Article

Tantalising tails

The mystique of the mermaid

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Fantasy females are impossible to satisfy, by Bob Carlos Clarke, 2004 


Why are mermaids so erotic? writes Nigel Summerley. Perhaps it’s because they're ‘other’ – but not completely other. They may have those scaly tails, but they're at least half human. And (unless Disney-fied) they’re totally naked – although at the same time they seem somehow dressed because of the beautiful scales that conceal the most desirable aspect of their womanhood. 

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Not only naked, but unashamedly, almost exhibitionistically, naked. And wet. Wet and naked is always appealing.


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Naked, dressed, half-dressed and half-naked, all at the same time... what a tantalising combination, and one that's captivated artists, particularly those working in a repressive age, like the Victorian JW Waterhouse (below). 

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A Mermaid, by JW Waterhouse, 1900 (Royal Academy)


Mermaids are seducers – mockers of those who would possess them. Most mocking of all is the fact that once you get past their wild hair, bare breasts and svelte torso, there's ... well, not what you’d expect.

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Full-on sex with a mermaid must be tricky since she doesn't seem to have the necessary je ne sais quoi. But to some men and women, that makes her even more desirable, because unfulfilled lust can be quite a turn-on. One purveyor of fantasy, the early-20th-century artist Edmund Dulac, got round the problem by depicting the mermaid’s tail starting below her buttocks rather than above, an idea that then makes all things possible.


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And yet ... how can she open her thighs? As Bob Carlos Clarke notes in the title of his photo at the head of this article, a photograph currently up for bids on Sotheby's Erotic Art online sale*, whatever the turn-on for the man, it must be pretty frustrating for the mermaid.

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Perhaps it takes a little fishy know-how and some discreet anatomical changes to the mermaid, as shown in this Chinese image of a mermaid being ravished by a man-octopus.


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A slightly less romantic solution to the endlessly fascinating problem of mer-sex materialised in cult sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf. In an epsiode called ‘Better Than Life’ a mermaid appeared as part of the crew members’ fantasies made real. She was half-woman, half-fish – but the top half was fish and the bottom half was definitely all woman. (‘The other way round would be stoopid,’ observed the most sex-obsessed of the Red Dwarf gang.)

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Early in its history the movie industry (sharply focused on sex, as we know) latched on to mermaids – indeed, on any women swimming or bathing – as an excuse for showing female flesh at a time when it was otherwise ruled out by the censors. 

Now almost forgotten, swimming star and actress Annette Kellerman, known as the Million Dollar Mermaid, became the first woman to appear totally naked in a movie, ‘Neptune’s Daughter’, in 1914. (She was not new to controversy as she'd previously been convicted of public indecency for wearing a shockingly revealing - for 1907 - swimsuit on an American beach.) 

Annette-2.png#asset:1117Annette Kellerman in Neptune's Daughter (Dir. Herbert Brenon), 1914


In this silent black and white fantasy film, she didn’t have a swimsuit or even the covering of a fishy tail – the only thing that obscured her pubic region was the tail end of her luxuriant hair. It was the same ploy used centuries earlier by Botticelli in ‘The Birth of Venus’ where hair from the naked goddess’s head is looped into place to suggest hair of quite a different variety, and to simultaneously depict innocence and sexuality. (The shell she stands on is redolent of a mermaid's suggestive saltiness.)

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Fragment of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, 1486, Uffizi gallery, Florence


And that ultimately sums up the eroticism of the mermaid: where does the innocent and natural nakedness and beauty end, and where does the taunting beguiling animalistic sex begin? The answer – with regard to both the mermaid and our desire for her – is that they don’t: they're all wrapped up together in an irresistible package, a metaphor for unquenchable desire that brings men and women to their knees and sailors to their death on the rocks.

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Sotheby's Erotic Art online sale, 2-16 February, 2018. www.sothebys.co.uk

I wasn't really naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on
Josephine Baker