Murderous Mermaid: Why Siren Is More Medieval Than You Think

By Minjie Su

Mermaids and mermen are definitely taking over the big (and small) screens this year. Just as The Shape of the Water is still counting its hard-won trophies, another mermaid-themed drama starts to steal the show.

Now airing in the United States on Freeform Siren is set around Bristol Cove, a seaside town that builds its fame on mermaid legends. Yet, as the story unfolds, these legends turn out to be a past that has been whitewashed, romanticized, and largely forgotten, until the peaceful illusion of the town is shattered by the arrival of a mermaid…

This mermaid, named Ryn, is quite different from what the good people of Bristol Cove (as well as some of the audience) have in mind. Granted, she is attractive, but in a very eerie way, with her strange complexion that suggests an alien skeletal structure. Though small and delicate of build, she possesses superhuman strength and can kill in cold blood. But the true danger comes when she is in the water, restored to her true, fish-like form; it is then when she will demonstrate her nature to the fullest degree as a deadly predator and efficient huntress. ‘In water, we fight,’ Ryn frankly admits, after a blind attack on her human friend. Here the cruelty of a life in the wilderness is revealed. It is a life without mercy; either you fight to eat, or you will be food.

Although Ryn is more of a mermaid than a siren in form, her ferocity – in particular, her taste for human flesh – finds its roots in the siren legend. In The Odyssey, the Sirens are said to have been surrounded by ‘a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling’. It is never stated if the Sirens actually eat those men, or if their corpses just become desiccated after long exposure to the hot, Mediterranean sun, but cannibalism is certainly implied here. In particular, in Circe’s prophecy, the Sirens are mentioned side by side with Scylla, another girl-turned-monster who expressively devours human. The sirens’ birdlike body also invites the readers to compare them with Sphinx, who is also known for her cannibalistic taste.

The Medieval thinkers picked up the cue readily enough. Although not all of them necessarily spells out the Sirens’ cannibalistic diet, the Sirens are more and more pictured as femme fatale. In medieval bestiaries, the Sirens are portrayed as deadly seducers who use their seductive songs to lure the sailors to sleep, and then attack them with sharp teeth and tear open their flesh.

But Ryn’s medieval connection goes far beyond this. The opening scene, when Ryn’s sister is captured by the fishermen, shows the ship just being violently tossed in a storm. This is precisely when mermaids – and mermen – tend to be sighted. According to Konungs skuggsjá, the Norwegian King’s Mirror dated to mid-13th century, mermaids often appear before violent storms, as if heralding death and danger ahead. If a mermaid is seen play with fishes or throw them towards the ship, it would mean that the sailors will peril. But if she eats the fishes or throw them away from the ship, then the sailors know they will survive.

A Siren depicted in a 13th century Bestiary – British Library MS Harley 4751 f. 47v

Ryn’s transformation is nowhere mentioned in the medieval sources, but on closer look it shows remarkable resemblance to the metamorphosis of medieval werewolves. When Ryn leaves the ocean, she sheds a fishtail skin and the first thing she does is to find some clothes; when she overstays, her fair human skin turns greenish-purple and ugly, as if it is rotten. So far, the TV show has not shown how Ryn transforms from human to mermaid in detail, but it does give the impression that she changes her skin, as if the mermaid grows out of the maiden. Her odd look also suggests that the mermaid is constantly hidden there under the human skin. The werewolf is just the opposite: it is always the human hidden under the wolfskin; indeed, sometimes they even need to put on wolfskins to transform and shed them upon restoration to human form, as if man ‘grows out’ of the wolf.

More importantly, Siren shows the same fancy and fear of the unknown. Curiositas, or curiosity, is a human trait that is both admirable and deadly, just like the siren herself. What lies at the bottom of the ocean? The very same question is certainly asked by Alexander the Great – in the romance tradition, at least – when he puts himself in what may be called a medieval submarine to explore the creatures and their life in the deep water. But with fancy comes fear; all these stories – medieval or modern – keep asking the same question in different forms: what if there comes another being, another predator? Be it werewolf with human reason or mermaid, genetically mutated shark or ape. The question – and the fear – is all the same: what if there is something faster, stronger, and – even worse – cleverer than us? And it is human’s turn to become livestock and food?

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

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