Pastoral Perspectives

Of myths, mermaids and God-given identity

Recently, in the Life section of Straits Times, there was an article entitled “Step aside Merlion, meet the merpeople of Singapore” (28 May, 2023) which featured a subculture known as “mermaiding”. While some may consider mermaiding as a form of artistic expression or water-based recreational activity, not unlike “land-dwellers” who engage in cosplay, it appears that these days, mermaiding is more than just about dressing up as mermaids or mermen.

Apart from wearing mermaid tails, these individuals may swim in elaborate costumes and participate in underwater performances or community-based events. Many would also pay to take lessons and learn specialized swimming techniques to mimic the graceful movements associated with mermaids. Not surprisingly, there is now even an industry that markets mermaid diving as a creative branch of freediving to differentiate itself from recreational mermaiding where one swims leisurely with other mermaids.

According to Syrena Neo, one of the pioneers promoting mermaiding in Singapore, she says “Mermaiding is a lifestyle. It’s about the magic, the culture, and the community. I want to transport people into a space of weightlessness, freedom and unbridled joy. After all, if you can be a graceful, powerful mythical creature – you can be anything.

When I first read her comment, I must confess I felt somewhat bemused that there would be those who attach so much significance to a leisure activity where one assumes an identity that is detached from reality. After all, I think even Syrena herself would agree that as much as these half-human and half-fish aquatic creatures may appear in folklores and myths from various cultures around the world, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that any of them exist.

It would be interesting to find out when did mermaiding become a trend and what led to its growing popularity. After all, in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”, first published in 1837, the main character who was actually unnamed comes across as a rather ill-fated character. Furthermore, given the bittersweet ending in the original story, I doubt that she is the inspiration behind those who are into mermaiding these days. In the first place, the Little Mermaid had naively believed that happiness could be found on land instead. But in the end, things do not turn out the way she desired. The story ends with her body dissolving into foam but instead of ceasing to exist, the Little Mermaid ends up becoming some kind of ethereal spirit who is given a chance to earn her own soul and to rise up to heaven when she has done good deeds for humankind over a period of 300 years.

Given that these days people tend to put much more emphasis on self-expression and personal fulfilment and value highly their individual rights to define themselves freely without having to conform to societal norms, it is no wonder that what constitutes a mermaid’s identity is rather fluid. In the first place, the goal of mermaiding was never to conform to any particular version of a mermaid such as the one portrayed in Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.

Instead, it seems that every individual is free to choose which version of a mermaid he or she aspires to be. Nevertheless, I suspect that if one wishes to add a shark-like fin unto one’s back, those in the mermaiding community may brand him or her as a sell-out.

But barring those who wish to test the boundaries, it appears from the testimonies of those featured in Straits Times’ article, putting on a monofin in the design of mermaid tails has and can somehow transform them into a happier and better version of themselves in contrast to when they are walking on two legs. In other words, mermaiding is a means to an end. More than just an enjoyable hobby, mermaiding has helped them to satisfy some yearning which they were unable to satisfy when they were merely “human”.

I suppose that as long as mermaiding does not significantly interferes with one’s daily life or becomes indicative of a deeper psychological or emotional issue, there is little cause for concern. After all, people have different interests or hobbies that they engage in as a form of escape, enjoyment or creative expression.

Nevertheless, as with anything, we as Christians need to be mindful that nothing becomes more important to us than God and that nothing occupies our heart or captivates our imagination more than God. So if someone ever feels that his or her life will have more value and significance only when they get to put on a mermaid tail, then mermaiding has probably become an idol in their lives.

As humans who are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), God has set humanity apart from all other creatures with unique characteristics and capacities that are meant to resemble our Creator such as in the area of reason, morality, creativity and capacity for offering worship unto God. In addition, we see that God has given humanity inherent dignity and honour (Psalm 8:5-8) and has called us be a faithful steward as we humbly and wisely exercise dominion over all of creation on behalf of God (Gen 1:28-31, 2:15).

With this in mind, I hope that we will realise that putting in all the efforts to become like a mermaid can easily lead to a departure from one’s true calling and identity and a “downgrade” of joy and meaningfulness that comes with knowing God and doing his will. This is also true of any other identity that we may try to take on or identify ourselves with that is apart from the one God has already graciously given us and called us to live out.

Indeed, our lives here on earth are not meant to be spent on some vain hope of trying to become someone we were never meant to be. Instead as Apostle John encouraged us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3). Why would we aspire to be anything else when the most gracious and powerful being took on the likeness of men (Philippians 2:6-8) so that one day we can truly be like him?