Tales of feisty shape-shifting women who inhabit the seas and oceans can be found in many cultures across the globe. The ocean is omnipotent, both a giver and taker of life, tempting the gullible and unwary into her watery abyss with the assistance of a bevy of anthropomorphic assassins. Whether motivated by betrayal, sorrow or just plain old human greed, this pantheon of pelagic femme fatales is not to be messed with.
Here are just five of them…
The ancient Greeks had their sirens, sea nymphs who have the bodies of birds and the heads of women, and were the handmaidens to Persephone until she was abducted by Hades and taken to the underground. Being unsuccessful in their attempt to find her, the sirens took up residence on a craggy rock. These temptresses used their sweet voices to seduce sailors, making them forget their navigations and grounding their boats onto the rocks where the nymphs, usually three in number, were waiting for them.
Some believe (but it is not substantiated) that as late as 1850 there was a British law proclaiming that any mermaids sighted in British waters remained ‘the property of the crown’. From the folk-pagan to the popular Disney visual aesthetic, the fish/woman hybrid has figured large in coastal people’s imagination for thousands of years.
Going by many names throughout the world from the German Meerfrau to the Icelandic Marmenill, her duplicitous nature is manifested by her very appearance. Above the water she is beautiful and seductive, but she hides her true fishy nature below.
The original maid of mer (sea) had a sinister side according to Brenda Walter, author of Meek as Sin: Dark Mermaids and the Embrace of the Icy Abyss. Like the ocean itself, the mermaid is never safe nor friendly, but is instead a steely predator whose bloodlust is merely hidden behind human fantasy.
She is a temptress of unwary men and her presence is portentous of maritime tragedy.
Nyai Loro Kidul
The Queen of the Southern Sea of Java (Indian Ocean) is related to the larger group of nagas that appear in Asian cultures from India to the South Pacific.
This beauty was believed to be the daughter of a powerful king who had many jealous concubines. They colluded in a spell to make Nyai Loro Kidul lose her beauty and become ‘ugly’. Poor girl then roamed the land aimlessly until she reached the coast and threw herself into the water where instead of drowning, she became half woman half fish or snake, depending on the version of the tale. There she lies in wait for hapless sailors and has a particular penchant for handsome young men.
Sedna (Inuktitut: ᓴᓐᓇ, Sanna)
The legend of how Sedna became a sea goddess is told throughout the Arctic and North America and originates from Inuit creation mythology where she is revered as mother or mistress of the sea.
Once again a beautiful young woman is tricked into marriage with a man who is really a sea–bird in disguise. It is a violent tale of betrayal and mendacity worthy of a HBO series that ends with her father cutting off Sedna’s fingers to save himself from drowning. The fingers fall into the ocean and transform into seal, walrus, fish, whale, and other sea animals.
Sedna lives forever with them as guardian controlling their availability to hunters.
Rán is the Norse goddess of the sea referred to in many sagas as a witch or giantess with a magical net designed to capture fish and drown men. Rán lives with her nine daughters in a cave full of gold. But there is no Valhalla after death for these guys. The hapless men remain at the bottom of her sea ‘bed’ where Rán and her nymphomanical offspring have sex with them for all eternity. This myth takes the cake for male fantasy or… do they simply get their just deserts….
Let’s leave the final words to Marina Warner ‘Managing Monsters’ p. xiii
…myths are not always delusions, that deconstructing them does not necessarily mean wiping them, but that they can represent ways of making sense of universal matters, like sexual identity and family relations, and they enjoy a more vigorous life than we perhaps acknowledge, and exert more of an inspiration and influence than we think.