The Shape of Water: A Look Below the Surface at the World of Mermen

March 8, 2018

The film The Shape of Water received thirteen Oscar nominations and won four (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score). The film follows the romance between a custodian at a secret government laboratory and a captured human-like amphibian creature.

The creature’s origins are not clear; he (the gender is eventually revealed in an unusually mainstream passing reference to bestiality) may be a demigod, or a member of some unknown species. Though not specifically described as a merman–the story was inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon–the creature nonetheless shares many features of classical mermen.

Merfolk are the marine version of half-human, half-animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages. Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions worship mermaid goddesses to this day.

Though not as well known as their comely female counterparts, there are of course mermen–and they have a fierce reputation for summoning storms, sinking ships, and drowning sailors. One especially feared group, the Blue Men of the Minch, are said to dwell in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. They look like ordinary men (from the waist up anyway) with the exception of their blue-tinted skin and grey beards. Local lore claims that before laying siege to a ship the Blue Men often challenge its captain to a rhyming contest; if the captain is quick enough of wit and agile enough of tongue he can best the Blue Men and save his sailors from a watery grave.

According to the Advanced Dungeon & Dragons Monstrous Manual, “Adult mermen are five to six feet long, and weight between 150 and 225 pounds. Their skin tone is fair to tan, hair color is usually dark brown, while their scale color ranges from green to silver… Mermen adorn themselves with coral and shell decorations,” live to be about 150, and speak their own languages. Mermen society is described as “heavily patriarchal” and strongly territorial. Like the Blue Men, mermen can be vicious warriors and attack with tridents, daggers, and crossbows.

In her book Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend and Myths, folklorist Carol Rose describes mermen of Irish traditions called the Merrow: “The mermen are ugly with green skin, teeth, and hair but a sharp red nose and tiny, narrow eyes. They all have webbed fingers and are able to shape-shift from the appearance of land animals or humans to that of marine dwellers by way of a magical red feather cap.” Unlike the Blue Men of the Minch in neighboring Scotland, “The Merrows are usually of a peaceful and benevolent nature toward humans, often intermarrying.” (Perhaps the creature from The Shape of Water is a Merrow, and his backstory will be told in a sequel.)

Though merfolk are fictional, now and then they get a boost of credibility. In 2012 an Animal Planet special, “Mermaids: The Body Found,” renewed interest in mermaids. It presented the story of scientists finding proof of real mermaids in the oceans. It was fiction but presented in a fake-documentary format that seemed realistic. The show was so convincing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received enough inquiries following the TV special that theyissued a statement officially denying the existence of mermaids.

In folklore mermaids were often associated with misfortune and death, luring errant sailors off course and even onto rocky shoals (the terrifying mermaids in the 2011 film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides are closer to the legendary creatures than is Disney’s Ariel). Mermaids may be ancient, but they are still with us in many forms and their images can be found all around us.