“MERMAID, GODDESS OF THE SEA” by Carol P. Christ


carol-christOn the recent Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, I visited the Historical Museum in Heraklion where I saw a beautiful embroidered silk panel of a mermaid identified only as having come from Koustogerako, a village in western Crete. As it is unlikely that a man in a Cretan village would have been talented in embroidery, in this case “Anonymous” most definitely “was a woman.”

In this thread painting a mermaid surrounded by fish is holding the anchor of a ship in one hand and a fish in the other. In Greece the mermaid is the protectress of sailors. In a well-known legend, a mermaid said to be the sister of Alexander the Great, emerges from the sea in front of a ship during a storm and asks: “Is Alexander the Great still living?” If the sailors answer, “Yes, he lives and reigns,” the ship is saved.

mermaid greek0001

In this image the mermaid–who does not much resemble “the little mermaid” of recent lore—is identified by the woman who embroidered her as: “GORGONA, H THEA TIS THALASSIS,” MERMAID GODDESS OF THE SEA.” Assuming that the woman who created this embroidery was probably a Christian, I was surprised to see that she nonetheless referred to the mermaid as a Goddess. Was this phrase passed on to her down to her from pre-Christian times? Did she see any contradiction between her Christian beliefs and the “Goddess of the Sea?”

Looking more closely at the image, one can see that the scales of both the mermaid and the fish are portrayed as diamond shapes with a circle in the center. According to Marija Gimbutas, in the language of the Goddess, the widely repeated diamond shape, which she calls a “lozenge,” is a symbol of the vulva, while the circle or dot represents the opening of the womb and the seed of life. The tassel on the apron of the mermaid, a red “V” shape outlined in black and crowned by a red circle, can be read as vulva and womb.

At the church of the Panagia Kera in Kritsa, Crete, in a fresco painting, Mother Earth, portrayed as a Byzantine Queen, gives up the dead buried in her body for the Last Judgment. Across from her the Mermaid gives up the bodies of those who died in her realm, the Sea. I have always marveled at how in these two paintings, Christian beliefs are melded with older religious ideas. Though Christ the Judge is clearly to have the last word, the artist portrays Mother Earth and Mother Sea as beautiful queens—not as evil temptresses. When I look at these images I cannot help wonder if others have asked: ‘Who do you prefer: Mother Earth and Mother Sea who accept everyone into their bodies, or Christ the Judge who redeems only those who believe in Him and who condemns many to the everlasting torment that is vividly portrayed on the walls of the church?’

Western Europeans have been taught to picture the mermaid as a tragic figure who falls in love with a human man but cannot live on land. This figure is often blonde and very young. In my childhood imagination mermaids were classed along with fairies as beautiful images of soft femininity that I did not associate with the strong powers of Mother Earth and Mother Sea.

The Greek woman who created the embroidered painting of the mermaid knew more than I did. She perhaps knew that her forebears called Aphrodite (or Venus) the Goddess of the Sea. She may not have known that Homer portrayed a defeated Aphrodite limping off the battlefield. She would not have been told that the defeat of the Goddess of the Sea is widely repeated in Mediterranean cultures. She would not have learned that Tiamat was the Mesopotamian Goddess of the Salt Sea Waters and that the Gods Anu, Enlil, and Marduk established supremacy by slaying her and cutting her body into pieces.

For “Anonymous,” the artist who created the mermaid embroidered on silk preserved in the museum in Heraklion, the Goddess of the Sea lived and reigned.

Carol P. Christ  has just come back from the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  There she gave thanks for the gift of life on altars to Mother Earth and Mother Sea.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Folklore, General, Goddess, Herstory

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16 replies

  1. I noticed that she is named Gorgona. Do you think that the Gorgons were sea goddesses?

    I have a plate from Crete showing an octopus, which looks to me like a head with snaky hair, and it always makes me think that Medusa may have originally been a sea goddess in the form of an octopus. Incidentally, in one of Diana Paxson’s Westria fantasy novels, the goddess of the sea is portrayed as an octopus.

    The tragic young mermaid figure comes entirely from Hans Anderson (via Disney). In folklore (songs and tales) she is a much stronger figure, though often presented as a destroyer,causer of shipwrecks, drowning men who listen to her, etc. But not always so negatively presented, though.

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    • Not sure Daniel, my short search says gorgon means dreadful in ancient Greek. In modern Greek gorgona is the ordinary word for mermaid. Maybe some further research is in order.

