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Symbolism and Folklore in The Little Mermaid

Belief in mermaids, and in their counterpart, mermen, has existed since earliest times. They are often described as having great beauty and charm, and are representative of the sacred feminine. In some legends they assumed human shape and married mortals.

The Mermaid, like the Merman, derives her name from the Anglo-Saxon word mer, which means 'sea'

The image of the Mermaid, the half-woman, half-fish, has been endearing and popular for many generations. Literally Virgin of the Sea, the mermaid was an image of fish-tailed Aphrodite.

The first representation of the half-human, half-fish hybrid was a male; the sea-god Oannes, the 'great fish of the ocean', who was also the sun-god, rising out of the sea each day and disappearing back under the waves each night. Oannes was worshipped by the Babylonians as early as 8000BCE. It was said that this God had a human voice and taught his people the arts of civilization. In the Louvre today can be seen an eighth century wall-scene depicting Oannes as a merman, with the fish-like tail and the upperbody of a man.

The merman (also referred to as a triton) resembles Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. The female of the species with her special feminine symbolism, is far more popular. It seems as though the male version exists only to facilitate continuation of their race.

Oannes' goddess counterpoint was Atargatis , a moon goddess who became the first official mermaid, being depicted with a fish's tail. Atargartis was an important fertility goddess, also representing the darker, night forces of love and their potentially destructive power. As Dea, her cult reached as far as Britain beginning the migration of the ubiquitous mermaid. Later this goddess became identified with Aphrodite, who was born from the sea, and retained close connections with it, but in fully human form again; her fish attributes were transferred to her escorts the Tritons. Aphrodite was also a fertility goddess, and goddess of fair sailing, her companion the sacred dolphin. Many of the symbols associated with Aphrodite, subsequently the Roman Venus, have been retained in the mermaid myth. mermaid with mirror Her abundant, flowing hair, symbolizing an abundant love potential, was also an attribute of Venus in her role as fertility goddess. Her comb, and mirror are aspects of her vanity, which are common props in current mermaid stories. The mermaid is the surviving aspect of the old goddesses, particularly as the link between passion and destruction.

One family of ancient mermaids, the Nereids were protective of sailors, and reserved their beautiful singing voices to entertain their father, unlike the dangerous Sirens who ensnared sailors with their enchanting voices and lured them to watery deaths. The Sirens were originally bird-women related to the Egyptian Ra, or soul birds, demons of death sent to catch souls. But the Sirens eventually became synonymous with mermaids; thus the mermaids acquired their unpleasant reputation for drowning sailors.

The mermaid/siren symbol was used by the Medieval Church as embodying the lure of fleshy pleasures to be shunned by the God-fearing. The mermaid became a victim of the repressive sexual attitudes of the Christian Church. Mermaid carvings figured prominently in church decorations in the Middle Ages to symbolically serve as a vivid reminder of the fatal temptations of the flesh. These rapacious soul-eaters (the legacy of the bird-sirens) were of course not considered to have souls of their own and as a result the legends of the mermaids anxious to acquire souls arose. The Christian Church, in promoting the ideas that mermaids were dangerous temptresses and had no souls of their own, was actually stating deeply-held beliefs about all women in order to support male domination. They emphasized the supposed faithlessness and inconstancy of women, the danger of their attraction, and the unlikelihood of their gaining humanity.

One method for a mermaid to gain a soul was to marry a human being; the best known form of this legend is Hans Christian Anderson's 'Little Mermaid', recently popularized once again, and sanitized of the darker aspects of the legend, by Disney. Similar legends abound in the folklore of many countries. Celtic mythology included the Liban, a young woman drowned and transformed into a mermaid, who after 500 years enlisted the aid of the Irish St. Comgall to save her soul; also the Mermaid of Iona who wept many bitter tears over her inability to leave her ocean home to gain her promised soul. St. Patrick allegedly had a custom of transforming pagan women into mermaids, adding to the marine population.

The Japanese have their mermaids known as Ningyo. In fact the mermaid archetype is so widespread among cultures that one may conclude it is very ancient, and fulfills a particular need in the human collective consciousness. The mermaid in our culture is the most persistent and pervasive symbol of the old Goddess energy that represents women, particularly the mysterious, life-generating element.

When a composite creature is partially human and part animal, bird or fish, it takes on the power and symbolism of every feature represented. A Centaur combines the strength, speed and instincts of a horse with the intelligence of the human . A mermaid combines the life giving symbolism of the fish with the intelligence of a human.

The Original Little Mermaid: Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid in 1872 only three years before his death which explains the focus on death and the quest for immortality in the story. It is a sad, melancholy story without a happy ending. As in any folktale or folklore story, this is a story about "a quest" which contains several tests along the way. The quest of the mermaid is to obtain an immortal soul. She travels through three realms (sea, land, air) to achieve her goal and in each realm is tested. Although she fails these tests or is hampered in her quest, she does ultimately get to a place where she should succeed. There is not a happy ending, but one that supports a belief in the afterlife.

There are several themes to watch for as the story is read. First, Andersen presents a story in which death is the goal; the need to seek it out and to glamorize it. His story The Little Match-Seller (or The Little Match Girl) also shows death as a happy place that is warm and filled with love. The mermaid story shows death as a better place than life although for non-humans, immortality must be earned through costly self-sacrifice.

