Mythology. Web. May 27, 2016. http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Figures/Triton/triton.html.

[4] Jan Sochor Photography. Yemanjá: Candomblé Cult in Bahia (Recôncavo Baiano, Bahia, Brazil). Feb. 2012. Web. May 27, 2016. http://www.jansochor.com/photo-blog/yemanja-candomble-cult-bahia-brazil; “Yemaya, Mother Goddess of the Ocean.” A-Muse-ing Grace: The Magical Art of Thalia Took. Web. May 27, 2016. http://www.thaliatook.com/AMGG/yemaya.php.

[5] This whole section is based on a review of this source: Ashliman, D.L. “Melusina (Melusine, Mélusine).” Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. University of Pittsburgh. Web. May 27, 2016. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/melusina.html.

[6] Rubio, J’aime. “Who Was Melusine? Water Fairy, Mermaid or Serpent?” ORIGINS- “What Does History Say?” July 17, 2012. Web. May 27, 2016. http://whatdoeshistorysay.blogspot.com/2012/07/who-was-melusine-water-fairy-mermaid-or.html; Pyrdom, Carl. “The Other Starbucks Mermaid Cover-Up.” Got Medieval. Aug. 31, 2010. Web. May 27, 2016. http://www.gotmedieval.com/2010/08/the-other-starbucks-mermaid-cover-up.html.

[7] This section is based upon a reading of the novella, which available for free through ibooks or through Project Gutenberg.

[8] Blume, David. Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on Children’s Books 1790-1918. Cambridge: Open Book, 2009. Available at http://books.openedition.org/obp/607?lang=en. ¶ 6.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This section is based upon the annotated version of the story featured on Sur La Lune’s web site: http://surlalunefairytales.com/littlemermaid/index.html.

[11] Windling, Terri. “Hans Christian Andersen: Father of the Modern Fairy Tale.” Journal of Mythic Arts. The Endicott Studio. 2003. http://www.endicott-studio.com/articleslist/hans-christ.html.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. at 2.

[14] “Undine—An Introduction.” The Historical Mermaid. Web. May 27, 2016. http://academics.wellesley.edu/Psychology/Cheek/Narrative/Stories/undine_intro2.html; Ferber, Michael. A Companion to European Romanticism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. Print. 152; “Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid.” HubPages, Nov. 14, 2014. Web. 27 May 2016. http://hubpages.com/education/hans-christian-andersen-little-mermaid.

[15] “Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid.” HubPages, Nov. 14, 2014. Web. 27 May 2016. http://hubpages.com/education/hans-christian-andersen-little-mermaid.

[16] You might try, for instance, “The Golden Mermaid,” or “The Fisherman and his Soul,” or any of the many tales about selkies.

[17] Windling, Terri. “Hans Christian Andersen: Father of the Modern Fairy Tale.” Journal of Mythic Arts. The Endicott Studio. 2003. http://www.endicott-studio.com/articleslist/hans-christ.html.

[18] Yonge, C.M. Introduction. Undine. Friederich de La Motte-Fouqué. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2825/2825-h/2825-h.htm#link2H_INTR.

[19] Brown, Rosellen. “Is It You the Fable Is About?” Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Women Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales.  Kate Bernheimer, editor. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 62.


About amandakespohl

Daydreamer. Fantasy writer. Care Bear filled with razors. Oh, and I'm a lawyer.
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