The Mermaid: The Hetaira Aspect in Women
The other side of the wise hetaira is the foolish virgin who lives in the thrall of daemonic freedom; she belongs to no man because she still belongs to her father; her sacrifices are for him – an idol and ideal. She is free to be cared for by many people but rarely free enough to make a room of her own. In this sense she never grows up; she remains the puella aeterna, the girl or princess incapable of commitment because she does not know her own mind and heart. Her development is sacrificed in her dedication to the other: either the man who cuts off her hands and would keep her at home, or the father phallus that urges her constantly to express a sexual freedom that stunts her psychically.
The mermaid, like the puella aeterna, is either sad, because she knows that the source of her allure will keep her from being truly recognised, or she is frightened, because she feels deeply resistant to looking into her own nature. She does not want to leave the ‘parents’ by admitting to and managing the culpability of her own childishness, which is concomitant with bouts of elation and a sense of inflation one minute, and fear and shrinking away the next. She has no capacity to perception check, claiming her highs as her own brilliance and desirability, and her lows as caused by others’ cruelty and callousness. She closes her eyes so as to remain in her known story, the prevailing fiction, and uses the busyness of the man/the outside/her cultural roles as a shield to protect her from this inferior and healing view.
It takes great courage for a woman to pull her ‘fish nature’ up into the air where it can be seen. This would mean revealing the coldness concealed beneath her charm or the selfishness beneath her apparent ability to please everybody. When a woman can too easily change her hue, her costume, her face value to suit the desires of an onlooker, she comes to experience herself as slippery and ultimately unembraceable. If she can tolerate the depth-revealing mirror towards herself, she may be able to break the enchantment.
This aspect of the feminine remains immature until surrender becomes possible: not surrender to an intruding masculine principle, but surrender to the full impact of an unrealised self. The puella aeterna grows up when she takes hold of herself; this occurs when she is excited by her own latent possibility, without having to rely on the gaze of the father or the lover to move her. She is paradoxically then capable of companionship. Having once taken hold of herself, she is then able to give herself completely to the work of relationship.
The flow toward a world blocked by a father fixation can be freed by showing a girl the values specific to the feminine, or by redirecting the father-held energy into a love relationship. But later in life, the situation is different and demands a different solution. In the second half of life, liberation from the past is not enough; a solution can only come through a doubling of vision, a darkening of the eye, so as to see, experience and accept the problem of opposites. To be able to hold in dynamic tension the adapted clever, capable one and the embarrassing, outcast, vegetative one, in spite of one’s knee-jerk reaction to defend against the ensuing internal chaos and contradictory pulls. Jung referred to this as the activation of ‘the transcendent function,’ which results in a new experience of the self that includes but does not identify with either. It takes one outside the confusing patterns of social expression into an inner realm where symbols of heights and depths actively weld together fragments of conscious and unconscious; energy and content are overcome or transcended by the fabrication of a new image or value that unites what was broken and scattered.
adapted by sb from Nor Hall, The Moon and the Virgin p152-155