Our Mermaid Craze / Native To That Element: Anthropocene Mermaids from Ophelia to Aycayia

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

What if the sea spoke back?

We wouldn’t understand its words. We might not even recognize them as words, as we cannot fully comprehend the patterned vocalizations of humpbacks and orcas as songs, works of complex symbolic art. To human ears, the sea remains a space beyond, a fluid body which our own mostly fluid bodies can touch, but not stay. W. H. Auden voices an ancient and still-thriving chorus when he surrenders himself and his words to “the silent dissolution of the sea / Which misuses nothing because it values nothing.”1 But we love mermaids because they have another voice entirely.

Sirens and mermaids cluster in ancient and modern stories, from the alluring singers for the sake of whom Odysseus ties himself to the mast to the scientific taxonomy Sirenia, which includes several species of herbivorous aquatic mammals including manatees and dugongs. From Ovid’s man-into-fish Glaucus to Hans Christian Andersen’s (and Disney’s) Little Mermaid, these figures allegorize the connection humans feel for the inhospitable ocean. In Andersen’s story, the mermaid lacks a Christian soul, which only a loving human can provide for her. As I’ve suggested before, Melville’s idealized South Pacific harpooner Queequeg in Moby-Dick also glosses the queer allure of intimacy with the sea.2

The two mermaids alongside whom this short essay swims ask us to imagine what becomes possible for creatures who are “native” to water. These two figures represent, in contrasting ways, capacities to speak to and from the depths. Drowned Ophelia, as described by Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, appears briefly to thrive in water’s deadly embrace, as she “mermaid-like,” floats “like a creature native and endued / Unto that element.”3 The fantasy that a mermaid represents total entanglement with water gets further elaborated in Monique Roffey’s Aycayia, the Indigenous heroine and titular figure of her 2020 novel The Mermaid of Black Conch. This essay hazards that the native connection to water that Ophelia finds in death, which cause her to chant “old lauds” (4.7.175), matches the deep historical music of Aycayia, whose songs “sound like Africa, like the Andes, like old Creole hymnals, like shamanic icaros.”4 (219). The dying heroine of England’s most famous play speaks to and with the supernatural sea-native whose presence unsettles a multiracial community in the twentieth-century Caribbean. Bringing these two mermaids into dialogue recasts the long history of human-fish hybrids. Ophelia in the instant of her death and Aycayia in her brief engagement with human culture present “native” histories of the relationship between human bodies and watery spaces. As the Anthropocene floods our communities and the oceans rise, figures who cross land and sea will become increasingly central to our changing imaginations. Learning from the mermaid-human who drowns and the mermaid-Native who returns to the sea can enable a clearer understanding of how twenty-first century humans live with, near, and in the waters of our changing planet. The mermaids sing to us, and we should listen.

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Too Much of Water

Ophelia’s brother Laertes, who elsewhere in the play shows himself to be a hothead and easily manipulated, rejects water’s presence in his sister’s body. “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,” he begins, “And therefore I forbid my tears” (4.7.183–84). His rebuffing of salt water, however, lasts only half a line: “But yet / It is our trick – nature her custom holds / Let shame say what it will” (4.7.184-86). The struggle between human custom – we weep over untimely deaths – and his shame about crying in public captures the young man’s failure to master his own emotions. Laertes cannot resist water’s flow. But in his description of Ophelia, whose body has become super-saturated, the key term is nature.5 Water is nature, and water is deadly. Into that paradox Ophelia plunges, never to return.

Gertrude’s vivid description of Ophelia’s death, which has inspired many works of visual art, including most famously John Everett Millais’s nineteenth-century oil painting, conjures a complex relation between human sorrow and nonhuman agency.6 Shakespeare portrays a hostile natural environment in the “willow [that] grows askant the brook” (4.7.164) and the “long purples” (4.7.167) to which (male) shepherds give a “grosser” sexual name (4.7.168). But inside this muddy maze a mermaid-moment splits open an inhospitable shell:

Her clothes spread wide

And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,

Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and endued

Unto that element. (4.7.1173–78)

These lines suggest that Laertes has it partly wrong—water kills Ophelia, but not before it buoys her up. The fantasy of being native to water, of speaking its inhuman language through snatches of old religious songs, transforms Ophelia into an up-rising mermaid in the instant before her human clothes, “heavy with their drink” (4.7.179), pull her to the bottom. She’s a mermaid, until she’s not.

In addition to being “native” and to singing religious songs, Ophelia’s communion with water operates via the today-uncommon verb endued.7 Drawn from the French enduire and Latin inducer, this English word combines multiple meanings, including spiritual investment into a clerical position (OED 1.1), ideas of education (3.4a–b), to clothe or cover (4.5a), to “invest” with dignities or possessions (5.7), and to bestow power or quality (5.9a). These related meanings swirl around the drowned young woman, though the passivity associated with meaning 5.9a—to be endued with power or quality—connects mostly clearly to Shakespeare’s usage.8 To be “endued / Unto that element” marks Ophelia’s water-intimacy, her connection to an “element” in which humans cannot long survive. The line-break between “endued” and “Unto that element” further emphasizes the schism between her act of hydro-assimilation—most of the meanings of endue imply the taking-on of alien, usually superior, characteristics—and the foreign environment into which she cannot safely consign herself. Ophelia’s mermaid-form lasts just an instant and a half-dozen lines of verse—but in that flash of connection she subsumes elemental waters into herself. To be mermaid is, alas, not to be for long.

