medusa, mermaids

November 16, 2013 in art, nature

The reliefs and sculptures of these souls, their grace and mystery caught my eye.  Thinking more about what linked these characters to each other, I learned that they share deep historical and cultural roots.

In many ways, Medusa and mermaids are kindred spirits.  Both are mythical, hybrid creatures.  Being part human, they feel and think like us.  Being part another animal and in some cases even a goddess, they have powers and abilities of this being.  The strongest link between Medusa and mermaids is their connection to the ocean.

Although Medusa was mortal, her parents (Keto, Phorcys) were ancient Greek sea deities.  Her grandparents were Gaia (Earth) and Pontus (Ocean).  The stories vary about the origin of Medusa’s head of live snakes.  One myth places part of the blame on the Greek sea god Poseidon.  Depending on the version of this myth that you may find — in a temple of Athena, Poseidon and Medusa acted on their mutual attraction or Poseidon forced himself upon her.  In revenge, Athena turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and made her so ugly that all who gazed upon her turned into stone.

About the origin of certain mermaids, there is a common theme of transformation:  they cross the line between being mortal or divine and being a mermaid.  Han’s Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid was from the sea.  With the help of a sea witch, she became human, with tragic consequences.  The Greek mermaid Thessalonike was once Alexander the Great’s sister.  After learning about her brother’s death, she tried to end her life by jumping into the sea.  Instead, she turned into a mermaid.  The Assyrian goddess Atargatis turned herself into a mermaid after unintentionally killing her mortal lover.

As you can see, there’s a lot of grief and doom in these stories.  Although these days, we read stories about and see representations of mermaids who are beneficent, loving, beautiful, and even cute (Disney’s mermaid Ariel), there are older tales about malevolent mermaids.  Some were omens of disaster and dangerous weather.  In Italian, mermaid is “sirena”, in French “sirène”.  Both words derive from the mythical Greek Sirens.  Some myths describe the Sirens as women with wings who lived on a mythical island and had beautiful voices.  The beauty of the their voices lured sailors to bring their ships close to their island, where the reefs wrecked their ships and sometimes brought sailors to their deaths.  When angered, the Greek mermaid Thessalonike turned into a Gorgon, a dreadful female creature, who destroyed sailors and their ships.

Medusa was also a Gorgon.  One myth explains the origins of the coral reefs in the Red Sea.  After slaying Medusa, Perseus unintentionally spilled some of her blood onto the seaweed in the Red Sea.  Her blood petrified the seaweed into coral reefs, areas where sailors need to navigate with care.  Similar to some of the older mermaid tales, the more ancient representations of Medusa show her as a true Gorgon, a monster with huge eyes, tongue sticking out, and snake hair standing on end.  More modern representations show her as a beautiful young woman.

The stories of Medusa and mermaids share common themes.  The power and danger of female beauty, ugliness, love, and rage.  The ocean as a place of both origin and destination.  Travels on the ocean as a journey with unfortunate, sometimes deadly, endings and also as a passage with smooth waters and fair weather.  Medusa and mermaids reveal our complex relationship with the sea.

 

medusa 1

 

 

medusa 2a

 

 

medusa 3