My mother told me I was born a mermaid, that I was the only child known to have lived in the womb without the need for oxygen and that I had developed legs over time as a necessary adaptation. This made sense to me, it explained my adoration for the ocean, my need to be in the water and my complete obsession with the creature that is the mermaid. It was common practice for me to walk the shores, speaking my secrets and fears into the water with complete faith that they would hear one of their own, even if he was a scale-less biped.
Current representations within media have watered down the figure of the mermaid. We have the catty mermaids of Peter Pan, the boy-crazy Ariel of Disney's The Little Mermaid, the selfless Madison in Splash, or the titillating mermaid of The Lighthouse. Each of these representations explore some facets of the mermaid but on their own they rob her of her core agency and identity: a dangerous monster. Throughout time mermaids were feared as omens, dangerous creatures who could summon storms, hypnotize or sink entire ships - drowning its crew, eating their flesh and using their bones for their underwater architecture. They were creatures to fear and appease. If they favored you they might bring you a gift, calm a storm or even offer a kiss. If they didn't, they would grab you by the hair and drag you to the depths. A lesson that beauty is capable of ferocity.
The mermaid has meant many things to many cultures. In Byzantine Greece the Sirens were depicted as bird and fishlike creatures, feared and desired for the ancient wisdom that they contained. In Russia the Rusalka are green swamp mermaids, former maidens who met a violent death and are ready to enact revenge. Japan depicted her as a fish or shark with a human head, whose flesh offers great longevity upon consumption. In Africa Mami Wata is a water spirit, in the form of a mermaid, who works tirelessly to protect the lakes and rivers.
Mermaids have also become associated with queerness. Arguably the most ubiquitous mermaid story within the current collective consciousness is Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid. This original version, much darker and more somber than the aformentioned Disney adaptation, centers on a mermaid who experiences pain with every step, who loses her love to another and commits suicide to escape her grief. A tale close to home for Anderson, who penned it when he was experiencing heartbreak of his own - that of his unrequited love for a straight man.
Some posit that mermaids could act as a symbol for transness. They are often gender-coded, but their genitalia is not a part of the equation; you can't define someone by what they have between their legs when they don't have any. One of the leading UK charities offering aid to transgender, non-binary and gender diverse children is called Mermaids. As Dorothy Dinnerstein states in her book The Mermaid and the Minotaur:
"[Human] nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here."
Myths help create context for the human experience. They reflect, teach and challenge the fears and desires of any given culture - the mermaid is no exception. The unpredictability of the sea, the fear of the feminine, our desire for knowledge always out of reach, she encapsulates all of these. So, respect the mermaid as a symbol of beauty and of terror. And respect her home. For if you don't, the last thing you might see are two ferocious eyes lost in a cloud of hair as your oxygen slowly depletes.
Mermaid Atlas: Merfolk of the World by Anna Claybourn
This book made me squeal when a coworker handed it to me. It's a large, inviting and comprehensive book about mermaid mythology throughout the globe. It has timeless illustrations and covers everything from cultural depictions, special abilities and sightings of mermaids throughout history. I just love it.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Mira Grant is a veteran horror author who is well versed in troupes and works hard to subvert them all whilst feeling effortless. A team of scientists set sail in the hopes of finding answers as to the fate of a missing crew of mocumentarians. Needless to say they find themselves in some deep, dark water, and they are not alone. I adore this book for its diverse cast of characters and the rarely depicted 'mermaid as monster'.
Goddess of the Sea by P.C. Cast
A book that I read WAY too young (I just saw a sparkly mermaid on the cover and didn't know books had sex in them), this is a Romance title that revels in mythology. A military pilot crashes her plane, travels to the Medieval age and becomes a mermaid. Guided by an Earth Goddess and supported by an impossibly kind merman, she embarks on a journey of identity, romance and female perseverance. My favorite part was the imaginative and moving way that the author depicts mermaid love-making.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
The mermaids of this book are born of pregnant slave women thrown to the sea by slave traders. Yeah. This novella is a broad but satisfying metaphor about intergenerational trauma and the impact and importance of cultural history, remembrance and the power of societal rebuilding. A quick, lyrical read that will stay with you.
A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrows
Set in modern day Portland, this tale explores the bonds and secrets of two young women as they grapple with social injustices, familial drama and the pains of adolescence. More a story about race-identity and sisterly bonds, this one will make you laugh, cry, empathize and go 'Awwww'. It also has a social media siren so...yes please.
Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Julian is a mermaid - of this there is no doubt. But how will this identity expression be met by his family? This is a question we get to explore through this book's resplendent watercolor illustrations and streamlined story. It's about the transformative power of loving acceptance during pivotal moments of self-doubt. For the mermaid in all of us.