Monday, May 23, 2011

Mermen Expose Sexist Blogger!

Arthur Rackham, A Crowned Merma
Well, perhaps something is exposed, but in this matter, I will leave the judgment up to you, my gentle readers.  To start with, Google searches confirm that the internet's impression of the world conforms to my own: mermaids are much more a part of our cultural consciousness than mermen* are.  So at least if the presumption of mermaids over mermen exposes something sexist, I am not alone in my turpitude.  The majority of mermen figures seem to be a particular figure: Neptune, Triton, or Proteus even when they go unidentified as such, for example, in the Rackham illustration above.  We are not surprised to see an illustration in the same tradition continue this mode of representation: the merman is the singular figure, the old sea king (the Dulac below).  In mixed gender groupings of merfolk, it is common for there to be a single one of these kingly, older mermen surrounded by a group of young mermaids.  It is not always clear whether we are looking at a group of daughters or an undersea harem. 

Illustration from The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

But in my mind, these singular figures stood out as unique persons in a veritable sea of mermaids: they hardly comprised a race of mermen.  It was with some shock then, that I encountered mermen as an underwater race in a gaming context.  (More on this in a future post.)  Yes, according to the highest authorities in fantasy role-playing, mermen where a sexually differentiated race of which mermaids composed only apparently only something like half of the population.

Now, as a kid, I could only relate this to a TV series that I had remembered liking, that classic of the small screen, "The Man from Atlantis," starring Patrick Duffy as the last survivor of the lost civilization of Atlantis.  The Atlantean man was the only choice to my mind other than the Gill-man, and clearly the choice of a monster did not fit the direction that the illustrations were leading me. Returning to my gaming roots has got me to thinking about the mermen again as a race, apart from the more common mermaid/siren of folklore and what she tends to represent.  Another major complication casts its shadow over any adult reconsideration of the matter:  the shadow from Innsmouth.

So once one has decided to adhere to the idea of a sexually dimorphic species, here is the major matter, as I see it, for world-building or mythopoeic purposes: do mermen best fit the role of race (demi-human) or monster?  A part, but not the whole, of this question is bound up in the lead of the illustrations, that is, are mermen less monstrous in keeping with what is suggested by their appearance, or is appearance misleading in their case, which has the potential effect of making them more monstrous, if anything? This will be the subject of my forth-coming post which will purpose these questions as directly related to the World of Ygg.

I'll close with a couple of potential pieces of inspiration to draw upon: Edward Vizetelly's "Mermaids and Mermen," in The English Illustrated Magazine No. 209, February 1901, (available online at the linked sites in part 1 and part 2) and a non-Western depiction of a merman, below.

Thai Merman by ~practicalmagic89
Thanks for stopping by for this week's installment of Mythopoeic Monday!  For an earlier treatment of related creatures, see N is for Neptune, Nymphs, Nereids, Naiads, and Nixies.

*NB I am not dealing with the question of sexist language, that is, whether the term "mermen " is inclusive or exclusive of mermaids, or that certain answers to that question are acts of linguistic sexism, but merely taking the terms as I find them.  I will leave the subject of politically correct genderspeak to some other time or some other person.