This was originally posted on November 4, 2013
On 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.
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.
BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.
“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” — Carol P. Christ