Lately I’ve been pondering the similarities between the Little Mermaid and the Greek Lara.
“Lara, (also known as Larunda, Larunde and Mater Larum) was a naiad or a nymph and was the daughter of the river Almo. She was incapable of keeping secrets, and so revealed to Jupiter‘s wife Juno his affair with Juturna (Lara’s fellow nymph, and the wife of Janus); hence Her name is connected with lalein. For betraying his trust, Jupiter cut out Lara’s tongue and ordered Mercury, the psychopomp, to take Her to Avernus, the gateway to the Underworld and realm of Pluto. Mercury, however, fell in love with Larunda and made love to Her on the way; this act has also been interpreted as a rape. Lara thereby became mother to two children, referred to as the Lares, invisible household gods, who were as silent and speechless as She was. However, She had to stay in a hidden cottage in the woods so that Jupiter would not find Her.” -(http://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/lara/)
1. Mermaid or river nymph, both of these women are deeply associated with the element of water: with strong emotions, with flowing energies difficult to contain, and with intuitive wishes. The little mermaid wished for a new life and an eternal soul. Lara wished to live life openly and, already possessing an eternal life, wished to promote eternal promises. In order to anger two gods with one piece of news, one of them being Zeus, Lara must have felt very committed to fidelity, to openness and honesty, or to both. If she was truly so foolish that she couldn’t keep any secret it is difficult to believe Zeus would have left her able to speak before Hera got there. In both cases, this story is about a woman with strong desires and convictions, so strong that she couldn’t refrain from pursuing them. This woman spoke for themselves, in spite of the risks (facing the wrath of Zeus or forsaking home, family, and comfort).
2. This is a story about the woman with strong convictions who had her tongue cut out (in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, that’s what happens) as soon as she entered the masculine realm. Lara trespassed in Zeus’s affairs and Ariel entered the world of the prince. Both of these are men in authority who pay attention to their own interests at the expense of a woman’s entire life. Ariel is completely abandoned in favor of the girl the prince believes rescued him, left to die. Lara is sent with Mercury to exile in Hades. No indication that the masculine world does not welcome female input could be clearer.
3. In both of the stories, as soon as the woman loses her voice, she is placed Entirely under the power of a male. Hermes loved and laid with Lara when she was solely under his charge and had no recourse but him-whether she consented or not, she had no power or say whatsoever. Hermes had a desire and she could grant it or be in hell. Ariel’s life lies in the hands of the prince, dancing when he wishes her to dance even though each step feels like knives piercing her feet, going where he goes. Ariel does this willingly to try and attract the prince, but the command is his, the dominion is his, Ariel has no say. And not just because her tongue is cut out. The message is clear: let a woman lose her voice and she will lose every vestige of power.
4. The last stage of the story is rescue. On the verge of dying and dissolving as foam, the daughters of the air rescue the mermaid. “A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul…Unseen we can enter the houses of men, where there are children, and for every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know, when we fly through the room, that we smile with joy at his good conduct, for we can count one year less of our three hundred years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!”
The story explicitly states that Ariel’s entire destiny had always been in the power of another-singular. However, the daughters of the air, while having their own agency, are far from independent. Only by living for others, for giving her whole heart to promote their health, and by finding good children rather than bad can the strong-spoken woman be redeemed. She must give up her own convictions and become a servant, subjected to sorrow for indulging in emotions like tears, and tied explicitly to the welfare of children. Lara’s fate parallels this: she may live hidden in the woods where her only outlet and power lies in her children who may guard homes and family life, but cannot speak. This story invites women to live solely for their children, for their homes, to exist only as a caregiver for others. To attempt to help themselves would send Lara and Ariel both to death.
Yet, the woman in this story is speaking to us. Above all, this is the story about a woman who is a survivor. Muted since ancient Greece and deprived of her tongue again by Hans Christian Anderson, Lara is a goddess who persists with her message no matter what. By illustrating what can happen when the world of water is disparaged and people refuse to listen to their emotions, their intuition, and their attraction to eternal cycles, this story urges everyone to value that side of them. So often in this world we are cutting out the tongue of our own inner mermaids and naiads-refusing to care for our emotional side, and ignoring our intuitions. We admonish ourselves to give ourselves over to others rather than retain our own individual voices. We endure pain like knives piercing us with every step because we think it’s our duty to do things for the sake of others, even when they don’t notice. Lara’s story is here, surviving through Ariel’s tales, to remind us of the importance of having a voice. To remind us that deep emotions and intuitive desires can lead us where we need to go, that we should never be fully separated from them. To remind us to listen to that watery part of ourselves that knows how to imagine new things and follow our dreams. Forget about children’s behavior, this is a goddess who feels a little less sorrow every time we let our inner mermaids out and listen to our watery side. This is one of those rare times when Disney got something true: this whole story is about that voice. Without it Ariel is a shadow, dependent on her friends for help. With it, she is a princess and rescuer who can obtain anything she wants.
There’s a reason everyone who sees “The Little Mermaid” decides to dress up as the mermaid, not the human Ariel-they know what this woman’s voice is really saying: allow yourself the freedom to swim, to imagine, to feel, to sing…and to speak.