Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Thoughts on Beasts, Mermaids, and Otherness

I was thinking after posting the Mermaid song about how I don't know any mermaid stories that aren't love stories. Even siren tales, though their intentions aren't romantic, are about the dangers of seductive women and men who cannot resist them. I definitely think that mermaid stories are a way of reflecting on the Otherness of women-this strange species that is different than men, beautiful and in some ways may seem supernatural; at times they have been interpreted as cruel and vindictive (sirens) and at other times as helpless victims (Anderson's Little Mermaid), just as women themselves have used their wiles for selfish temptations, or have become powerless and passive in different circumstances. Yet they can also represented as unattainable and ultimately in charge of their own fate in the selkie tales of women who wait to reclaim their sealskins to return to their own lives, and cannot be contstrained by the human men who attempt to capture them.

Maxwell Armfield
This reminded me of Beauty and the Beast. I think it's a pretty agreed upon fact that the Animal Bridegroom cycle of tales, though specific versions may have had more specific purposes, can be seen as women and their perception of the Otherness of males (see Jerry Griswold's opinion). Which is not to say that all women think all men are ugly by any means, but especially to very young girls being married off to stranger, often older men, they would have been seen as potentially dangerous and terrifying, as well as strange and mystifying. Modern women tend to be attracted to the idea of the wild and dangerous Beast, and the thought of a forbidden romance.

Warwick Goble
One of my big concerns has been wondering about the lack of female bride stories in our culture-those that exist in folklore have been largely lost. I had wondered before if this was a reflection of the shallowness of our culture-neither men or women want to either contemplate the idea of an ugly woman. This may still be true to some extent, and I think females have in the past and still do have more pressure to find their identity in appearances than men in general. But maybe it's not a fair comparison-when men contemplate the Otherness of women, they turn to mermaid tales, or selkies or sirens-whereas women contemplating the Otherness of men will turn to Beastly grooms.

Just a thought I had. Would welcome other opinions or discussion in the comments.


  1. Interesting thoughts. There definitely seems to be a lack of "ugly' female leads in folklore, or at least in our modern reflection of it.
    Curious, have you ever read "The Ordinary Princess" by M.M.Kaye? The author, as she explains in the forward, realized after reading through a collection of fairy tales one summer how most females were typically depicted. Anyways, she decided to write a book on what would happen if one such princess were to turn out to ordinary. It's a sweet little book, certainly doesn't counter-balance the larger depiction of females, but it's something.

  2. Funny, but I was just talking about Russian animal bride stories with my flatmate. I think the best example is The Frog Princess (http://www.artrusse.ca/fairytales/frog-princess.htm) where a young prince is forced to marry a frog, who turns out to be a beautiful princess. In another story the bride is a turtle-dove and I seem to recall a version of Three Kingdoms: The Copper, The Silver, And The Golden where the bride appears as a snake and gives the hero advice. But I can't track this version down.

    In most of these stories the women are powerful magicians and I always wondered whether this is a reference to shamanism and the ability of a shaman to shift into an animal.

  3. Wow, wonderful thoughts, Kristin!

    It resonates with me. Not that I'm an expert in any sense, but in terms of otherness, I'd say women see men as uncivilized, ugly-mannered, driven by instincts, while men see women as strange beings, flitting, fickle.

    I think you've found something here.