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I Have Seen the Sea

Roffey’s Indigenous mermaid Aycayia, by contrast, has all the time in the sea. She’s not quite immortal; her backstory includes being a pre-contact Indigenous woman who had been chased into the sea: “Women jealous jealous of my young self / Put me in the sea / a thousand cycles ago” (61). Her story, which involves being caught by white fishermen from Miami and then rescued by the local fisherman David, with whom she falls in love, follows somewhat-conventional outlines.9 The clearest connections to mermaid Ophelia, however, come not in the interspecies love plot but instead in a series of first-person poetic songs through which Aycayia tells her water-infused story. In fifteen separate moments in Roffey’s novel, Aycayia sings directly, in verse, to the reader. Like Ophelia’s “old lauds,” Aycayia’s poetry engages with worlds beyond the human. She recalls her timeless time beneath the waves as well as the long-ago history of her expulsion and her newer experience of human love. Giving voice to a unification of sea and woman, Aycayia represents the water-intimacy that the merely human Ophelia cannot endure.

Aycayia breathes underwater, but the harder task for this Caribbean mermaid is processing the long march of human history. Before she meets the Yankee fishermen and Black Conch’s multiracial community, she describes herself as coming “from red people / good people / I was in the south / where Kwaib people also lived” (61). The story of her Indigenous past, which supplies her name, remain unclear. Her earliest memories narrate history through gender rather than ethnicity. “Those women figure it easy to get rid of me,” she sings, “Seal up my sex inside a tail” (49). But the historical horror she only learns when she returns to land describes the genocide of her people by a “Castilian admiral”:

I ask why everybody in Black Conch is black-skinned

She told me how black people came

I ask here where are the red people like me

She told me they were mostly all dead and gone and murdered (113)

Aycayia learns the colonial history of African slavery and Native American genocide, but she still defines herself as “half and half” (114), not fully human. “The sea is a strong pull” (114), she intones. History cannot eclipse it.

Against historical knowledge Aycayia juxtaposes oceanic experience. “Swim the sea all alone now” (176), she sings near the novel’s end. The water as she conjures it exists beyond human ken:

I will live until there is no water in the sea

I am now and forever

I will be here for the whole of time

I, Aycayia Sweet Voice (177)

In its quasi-religious intonations, Aycayia’s song recalls Ophelia’s “old lauds,” for which Shakespeare provides no words. In her description of “the whole of time,” however, Aycayia also anticipates the environmental force that shapes the novel’s conclusion: the hurricane. The storm washes the mermaid out to sea while inflicting destruction on the human world of Black Conch in ways that tie up the plot strands of the novel. The Caribbean hurricane has an English name, “Rosamund her name / Why huracan get woman’s name?” (215). Rosamund sucks Aycayia back into the timeless undersea. Another Shakespeare-inflected word for storm—tempest—links the storm by Latin etymology to time, tempus, itself. Storm is time and time is storm. “Huracan,” Aycayia sings in her last verses, “take me away” (216). The word hurricane, notably, represents one of relatively few Indigenous Carib words common in European languages. The humans left on the island take stock and rebuild in “the time after Rosamund,” the tempus after the tempest. (225). But the mermaid abandons both time and storm, descending instead, like Ophelia but without drowning, beneath the surface.

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Native and Endued

 In a controversial element of her bestselling book Braiding Sweetgrass, scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer posits that it can be possible, through time, care, and attention, to “become Indigenous” to a place.10 Not all Indigenous writers agree with Kimmerer that these connections can be forged by individuals. As a white descendent of European colonial settlers who lives on the unceded territory of the Totoket and Menunkatuck bands of the Quinnipiac people, I am not able to adjudicate claims of connection to the lands and waters I inhabit. But even though I swim every day in the usually-calm waters of Long Island Sound, it only takes one mis-timed gulp of saltwater to remind me that I am not native to the sea. I cannot swim through and beneath storms as Aycayia does. I hope to preserve myself as long as I can from Ophelia’s watery end. Yet in both these figures, and in their intimate and otherworldly relationships with water, I find traces of what I feel when I enter the ocean. To be in the sea, or—not to. Is it a question? Water teaches human bodies about change, impermanence, and vulnerability. Sometimes the poets, and the mermaids, get there first.

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This is part of the cluster Our Mermaid Craze. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. W. H. Auden, The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Arthur Kirsch, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) 5.
  2. On Queequeg as Ishmael’s mermaid-lover, see Steve Mentz, Ocean (London: Bloomsbury, 2020) 93–102.
  3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, eds. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006): 4.7.174, 4.7.177-78. Further citations in the text.
  4. Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch, (New York: Knopf, 2020) 219. Further citations in the text.
  5. On media theory and saturation, see Melody Jue and Rafico Ruiz, eds., Saturation: An Elemental Politics, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).
  6. “Ophelia” remains one of the most popular works on view at the Tate Britain in London.
  7. Ophelia’s “old lauds” or hymns are textually uncertain, as two early texts of Hamlet read “old tunes.” Some editors prefer “tunes” because a presumed suicide should not sing religious songs, or because the racy songs she sang in her madness in 4.3 seem more like tunes. As I’ll show by comparison to Aycayia’s songs, I value the religious, thoughpresumably not orthodox, connotation of lauds.
  8. Interestingly, the fifty-odd quotations provided by the OED do not include this line from Hamlet, though lines from Othello, King John, and Coriolanus appear.
  9. For wider, though still brief, consideration of the novel, see Steve Mentz, An Introduction to the Blue Humanities (London: Routledge, 2023) 100–03.
  10. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015).