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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

The Mermaid with Two Tails

My work in progress MELUSINE draws inspiration from another legendary figure in Tuscia, the twin-tailed mermaid.

Twin-tailed snakes and their cousins, twin-tailed mermaids, often decorate Etruscan tombs where, indeed, they may be placed as guardians near the entrance, as in the Siren tomb of Sovana, near Pitigliano, in the Tuscan Maremma area. These snake-ladies or mermaids are believed to be a guides for the souls of the dead. Their double tail suggests their mastery of two realms, earth and the underworld, or earth and the sea, as well as the giving and taking of life. In the Ancient Greek tradition, Persephone, the goddess of Spring, had sirens or mermaids as attendants who accompanied her to the underworld when she was kidnapped by Hades, the king of the dead.
The twin- tailed mermaid resurfaced as a popular icon in the religious art of the twelfth century, when sculptors began carving her on doorways, columns, and pulpits in churches and cloisters, throughout Europe, especially in France, Spain, and Italy. These artists favored a particularly provocative rendering of this mysterious figure, portraying her as long-haired and topless, holding the ends of her tails high in her raised hands. Different authors have suggested very different explanations for the mermaid’s appearing in holy places, such as on church altars, and for the accentuated display of her female attributes. In one interpretation, the mermaid is a symbol of perdition, the illustration of a moral lesson for church-goers or monks to contemplate while listening to sermons or studying scripture: the capture of a human soul through sin. Other authors claim that the mermaid, which may have been originally a pagan symbol of fertility, is an emblem of female ambivalence and lust, a counter figure to Mary, whose grotesque shape was intended to evoke physical disgust and fear in the viewer. A third subtler, interpretation suggests that the twin-tailed mermaid is a Christian symbol of human generation, and that is why she so often shows up as a decorative detail in sacred architecture. In order to follow Christ, one must be born human, passing through the narrow gates of a woman’s womb. We all come into the world from the great ocean of unbeing in which the mermaid swims, passing through the birth canal which she lifts her tails to let us see.
Modern interpretations suggest that the double tail and double nature of the half -snake or half- fish lady represents feminine duality viewed through the medieval mind, for which women were both mothers and temptresses. Nowhere is this clearer than in the medieval legend of Melusine, a beautiful maiden who agreed to marry the Duke of Aquitaine on condition that he never enter her chamber on Saturdays when she took her weekly bath. Tormented by jealousy and curiosity, he broke his vow, played peeping tom in his own house and spied on his wife in the tub, discovering that when she bathed, her upper half was human, but the lower belonged to a twin-tailed serpent. Furious at his betrayal of her trust, she terrified him by turning into a dragon and vanishing instantaneously.
The twin- tailed mermaid is also a heraldic emblem and alchemical symbol, where it represents the union of earth and water and may be a symbol of the unification of opposites, enlightenment, and of the world soul: that is the anima mundi, the totality of the energies of nature. Her human half dwells on dry land in earth time, the fishy half partakes of the eternal realm of the sea or ocean, while the coiling serpent’s tail may be a reference to cyclic time. She may be a symbol of dreaming, a mediator between dreams and waking, between the visible and the invisible. The people of antiquity and of the middle ages had a very different concept of dreams than our own. They believed their dreams did not originate from within themselves, but were truly a form of communication between their souls and a higher power or in some cases demonic one. The mermaid suggests that contact with another realm of being.
Half hidden and half revealed, suggesting sensuality, enlightenment, imagination, dreams, the twin-tailed mermaid is the perfect symbol of the artist or writer’s creative spirit, and of the interior life.  Read More 
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