The Little Mermaid - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Little Mermaid
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Little Mermaid is most familiar to modern audiences via Disney’s animated version. Tremendous liberties were taken with Andersen’s story in order to make it a “feel-good” children’s movie, not least providing a happy ending, conspicuously lacking in the original.

Andersen’s The Little Mermaid tells the tale of the unnamed daughter of the Sea King, the youngest of six sea-princesses. The point is early made and continually emphasized that only humans have immortal souls; sea-spirits do not. Good deeds aren’t sufficient: the only way for our little sea-princess to win an immortal soul is if a human man falls completely in love with her, marries her in a church ceremony, and is faithful throughout eternity. (Thankfully these aren’t requirements for human women!) If this happens, the man’s soul will flow into the sea-spirit: his soul is large enough for both of them.

In Andersen’s story, this immortal soul is as attractive to the sea-princess as the handsome prince she saves from a shipwreck. She decides to try to win him and an immortal soul. To do so, she journeys to the sea-witch, who resembles an underwater Baba Yaga.

The nameless witch knows what the nameless sea-princess wants without being informed. She describes her desire as “stupid” and explicitly informs the little mermaid that it will bring misfortune. The price of the potion that creates legs is the little mermaid’s beautiful voice, not because (as in Disney’s version) the witch craves it for herself but because the mermaid must pay the best thing she owns in exchange for this valuable potion containing the witch’s own blood. (The sea-witch is depicted drawing drops of “black blood” from her breast, lest anyone suspect any other kind of blood was used.) The plan, as the witch foresaw, does not succeed.

The sea-witch makes one final appearance, albeit offstage. When the little mermaid’s plan fails, her five sisters trade their hair with the sea-witch in return for a magical knife. If the little mermaid will use this knife to stab her beloved prince, who’s now married another, in the heart, allowing his blood to drip on her feet, her tail will reappear and she may resume existence as a mermaid. The mermaid considers this briefly, but throws herself and the knife overboard instead.

The Little Mermaid derives from Andersen’s imagination, not ancient folk-tradition. Rusalka and Nixies notably sprout mermaid’s tales in the water, effortlessly and painlessly developing legs whenever they wish to walk on land. Rusalka and Nixies are notoriously athletic; they enjoy dancing, and nimbly climb trees—as opposed to the Little Mermaid whose legs are described as feeling as if they’re being run through with a sharp sword.

Commentators typically interpret this as the little mermaid’s ultimate rejection of “black magic” and thus as the act that earns her ultimate “reward”: she does not dissolve into sea foam as feared but is gathered up among the “daughters of the air.” Like sea-spirits, they lack souls but, unlike them, they are able to earn souls by doing good deeds for three hundred years.

The Little Mermaid concludes as a morality tale: children’s good behavior shortens the time required for these daughters of the air to acquire souls. Bad, disobedient children lengthen this probationary period. The moral of the story thus is that next time, dear child, you consider not obeying your parents remember that you are personally lengthening the little mermaid’s purgatory.

See also Russian Fairy Tales; ANIMALS: Frogs, Snakes; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Disney Witches; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Nixie, Rusalka; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Menstrual Power.