Mermaids are incredibly popular images throughout European history. Appearing in fairytales, maps, novels, films, music, and heraldry. These creatures are both a realization of a deep human fantasy to join the fishes of the ocean as well as embodying beauty.
But, of course, when an image is used over and over in a culture for thousands of years, it tends to gather symbolic importance. And so in time, we began to make connections to mermaids beyond the wish-fulfillment fantasies that they embody (and let’s not rule out the possibility that people actually had contact with them — a different point for a different time).
Let’s uncover some of the common symbolic meanings behind mermaids and take particular care to look at their rich use in heraldry.
The Symbol of the Mermaid
We’ve talked about the meaning of mermaids in dreams, but here we open up to the grander world of the mermaid symbol as it is used in art and fiction.
First and foremost, mermaids are usually attractive creatures with humanoid upper bodies and a fish tail. That alone gives us a clue: mermaids are links between humanity and the sea, the missing link between ourselves and the origins of all life.
Mermaids have often been tightly linked to sirens, beautiful women with even more beautiful voices who lure sailors to their death. Many medieval sailors believed that seeing a mermaid was a dark augury telling you that you would not return from your current voyage. That connection between beauty and danger can give mermaids a sense of destructive seduction.
Connected to this seductive element in mermaids is their general romantic quality. Many tales of mermaids involve land-going humans falling in love with mermaids. This is not always to the detriment of the seduced human, but it sure does present some obvious problems for the relationship. In this way, mermaids can also be symbols for powerful love beset by significant challenges.
As mermaids are one with the sea, they also seem to be embodiments of intuitive powers. Their ability to swim to the world underneath the surface is a direct expression of one’s ability to go into the unconscious.
And finally, we would be remiss to not mention the use of mermaids as symbols of the divine feminine (or Anima, as described by Carl Jung).
To bring things further along, let’s also look at the accoutrement of mermaids: namely, a comb and mirror. These items are very commonly associated with the mermaid and help bring out subtler meanings.
The combs are made out of fish bone — which sailors once believed could be used to predict or delay storms at sea. This magical instrument is fashioned into an item culturally reserved for the feminine, and so it shows the occult powers of women. The mirror is slightly different, offering a note of self-reflection and, again, intuition. (Mirrors are also commonly connected to the moon, yet another symbol of intuition.)
Putting this all together isn’t easy. While there can be a lot of overlap, it doesn’t all fit perfectly into a single idea or identity. And that’s okay. Potent symbols are often like that and are even useful for their ability to embody many ideas, linking them without having to logically tease out every detail.
The best symbolism is, after all, not a one-for-one translation (i.e. x always means y and only y). Rather, symbols can be used to evoke a constellation of meaning in an elegant and efficient way. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to read deeply symbolic work as a simple translator. Instead, one should let the symbols speak to something inside of us that can’t be put perfectly into words.
And after all, isn’t that what the symbol of mermaids tells us to do by encouraging our intuition?
Mermaids in Heraldry
Heraldry refers to the design and presentation of decorated armor. It is related to vexillology (the study of flag design and also the coolest word in the world), with many meanings and design principles shared. That connection is important because heraldry usually ties together military and political units with a common image, not unlike flags.
While there are plenty of technicalities we could dive into here, we don’t need to worry ourselves too much with a taxonomy of a full heraldic achievement. Instead, we are focusing on the particular use of mermaids in the coat of arms. A coat of arms is the central design in heraldry, usually placed on a shield. And it turns out, Europeans have made much use of mermaids for this purpose.
But being heraldry, there isn’t just one mermaid image. There are in fact many different kinds.
The melusine is a special image of a mermaid with two tails (look at the Starbucks logo to see one). Originating in stories from ancient France, Melusine was said to be a girl whose father made an oath not to look in on his wife and daughter while they were bathing. He broke that oath, and so Melusine and her mother left — their bottom halves turning into two fish tails. Women shapeshifting when fleeing men is a common trope in fairy tales and myths (Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of these).
As for mermaids proper, there are several ways to display them:
- with a comb and mirror
- in their modesty
- in their vanity
- with a harp
The most common depiction of mermaids shows them with a comb and mirror, either looking to the side or at the viewer. Still others depict mermaids “in their modesty,” which is a heraldic term meaning that she is covering her breasts with her forearm. Mermaids “in their vanity” show them looking into their mirror. Others show a mermaid playing on her harp.
There are many resources online to find heraldic templates for mermaids, and these have been great resources for people looking to get that perfect mermaid tattoo.
The Enduring Power of the Mermaid Symbol
Once we start delving into the many meanings and uses of mermaid images, it becomes clear just how vast and profound their visage can be. There is a wealth of connections to be made to the creature, all with their own long histories to be explored. While this is not a comprehensive exploration of the topic, hopefully it begins you on your own mission to uncover the power of the mermaid as a symbol.