Dr. Niels Ingwersen remarks: "A world-famous fairy tale like "The Little Mermaid" first saw light in a collection of these Fairy Tales Told for Children (1837), but from end to end it is a literary fairy tale about the urge for immortality, for God, that lies hidden in nature, awakens in human beings and continues its spiritual journey beyond the boundary called death. A story for children? Both yes and no. The original version seems overly dark and dismal for what we share with our children these days. The Disney version has transformed the story entirely and turned it into a "proper" fairy tale about the mermaid who longs so much to have a part in the human world and ends by getting her prince. Certainly the Disney version appeals to those of us that have a desire for “happily ever after”.

Symbolism in Disney’s The Little Mermaid:

Ariel, the "little mermaid" in the Disney® film, is much more than a fairy tale for little girls. Rather, she is a powerful metaphor for the plight of the "Sacred Feminine" over the last several thousand years of western civilization. In several ways, she is an allegory to Mary Magdalene. One aspect is the long wavy red hair, a commonly held attribute of Mary Magdalene.

And what is the dream and desire of Ariel, the littlest mermaid? To walk upon the green earth, out in the sunlight.

ariel and magdaleneIn her cave under the ocean, Ariel collects artifacts from Spanish galleons shipwrecked at sea. She examines the commonplace items used by humans and wonders what they are for and what it would be like to be human. Among her treasures is a painting by Georges de la Tour called "Magdalen with the Smoking Flame." Mary is gazing at a candle burning on the table beside her.

Of all the possible pictures in the history of art, it is significant that the directors of the Disney film chose Mary Magdalene who represents the lost bride (of Jesus) and is the archetype of the "Sacred Feminine”.

ariel reading a bookIn the film, the little mermaid does not carry a book and a mirror by accident. These are icons readily identified in Medieval art. The mirror is not just a symbol for feminine vanity but represents the role of the material world (Mater, mother, matter) to manifest the Divine in "the flesh," as the moon mirrors the sun. The book represents all natural and spiritual law -- science and revelation -- and the seeking of wisdom.

In the Disney film, true to some aspects of ancient mermaid lore, Ariel saves the drowning prince.

An interesting aside is that the Merovingian bloodline, identified as the "vine of Mary" in the heresy of the Holy Grail, is said to have had a mermaid as a ancestor and to be descended from a king "Merovee" who was half man, half fish. Mermaids are prominent among the medieval watermarks related to the heresy of the bloodline, and some are rendered with the fleur-de-lis of the Merovingians entwined around their double tails. The connection of Mary Magdalene with the mermaid and the "Queen of the Sea" is very old.

In The Da Vinci Code, the main character Langdon interprets the Disney movie The Little Mermaid as an attempt by Disney to show the divine femininity that has been lost.

After citing the sacred feminine in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, Langdon finally elaborates on The Little Mermaid, which was released by Disney Studios 23 years after Walt Disney’s death: (although Disney had conceived of it in the 1930's)

…he had learned not to underestimate Disney’s grasp of symbolism. The Little Mermaid was a spellbinding tapestry of spiritual symbols so specifically goddess-related that they could not be coincidence.

When Langdon had first seen The Little Mermaid, he had actually gasped aloud when he noticed that the painting in Ariel’s underwater home was none other than seventeenth-century artist Georges de la Tour’s The Penitent Magdalene – a famous homage to the banished Mary Magdalene – fitting décor considering the movie turned out to be a ninety-minute collage of blatant symbolic references to the lost sanctity of Isis, Eve, Pisces the fish goddess, and, repeatedly, Mary Magdalene. The Little Mermaid’s name, Ariel, possessed powerful ties to the sacred feminine and, in the Book of Isaiah, was synonymous with the besieged. Of course, the Little Mermaid flowing red hair was certainly no coincidence either.

Brown uses descriptions of works of fine art to prove that art can tell stories that history tends to obscure. These works of art include Da Vinci Last Supper, Madonna of, Mona Lisa, which hide symbols of goddess worship and the story of the Magdalene; the Church of Saint-Suplice, which still contains an obelisk, a sign of pagan worship; and tarot cards, which hide themes of pagan mythology. These art objects are constantly viewed by people who see them without seeing their hidden meanings.

The Symbolism of Red Hair Sophie Neveu's red hair, mentioned at the beginning of the DaVinci Code, foreshadows her divine blood. When Langdon first sees Sophie, he calls her hair burgundy and thinks that her attractiveness lies in her confidence and health. Later, at Teabing chateau, Teabing shows Sophie that Mary Magdalene is depicted with red hair in The Last Supper. Langdon also thinks the mermaid Ariel red hair in The Little Mermaid is evidence that Disney intended his movie to be an allegory of the story of Magdalene. By the end of the novel, when Sophie's brother gives a tour of the Rosslyn Chapel and his hair is described as strawberry blonde, we understand that Sophie and her brother are of Mary Magdalene bloodline.


By the way, Dan Brown has incorrectly identified the painting. The painting in The Little Mermaid is not The Penitent Magdalen, found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is actually Magdalen of Night Light, found in the Louvre. Georges de la Tour painted at least three Magdalenes (all very similar). Another is The Repentant Magdalen. Images of these three paintings can be found here.

Another unmistakeable attribute of the Little Mermaid is that she is one of a very long line of Disney characters with dead or missing mothers. There is even a club dedicated to this topic. What this really symbolizes is unclear. Are the mothers dead because it would be a boring movie if mom is alive since the mother is a character's protector? This site has some interesting content related to the lopside mother/father ratio in Disney movies. It seems like a stretch to say that Walt Disney himself was against mothers, since many of the Disney movies without mothers came long after Walt was dead. It seems to have become a tradition at Disney.

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