The sexuality of the sea

I mentioned in my post about the symbology of the sea that sexuality is often associated with it.  We saw in that post that the sea is considered to be fertile, to be creative, to be the mother of all life.  And so it is only a footstep away from sexuality.

We have also seen that water is often considered to be feminine, tying in again with the maternal aspect but we also find bodies of water dedicated to women.  There are myths about water being created by women or gifted to women by deities.  And of course we have Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and pleasure, who is born from the sea.

Many writers have made use of this construct including Emily Dickinson, using the sea to express wild sensual passion, but the poem I want to consider is by Mary Oliver:

The Sea

Stroke by
stroke my
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself—-
fins, gills
opening like flowers into
the flesh—-my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales
shingling
the rest of me would
feel like!
paradise! Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding,
and dive,
and simply
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
sleeking along
in the luminous roughage of the sea’s body,
vanished
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
perfect
beginning and
conclusion of our own.

Having written it out in word, got the formatting just right, I lost it when it came into wordpress.  I don’t have the patience to make it look right but I do encourage you to have a look at it formatted correctly.

I really like the way she has used line length and structure here to echo the crashing of waves on the sea and the ebbing and flowing of the body.  I read the poem on a blog initially where it was typed without form then turned to my book of her poetry and found it there in this structure.  That in itself was interesting as I’ve never been so moved by the way words are set out before and I think if I’d gone straight to the printed version I would have missed that.

My reading of this poem is that the narrator is experiencing an orgasm after a bit of a drought.  It also reminds me of the selkie and mermaid stories where women who lived in the sea were tricked into living on land, for example by men who stole their seal furs.  It is the longing to return to this former life.  And perhaps also the longing of women who’ve always lived on land to return to their ancestral roots, back so far in time that they were sea creatures, or even back so far that they were the sea itself.  The narrator is becoming one with the sea, echoing a sexual union.

As well as selkies and mermaids, we also find sirens living in the oceans.  All three have been portrayed as sexual, manipulative and dangerous creatures.  Perhaps it is not surprising they have a bad reputation given that they tend to lure men into their worlds and men tell the narrative of our world.

Mermaids and sirens charmed sailors and fishermen with their melodious voices and once they succumbed, they would be dragged down into the depths.  These ‘femmes fatales’ were said to shipwreck entire vessels to fulfil their sexual desires.  To see one would be an omen of disaster but also by being seen by a mermaid or siren, you could become the object of their malevolence.

The original version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid does not provide the reader with the same happy ending you find in the Disney version.  Jen Campbell has a good video about this, but don’t say I didn’t warn you when it turns dark…

Mermaids sometimes fare better than sirens and in some cultures are considered lucky.  Mermen, perhaps unsurprisingly, also have a better reputation – in Trinidad and Tobago, they would grant wishes, transform mediocrity into genius and give wealth and power.

Whether they are kindly, evil, or somewhere in between, mermaids and similar sea people have featured in mythology around the world for a long time.  We find them depicted in Mesopotamian artwork, on a chapel in Durham Castle dating back to about 1078, later in a 15th century compilation of quotes from Chinese literature we find a mermaid who “wept tears which became pearls” and we still find them in our literature, art and folklore today.

Further Reading

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