Thursday, February 23, 2012

Part of Your World: Limited Engagement Only

Adrift at Sea, Nilah Magruder
So much fuss gets made over the little mermaid who failed to nab a prince that we tend to forget the scores of supernatural women who succeeded. Human men, it seems, are a hot commodity on mythical women's mash notes. And with the exception of Andersen's strangely blind prince, they tend to be rather eager for a supernatural wife. Which is no surprise - these are, after all, magical women whose goodwill can ensure success and wealth.

Some men actively set out to catch an otherworldly wife. There are endless tales of men who steal a mermaid's red cap or a selkie's sealskin to trap her on land. Others go about their wooing more delicately, like the Shepherd of Myddfai offering his chosen mermaid a bite of bread to entice her to a life on shore. Still others are forcefully wooed. The Fairy Queen is notorious for abducting handsome men with nice voices, regardless of their opinions. But the benefits of having a supernatural lover are immense. Without exception, the women's influence - from magical blessings to excellent housekeeping - win the men comfort and renown for their good luck.

So everyone's happy, right?

Not so fast. This is the fairy world. There's always a catch.

Loss, Cheryl Kirk Noll
Supernatural brides hold to the letter of their bargains. Make one wrong move (three at most), and they pop out of your life as suddenly as they entered it, taking all their magical support with them. The classic setup goes thusly: upon engagement, the bride names a single condition with which the groom must comply. Melusine forbids her husband to look at her while she bathes; the mermaid of Myddfai (in a nice move for women's rights) vows to leave her husband if he strikes her three times; the Crane Wife won't let her husband watch her weave the cloth that brings them wealth. Sounds easy, up until curiosity kills the cat and the husbands have to look, or lose their temper, or forget to lock up the sealskin. There's no fooling a supernatural bride, either. They know when the deal is broken. (Melusine's husband tries to lie to her, which only makes him look worse.)

What's more, when they go, they never come back. Volund's marriage to Hervor the Valkyrie, a perfectly happy one, ends for good when she decides she misses her old life. The husbands of local selkies get no warning when their wives discover their sealskins and return to the sea; some stories have the bereft husband walking the shore for the rest of his life, searching for his lost bride. Melusine's husband has an extra worry: in addition to the loss of his wife, he frets that she's cursed him and his lands in vengeance.

Wayland, Max Koch
Once the contract is broken, supernatural brides aren't known for their generosity. Mermaids tend to abandon their families before their children are grown and able to take over their mother's duties. The Crane Wife leaves her husband's only source of income unfinished. Volund gets bit worst: as soon as Hervor's gone, the local king orders Volund hamstrung and trapped on an island so no one else can have access to his superior smithing skills. (To be fair, Volund bites back, making the king some drinking goblets out of the skulls of the king's sons, and also raping and impregnating his only daughter, before escaping on wings he'd made in secret. All par for the course in a Norse legend.) The mermaid of Myddfai is extraordinarily generous in that, while she takes back her dowry of cattle, she also blesses her descendants with phenomenal healing powers and watches over the town. No other supernatural bride ever looks back.

Mephistophilis Appears to Doctor Faustus
The trappings of these stories are eerily similar to the tales of men who sell their souls to the devil. In exchange for instant benefits, the man makes a letter-of-the-law deal with a creature not of this world, which will hit hard when the contract inevitably runs out. True, a mermaid bride isn't quite on the same level as Mephistophilis, but the women of Melusine's line were rumored to be witches up through the Wars of the Roses. The supernatural creature retains all rights; only the human stands to lose. In some cases, the bride manipulates the terms of the contract. The mermaid of Myddfai counts an impatient "hurry up" tap on the shoulder as one of the three blows that will entitle her to return to the lake; the Fairy Queen sends True Thomas back to our world when she gets bored of him, neglecting to tell him that seven years have passed while he partied for a night in Fairyland. This is straight-up Doctor Faustus material: the seduction of a human by mystical forces that disguise the truth without ever outright lying.

Mermaid, Laurent Miny
Granted, the brides don't intend anything as sinister as dragging their husbands into Hell. But the one-sided arrangements, and the clear evidence that the power rests with the females, indicate a serious reversal of the normal run of things. It's uncomfortably easy to make the jump of reasoning that a powerful woman is on par with the devil, or at the very least in possession of abilities that are too dangerous for humans to be around for long. The Melusine story in particular throws gas on the fire: between the snake-woman and the monstrous children she bears, her identification with the devil couldn't be clearer.

So maybe there's a reason we forget those stories. They overturn the status quo. They remind us that there are forces we don't and will never understand. Like their heroines, they seduce with the promise of happiness and dash our hopes without warning. They're not comfortable bedtime stories; they're tales of man against nature, often without a clear villain or victor. Stories like that don't make for sweet dreams.


  1. that first mermaid picture is adorable.

    :) lovely post!

  2. Thanks! And I love that first picture too. I couldn't even believe it was real when it came up on Google. Something clicked in my head, and all I could think was "MUST HAVE."