Of mermaids, male fears and fantasies

The allure of medieval mermaids and the changing meaning of the female body over time is the focus of Professor Kim Phillips’ inaugural lecture.

Mermaid with mirror, marginal illumination. Hours of Yolande of Flanders, London, BL Yates Thompson MS 27, fol. 52v. (Paris c. 1353-1363).

A medieval historian at the University of Auckland, Professor Kim Phillips has a special interest in the history of women, gender and sexuality from c.1100 to c.1500.

She has always been fascinated by the evolution of the mermaid, from its earliest incarnation as a Siren – imagined as a half-woman/half-bird creature luring sailors to ruin with enchanting songs – to the fish-tailed version we think of today.

“The mermaid is so familiar, in heraldry, painting, fairy tales and movies, it feels like she has always existed,” she says, “but I’m interested in what broader social and cultural changes prompted her emergence and how they remain relevant for women in the 21st century.”

They were powerful and they were free, which fascinated and enraged medieval men in equal measure. 

Professor Kim Phillips Faculty of Arts

From the earliest books and visual art, she says, mermaids were depicted as deceitful and dangerous to men.

"In Physiologus, for example, an illustrated textbook of beasts where each beast had its own moral lesson (written in Greek in the second century AD), the Siren is said to be ‘very wild’, ‘double-hearted’ and ‘double-tongued’.”

And early Christian authors were also quick to adapt Sirens to their own theology, connecting their appeal to the temptation of Satan, luring the soul from the path of salvation to heresy.

But she says it wasn’t until the Romanesque period, a style of architecture prominent in Europe from c. 900 to c. 1200, that the Siren’s metamorphosis into the ‘sea-girl’ with one or two tails, was complete.

Professor Kim Phillips: "I’m interested in what broader social and cultural changes prompted the mermaids' emergence and how they remain relevant for women in the 21st century.”

“One of the earliest known depictions of a fish-tailed mermaid in Britain is carved into a pillar in the Norman chapel at Durham Castle, around 1078. It was possibly used as a kind of ‘early PowerPoint slide’ for the priest to point to in the course of his sermon,” says Professor Phillips.

And although a lot was said about their low morals, very little was said about mermaids’ bodies as erotic objects until around the 12th century onwards, when the ‘descending catalogue’ of feminine beauty, what in the Renaissance would become the blazon, emerged as a poetic preoccupation.

“Writers offered detailed visual portraits of their heroines and their beauty requirements, and these judgments all circled around the preferences of the heterosexual males of the day; the cultural power of the ‘male gaze’ is indisputable.”

From then on she says, perceptions of women’s faces and bodies, and what constituted beauty, changed forever.

“Always starting with the head and moving downward, desirable women possessed golden hair, curving dark eyebrows, gleaming white skin, rosy cheeks, a delicate nose, sparkling grey or blue eyes, a small red mouth, a long white throat, sloping shoulders, long slender arms and fingers, small, high breasts, a rounded belly, long graceful legs and dainty feet.”

Mermaid and traveller. The Luttrell Psalter, British Library MS Add. 42130, fol. 70v (N. England, 2nd quarter 14thC).

She believes it’s no coincidence that the mermaid, as a replacement for the Siren, came into prominence at about the same time as poets were wanting to define female corporeal beauty.

“Her mirror and crown, which became her dominant attributes in the late Middle Ages, represented the mortal sins of vanity and luxury, and she became prettier, but just like the Siren, also continued to represent peril to the Christian man’s soul.”

Notorious examples of anti-female rhetoric in the time of Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) include the vitriol of one Abbot Conrad of Marchtal, who exclaimed that woman’s wickedness was ‘greater than all the other wickedness in the world’ and women were more dangerous to men than ‘the poison of asps and dragons’.

But despite getting terrible press, the mermaid, unlike mortal women, somehow remained elusively beyond male control.

“They were powerful, and they were free,” she says, “which fascinated and enraged medieval men in equal measure. But after teasing them a little, the mermaids simply turned away and dived deep into the blue oceans from which they’d come.”

Mermaid, marginal illumination. Breviary, Use of Besançon. Rouen, BM MS 69. fol. 498 (Late 15thC).

Professor Kim Phillips will be giving her inaugural professorial lecture, 'Of Mermaids and Men: A chapter in the history of women’s bodies', at Old Government House at the University of Auckland on Thursday 13 May, 2021. This event is sold out.

Media contact

Julianne Evans | Media adviser
M: 027 562 5868
E: julianne.evans@auckland.ac.nz