Admit it, we all dreamt about being mermaids as children. Even little old me, who wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer, enjoyed many hours playing mermaids at the town pool with my friends. I blame my early mermaid fascination on a slew of TV shows and movies, including but not limited to Aquamarine, H20: Just Add Water, and Barbie Fairytopia: Mermadia. All three of which debuted in 2006, which is surely NOT a coincidence. Mermaid fantasy seemed to have peaked right before vampire romance took over circa 2008, but I digress.
When you consider the mermaid romance genre, Disney’s The Little Mermaid is probably at the forefront of your mind. However, Ariel, the animated mermaid heroine that serenaded us as children, only scratches the surface of a much more complex subgenre with ancient roots. Let’s dive in!
To get to the bottom of the mermaid romance subgenre, we must take a trip back in history to examine mermaid lore and legend. One of the earliest known mermaid figures is the ancient Assyrian goddess, Atargatis.
Worshipped as the goddess of “the moon, feminine powers, and water,” Atargatis had a temple dedicated to her “in the ancient city of Ascalon in Israel.” Those wishing to worship her had to swim through a pool filled with fish to get to the temple altar, bearing a giant statue of the goddess carved from pure gold and diamonds.
The lore surrounding Atargatis holds both beauty and tragedy, setting the stage for the duality that has characterized mermaid storytelling ever since. Just as water is both healing and beautiful, it can also be deep and dangerous. Subsequently, whether portrayed as deities or Disney princesses, mermaids are multifarious characters. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Greek mythology’s alluring yet foreboding creatures: sirens.
Sirens: Sexy or Sinister?
Sirens are another sea-dwelling creature rooted in ancient lore. Today, they’re usually depicted as seductive mermaid-like figures, but their mythological origin describes them more like bird-women.
The famous siren story regards the epic hero Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. The Greek hero, by council of the sorceress Circe, was able to evade the sirens’ bewitching song by plugging the ears of his crew with wax. Odysseus then tied himself to the mast of the ship so that he would not give in to steering them off course to destruction.
The seductive connotation of sirens as figures of temptation and desire has since pervaded storytelling and blended together with mermaid storytelling tropes. This evolution coincides with a shift in their physical description over time. Half-bird changed to half-fish around the 7th century, and by the Middle Ages, sirens were an enduring iteration of the mermaid. Still largely depicted as a sort of femme fatale character, sirens are a popular temptress archetype that plays into the two-fold nature of the mermaid romance genre.
For example, take some of these siren-centered fiction releases, whose narratives move between extremes: beauty and destruction, love and despair, life and death, land and sea.
Between Two Worlds
No doubt, the mermaid romance genre is molded by two contrasting archetypes (benign mermaids and evil sirens) as well as two different worlds. At a glance, The Little Mermaid draws attention to these underlying conflicts that shape the romance plot. Ariel, as a PG Disney love interest, is trapped in her circumstances and looking to move beyond the barriers of her underwater world. To no one’s surprise, a repeated trope of mermaid romance reads is a fish-out-of-water scenario, overcoming the odds for true love.
Of course, there are modern spins on the mermaid romance genre which focuses more intently on underwater world-building as the cornerstone of fantasy adventure. Though, with the centrality of The Little Mermaid as the cornerstone of the genre in popular culture, it’s very common to do retellings of the original arc of mermaid turned human or vice versa.
In all, mermaid romance is a genre centered upon forbidden loves and dual identities, taking inspiration from ancient mythological roots. Have I got you lured in? Here are some more recommendations to test the waters:
Read about more wacky and whimsical romance genres here.