Entanglements: an exploration of the digital literary work FISHNETSTOCKINGS

Hybridity: the historical hybridity of mermaids


The mermaid is a hybrid beast, diverse in the specifics of her hybridity but always hybrid. Mermaids began in ancient Babylonia and moved across the globe over centuries, taking different forms and meanings but always presenting a powerful, female force around which swirled anxieties and desire. The sirens of ancient Greece were half-female and half-bird but transfigured in medieval Christianity into a serpent aligned with the snake from the Garden of Eden. Portuguese slave traders brought the mermaid to Africa and the Western hemisphere, where she morphed with indigenous female water deities to become Mami Wata, Yemoja, and more. Of course, Hans Christen Andersens’s The Little Mermaid is an origin point of sorts for contemporary mermaids, especially in popular culture: its translation across languages and lands touched by empire created a market for Western mermaid-ology. The mermaid maps onto empire and colonialism, the slave trade and the Middle Passage, capitalism and print culture. 

She is a hybrid beast whose only stability is her status as a symbol of cultural instability. She is a harbinger of cultural change and anxieties swirling around it. Mermaids appeared in maps to mark the unknown, uncharted, and unquantified. Beware: here there be monsters. The mermaid is part of the history of oceanic navigation, central to the media and imagination of colonization. She is also a result of globalization.  Mermaids adorned the masthead of ships exploring and colonizing the globe, and they thus crossed the oceans as a Western figure to be transformed by indigenous cultures. 

She lives at the interface between air and water, sea and sand.  She breaks boundaries and expectations, drawing attention to our epistemologies and ideologies… as well as their layered and problematic histories.

There has been a kind of resurgence of mermaid sightings in recent years– a renaissance of interest in the hybrid figure.  If you personally haven’t been hearing the siren call, let me clue you in.  A widely recognized mermaid craze has taken over pop culture and multiple media platforms for nearly a decade. From popular TV shows and Young Adults books, to prosthetic mermaid tails, to the infamous hoax documentary on Animal Planet, to mermaid schools and professional mermaid jobs at resorts, to a special issue of a specialized academic journal on island cultures devoted to merfolk, and to our own case study in mermaid electronic literature.

Our recent mermaid renaissance connects to longer histories of mermaids but is also part of a distinct moment in the Anthropocene and intellectual movements that critique it, including Ecocriticism and Racial Justice movements.

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