Mermen, Otters and Bears

I’ve always had an interest in shapeshifting, in the ability to switch between bodily forms, or to exist as a human/animal hybrid. But I’d not really thought about it from a Queer perspective, so this post is very much a beginning.

Of course, we are animals, and the animal/human divide is a false one. In Queer River I’ve looked at where the river ends or begins, where the land and water meet, above and below the surface, and the urban and the rural. All divisions or boundaries that we are familiar with in word and idea, but which dissolve away through the embodied experiences of the more than human, watery world.

Shapeshifting 1 – Collage c.2010

When I first Googled Mermen images (the main watery human/animal hybrid that I could think of) a lot of homoerotic imagery appeared. Muscular, wet, beardy mermen on t-shirts and other merchandise, catching the eye of the viewer and attracting the attention of the pink pound.

In reading about mermaids and sirens, I discovered that their role was often to seduce male sailors with their beauty and lead them to their death.

“Historically I think we have always cast mermaids’ freedom and sexual power as something dangerous [luring men away from home, dashing ships on rocks] and harmful to communities…Mermaids were an object lesson to young girls, teaching them that pursuing their appetites and desires is selfish and destructive. Nowadays there is such a movement to reclaim women’s sexual agency that it makes sense we are also reclaiming mermaids at the same time.”

Hermes Gowar

Which left me wondering about the role of Mermen, and their links with gender and sexuality. What’s on offer for the queer sailors? And what happens in rivers? Are there river based mer-people too?

On Twitter, Artist Mike Darling pointed me towards The Blue Men of the Minch, not based in rivers, but male nonetheless:

‘…mythological creatures inhabiting the stretch of water between the northern Outer Hebrides and mainland Scotland, looking for sailors to drown and stricken boats to sinkThe blue men swim with their torsos raised out of the sea, twisting and diving as porpoises do. They are able to speak, and when a group approaches a ship its chief may shout two lines of poetry to the master of the vessel and challenge him to complete the verse. If the skipper fails in that task then the blue men will attempt to capsize his ship.’

In Scandinavia Mermen are often said to appear in rivers as well as in the sea:

‘The legends said that mermen were shapeshifters, able to transform themselves into different shapes as quickly as sunlight reflecting in water. Contrary to more modern versions of the mermen scantily clad, legendary mermen often appeared in full dress attire playing the violin in rivers and waterfalls or materializing as an animal, especially as a river horse. Scandinavian names for the mermen like Naack and Nokk came from the old Norse nykr, which means “river horse.”’

And in Australian Aboriginal mythology the Bunyip is said to inhabit a range of wetland environments:

He dwells in swamps, lakes, rivers, and even in aquatic environments that routinely drain during the dry season, like waterholes and billabongs. Although he is typically considered to be an aquatic creature, he has been sighted lumbering over land as well. Originally (it) went by a different name in each indigenous tribe: the Wowee-wowee, the Yaa-loo, the Kianpraty, the Dongu, and more. When Europeans got their hands on these various monsters, they united them under the single most popular name: Bunyip.

As I’ve been reading more, all sorts of Queer pathways have started to spring up, from the linking of trans people with mer-people (including the naming of Mermaids, the childrens and young people’s charity), and the fact that bisexual Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid as a way of exploring the feelings around his unrequited love for a straight, male friend.

Right now I’m exploring what happens in the meeting of homoerotic imagery of same sex attraction, and stories that blur the line between human and animal/elemental. It’s made me think of the categories in gay slang/subcultures, which draw on body shape/type, and link them with the names of animals. The bear, otter, or cub for example (the giraffe was a new one on me).

‘The term ‘bear’ was popularized by Richard Bulger, who, along with his then partner Chris Nelson (1960–2006), founded Bear Magazine in 1987. There is some contention surrounding whether Bulger originated the term and the subculture’s conventions. George Mazzei wrote an article for The Advocate in 1979 called “Who’s Who in the Zoo?”,[2] that characterized gay men as seven types of animals, including bears.’

I guess there’s a danger that by using this kind of terminology we move from the queerness of freedom from categorisation, back into stereotypes. I prefer the freedom to be me that identifying as queer provides, rather than the need to fit in that gay culture sometimes seems to demand. But there’s also a positivity that comes with being able to feel a sense of belonging, to be a bear among other bears for example (I’m too tall to be a bear but don’t fancy being a Giraffe).

I’m more attracted by the hairy animality that being a bear or otter suggests, and the kinship with wild animals that implies, rather than the glitteriness of a cartoon influenced, rainbow coloured, mer-person. Similarly the attraction for me of animal/human hybrids is visceral, it’s about skin and sinew, seaweed and salt, becoming half-wild.

So my interest in this area isn’t about the grouping of people into ‘types’, but about the thinning of the cultural/perceptual barriers that have been set up (in contemporary Western culture at least) between people and (other) animals, so that we can start to slip between the two. As with everything Queer River, this strand of research aims to both explore and go beyond the lines that we draw between us, and I’ve started some collages to help me do that.

Merman Collage, July 2021

Ways of making that combine together disparate imagery and materials seem appropriate to exploring Queerness. Collage lets me bring elements together that ‘shouldn’t’ coexist. Multiple exposure photographs and layered video resist the viewer’s urge to define and categorise. Through them I can create a world where we become both this and that, human and animal.

Merman Collage, July 2021
Mermen Collages, July 2021

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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