by Gwen Benwell & Arthur Waugh
The mermaid is one of the most pervasive creatures in mythology; fishy maidens has been swimming through folklore around the world for as long as stories have been recorded. This history of the mermaid, written in 1961, traces here from the earliest Babylonian records to the sirens of the Greeks (who were not mermaids, but birds with the head of a woman similar to a harpy) and on through medieval and Renaissance Europe. Stories from Scandinavia record the mermaids spotted by seafarers; other tales come from the legends of Africa, Asia and the Americas. The book tries to be as comprehensive as possible. Chapters trace the use of the mermaid in heraldry, coinage, stamps, poetry and literature.
Usually I don't bother to talk about old books that have been long out of print, but I enjoyed Sea Enchantress so much that I'll make an exception to my usual rule. Written in 1961, the book is admirable for its attempt to investigate the mermaid as thoroughly as possible. I mean, I've certainly seen and read books about mermaids before, but never one that dedicated several pages to all the nobles that used the mermaid in their family crest. Granted, some of the information in the book is no longer considered accurate, such as in an early chapter that identifies the Babylonian god Ea with another god called Oannes, but many of the old sources used in the book are now either difficult or nearly impossible to find, since they date to the mid- and late-19th century. The book's also quite Anglocentric, and clearly written for a British audience.
So why did I enjoy it so much? Well, it was clear throughout the book that the authors had a passion for mermaids and they did their homework. Many of the tales they compiled were new to me, even though I've read tons of fairy tales before. I also liked that the authors maintained a fairly neutral tone throughout the book. They never seem intent on proving the existence of mermaids or in explaining away the many reported sightings of the creatures. Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh simply reported what their research uncovered, nothing more and nothing less.
But really, it was just cool because at the end of the day, I love mermaids and this book is spilling over with them.
I stumbled across Sea Enchantress very randomly at my local library, and their copy is so beat-up that I fear it won't be in circulation much longer. Too bad.
4 out of 5 stars
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