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      • Yes, gorgon means “terrible, fierce, dreadful.” In the earliest texts (in Homer), Medusa is a nightmarish head. She takes on watery qualities, becoming a mermaid-like creature in Modern Greek, but this is not her origin. Perhaps her octopus connection is that the tentacles of an octopus resemble her snaky hair. I think that both Medusa and Athena were in origin forms of the Old European snake goddess, and that only in the historical era they became divided, and enemies.

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      • Miriam, Do you see Medusa, Athena, and Metis as having the same snaky origin, i.e. being the same prepatriarchal goddess? This is a suspicion I’ve had, but don’t have enough information to prove.

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  2. The tapestry is fascinating, thanks Carol. And you are absolutely correct, I am sure, regards the anonymous woman weaver. On mermaids as goddesses, the so-called “Daughters of Ocean” could be thought of as mermaids. Physically they are fully human, not half fish, half woman, but nevertheless, like the god Ocean, they must be proficient in swimming and therefore, “like fish,” as well as divine, as Mermaids would be. It intrigues me that in the beginning of the Hymn to Demeter, Persephone appears picking flowers with those same “Daughters of Ocean.” Why? It’s so odd out there in the fields. All the text says is that (presumably like the sea) they are “deep-bosomed” (βαθυκόλποις). The expression could suggest that mermaids traditionally have great depth of heart too.

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    • Hmm, good question. It is true Eleusis where the cave into which Persephone was taken when kidnapped by Hades is very near the sea. Perhaps Persephone called the Daughters of the Sea out of the sea to play with her. I am looking at the word translated “deep-bosomed” as you write it in Greek. I am not an expert in ancient Greek but in modern Greek kolpos means bay or gulf and as pertaining to a woman, vagina. I suspect “deep-bosomed” is a Victorianism that in fact hides the meaning of the word. The Daughters of Ocean more likely were “deep-wombed,” or life-giving sources, like the Mermaid and her predecessor the Goddess of the Sea!!!

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      • Thanks for your response, Carol, and taking time with it. “Deep-bosomed” is used in all of the translations of the HDem I’ve consulted and likewise the Diogenes ancient Greek dictionary. But Diogenes (http://www.dur.ac.uk/p.j.heslin/Software/Diogenes/) also offers an alternative, simply as, “very deep, with deep foundations,” which fits the womb image. Thanks for reminding me how integrated the Grecian and Crete coastlines are with the land, so many inlets and islands. The scene makes better sense in that context, so that now I can hear the roar of the sea surrounding Persephone’s field as I never did before.

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      • kolpos is “bosom, lap” in ancient Greek; it can mean “bay” or “gulf” when it refers to Thetis, but I believe that this is an extension of its use. “Deep-wombed” is a good translation.

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  3. Lovely blog, lovely mermaid. It would be interesting if we could magically find out how many people called Anonymous as the creators of works of art were women. I bet it’s a very high percentage. We know that the Victorian anthropologists (“studiers of men”) were men who didn’t even talk to the women of the tribes, villages, etc., they visited. They women didn’t talk to them, either. Lots of anonymous people standing around!

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  4. I’ve always loved the mermaid images I’ve seen in Greece and in Mexico. Your post leads me to a thought that perhaps a Mermaid Goddess is a manifestation of our evolution out of the sea to land in the beautiful, life-giving form of half woman half fish.

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    • Indeed all life on land comes from the Sea and the Sea not the Earth is the original Mother of All. “All Life comes from the Sea.” And as you say, at some point all land-creatures were mermaids–if that means creatures on the boundary between land and sea.

      And that may explain why so many of us love to return to the Sea which was once our home.

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  5. Beautiful post. Thank you!

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  6. Thank you for posting this image. I wonder if the upraised arm gesture alluded to an ancient Minoan Crete origin?

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  7. I am so glad to have a different mermaid to think of now rather than the object of rape in the classic little mermaid story! Thank you!

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  8. Thanks, Carol, and all who have commented here. Mermaids are our heritage in a much more robust form than Hans Christian Anderson made them out. Here’s a photo that might change our perception of Anderson’s image (sorry, I don’t know how to give you anything but a link): http://www.expo2010china.hu/hirkepek/Little_Mermaid_skeleton_expo2010.jpg

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  9. What a beautiful morning read! Thanks everyone. I love to wake up and learn something new about the world of the Goddess.

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