(This article was first published in SageWoman, Fall 2002)
When I was 18 my boyfriend died, and the place I went for solace was the sea.
Every day after classes ended I drove to my favorite beach, a rocky marine preserve in a small cove that was not well-known and therefore never crowded. I would sit there for hours facing west, watching the waves flow in and recede, listening to the sounds of shells and rocks tumbling onto the shore. It was there I first learned the mysteries of life and death and renewal, in my body and in my soul: there is no death, only change and transformation, the ebb and the flow. Love does not end with death, for he was dead and yet I still loved him.
That was thirty years ago and I am no longer a maiden seeking to discover why people die. I am approaching my crone years, and I have long since made my peace with Lady Death. Yet I still go to the sea for solace, for refreshment and for renewal.
At 18, I didn’t know much about the mythic resonances of the sea. I didn’t know that liminal places, where land meets water, are known as places where one can slip in through the cracks between the worlds. I didn’t know that, for eons, people have thought of the sea as the Great Mother, and that the West was often envisioned as the Otherworld, the place we return to when we die. I didn’t know that, in the myths of many cultures, a sea voyage often enacts the passing into that other world, the testing of the soul, and the passage beyond death. And yet these are the mythic themes that I experienced, sitting there by the sea watching the tide roll in and back out again.
I learned that in some of the earliest myths, the sea was seen as the womb of creation, and many early sea-goddesses were creatrix goddesses: Tiamat, Tethys, Thalassa, Amphritite, Ilmatar, Yemaya, Mama Cocha, Nammu. An early goddess name, “Mari,” means “sea” and sometimes “mother.” It’s a name that is seen again and again in such names as Marian, Myrrha, Maria, Maerin, Mariana and Marina. Many of the loving, compassionate attributes of the Great Mother Sea were passed on to the Virgin Mary.
With the advent of patriarchy, sea goddesses were often demoted to sea sprites, nymphs or nereids. Amphritite became the wife of Poseidon (as Hera was married off to Zeus). Tiamat was murdered by the solar hero Marduk. Others were demonized, like the sirens who tried to lure Odysseus’ men to their deaths.
So I learned that sea goddesses were transformed into erotic love goddesses like Venus, compassionate mothers like the Virgin Mary, muses or otherworldly guides like the Celtic Ever-Living Lady, or sirens and witches and devourers of men’s souls like Morgan Le Fay.
The contemporary image of the mermaid has a little bit of all these qualities about her. She has quite a hold on our collective imagination — a search for the word “mermaid” on Google turned up over 502,000 entries! (Update: 110,000,000 entries in May 2013!)
The women’s spirituality movement has gone a long way towards reclaiming the image of the mermaid, and restoring her to the status of pre-patriarchal times. We see her as the Creatrix, Lover, Nurturer, Muse, Shaman, Keeper of the Mysteries, Protector, Provider, Challenger, and Receiver of the Souls of the Dead.
She inhabits our imaginations, our rituals and our dreams. Jungian analyst Karen Signell wrote this about the mermaid in her book Wisdom of the Heart: Working with Women’s Dreams:
“With her supple tail, bare breasts, and her home in the ocean, the ancient symbol of the feminine, the Mermaid symbolizes a woman’s connection to the Great Mother, archetype of change and changelessness, the womb of life and love, the numinous source of healing, the place of return in death.”
I live on an island now, where I can see and touch the sea every day. I walk the beaches with my sisters, and sometimes plunge into her icy waters. I am learning the language of the loon, the gull, the heron, the salmon, the eagle, the otter and the harbor seal. I’ve learned to kayak, and that more than anything has given me great respect for the Ocean Mother as Death-Wielder. For I have been frightened more than once when a sudden wind has whipped up the waves and I have had to fight hard to stay upright.
Kayaking has also taught me to appreciate the Mysteries of the Low Tide. A kayaker can paddle up inches away from a rocky cliff. When the waters recede, a wonderland is revealed — sea stars, blood stars, gumboot chitons, iridescent sea kelp and creatures “rich and strange.”
It is at low tide also, with acres of clams and oysters exposed, that we have seen dozens of eagles and herons (those solitary birds) gathered together, reaping the sea’s harvest.
My sister Nora Cedarwind, who brought me to this island, has a pact with Mama Ocean: she made a promise that on every beach visit, she would not leave until the sea had gifted her with at least one piece of beach glass. This has become part of Nora’s devotional practice — for sometimes the glass turns up quickly, and sometimes Mama Ocean keeps her there for hours. When She is especially pleased, Nora comes home with pockets full and brimming over with pieces of translucent blue, green, white and pink sparkling glass!
Last Summer Solstice found me on the beach once again, facing west to watch the sun go down. It was about 10 PM, and my sweetheart and I huddled together as the warmth of the day receded along with the sun. We watched the noses of harbor seals poke above the water as they swan towards shore, then laughed to see fish after fish leap out of the water, as if they were dancing for joy, honoring the setting Solstice sun.
Perhaps they were mermaids in disguise.