This book, filled with poetry about and the history of mermaids, plus color photographs and artwork— and some nifty surprises— may be the most beautiful book you’ll ever see. It opens with a photograph of the sea. Facing the waves are lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. …

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

This is it about mermaids— they sing to us, they comb their beautiful hair. . . and, pursuing them, we drown. As the introduction says, “they have as often seemed dangerous, lusty, and cruel as they have kind, vulnerable, and loyal” (p. 11).

The history of mermaids may begin in China or Japan, it may be Polynesian, it may lie somewhere in the jungle of Hindu mythology, it may have risen in the antiquity of Asia Minor or Europe or the Americas. There were mermaids everywhere, beautiful maidens with fish tails and hair that flows like the ocean’s waves. There’s even a piece of art from the Nuremburg Bible showing a Noah in his ark looking out the window at a mermaid.

Chapters in the book focus on the sacred fish, spirits of the place, the siren’s song, the moon and the mirror, the mermaid’s soul (denied by the Christian church), the seven seas, romance and magic, sideshow (“nympholepsy,” English tavern signs, and Barnum’s mermaid, among other sightings), and “the mermaid within.” The latter chapter opens with references to Freud’s “dark pools of human unconscious” and Jung’s study of alchemy.

It’s true. Mermaids, nereids, nymphs and sea creatures have enchanted humankind forever. They’ve become our projection holders and inspired art from the earliest days to modern advertising.The book closes with a quotation from John Keats:

Souls of Poets dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known,

Happy field or massy cavern,

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

Have ye tippled drink more fine

Than mine host’s Canary wine?

Because of its age, this book may not be in the bookstores, but it’s on Thanks to the exquisite artwork and large format, it is, alas, expensive, but if you love beauty and beautiful books, it’s well worth the investment. This is a book that will enchant you as much as any watery mermaid ever could.

~ review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.

Author: Theodore Gachot, photographs by Leah Demchick

HarperCollins, 1996

pp. 126