Death and Desire: Mermaids in the Medieval Imagination
The medieval depictions of mermaids are multifarious, but certain elements are constant and others frequently recurring. Much like their modern representations, medieval mermaids are shown to have the head and torso of a human, and the body of a fish from the waist down. They may also take other hybrid forms, such as half-serpent and half-bird (sirens), or combinations of these; some have one tail, others have two; and some are beautiful while others are hideous. More intriguing than the differences, however, are the consistencies: these creatures are almost always female and they are most frequently portrayed holding a mirror and a comb, symbolising the sin of Pride. Bartholomaeus Anglicus states in his De proprietatibus rerum that a mermaid lulls sailors to sleep with her sweet song so that she may bring the men ashore and make them lie with her, before slaying and eating them. Mermaids are thus equally associated with the sins of Lust, Wrath, and Gluttony. Captivating and beautiful as she seems, this paper explores how the cultural conceptions in medieval art and literature present the mermaid as a deadly figure of forbidden desire.
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