Phantom limbs and mer-prosthetics

In this joint essay, we explain some of the ideas that have come to tie the project together for us.

The site of the first Poems Underwater excursion was St Michael’s Church, Longstanton, and its disused baptismal well.

Bell tower, Longstanton

St Michael’s Church, Longstanton – Bell tower

One of the spookiest features of the church was the bell tower: it had no bells in, and the frayed rope looked like a snipped nerve. There was a sense of loneliness: the church could not summon anyone to it, and it could not ring a warning, as church bells traditionally do, if anyone was in danger (in a modern twist, church bells rang out a few years ago to signal danger to the climate).

This prompted us to start thinking about the ways in which phantom limbs used to be described using metaphors of bell ropes.

Phantom limbs and bell ropes

In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes described a young girl who experienced a phantom arm after her arm was amputated. In this, one of the earliest accounts of phantom limb syndrome, Descartes notes that the girl:

‘complained of feeling various pains in her fingers, wrist and forearm; and this was obviously due to the condition of the nerves in her arm which had formerly led from her brain to those parts of her body’.[1]

Commentators on Descartes’ analysis often used the image of the nerve as a rope pulling on the brain to explain why, even though a nerve is cut and shortened, it can still suggest to the brain that the arm is in place.[2]

Often, these commentators argued that the nerves are like bell ropes: just as a shortened bell rope can still ring a bell as well as a long bell rope can, a cut nerve sends exactly the same signals to the brain as an undamaged nerve does – fooling the brain into thinking that an amputated limb is still in place.

This metaphor gained hold; Silas Weir Mitchell wrote in the nineteenth century:

‘In other words, the nerve is like a bell-wire. You may pull it at any part of its course, and thus ring the bell as well as if you pulled at the end of the wire; but, in any case, the intelligent servant will refer the pull to the front door, and obey it accordingly’.

This idea has since been refuted; neurologists like VS Ramachandran have found that phantom limbs are not caused because nerves ‘pull’ on the brain like ropes, but because when a limb is amputated, the sense receptors in the lost limb are ‘recreated’ elsewhere in the body.[3]

Mermaids and amputations

Nevertheless the bell rope idea became richly suggestive for thinking about mermaids and amputations. Phantom bells ringing sailors to their doom are a pervasive feature of maritime and mermaid legends, including those of the sunken Suffolk village of Dunwich, the feature of a permanent exhibition in Orford (site of the second excursion), which was overwhelmed by the sea, and whose bells are still said to ring out threats and warnings.

And, in so many mermaid narratives, mermaids give up their tails in order to replace them with legs. Though Disney turned this into a magical transformation seemingly effected by means of some swirling smoke, many stories speak of mermaids physically ripping their tails apart in order that they may have legs. The pictures of mermaids’ tails made from twisted up tights in our gallery suggest translucent, phantom legs haunting the tail shape.

Andersen’s nameless Little Mermaid longs to be free of her tail in order to gain an immortal soul. Indeed, her grandmother tells her:

‘Your fish’s tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome.’

The Little Mermaid’s ‘fish’s tail’ is the key attribute dividing her from the ‘earth’ and keeping her from integration with the mysterious others (‘they’) who inhabit it. The telling one-remove possessive the grandmother chooses – a ‘fish’s tail’, not a hybrid mermaid’s – locates that tail firmly in the world of the sea, well away from any suggestion of uncertainty, and simultaneously distances the mermaid from her own body (which, thus, may not be her own).

The painful phantom

One of the most striking features of both mermaids’ new legs in mermaid narratives and medical accounts of phantom limbs is the emphasis on the pain of the transformed body.

In Anderson’s tale, though her ‘fish’s tail’ inhibits the mermaid’s spiritual development – her chance to gain a soul – the later acquisition of the necessary ‘stout props’ is equally disabling, since, once she actually gets on the earth, the mermaid’s steps become excruciatingly painful and every step feels like ‘treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives’.

For Andersen, this pain is morally justifiable, even desirable, because it is in the surface of spiritual attainment – the Little Mermaid’s pain, which she ‘bears willingly’ is comparable with bodily mortification or indeed the passion of Christ, and Andersen clearly approves of his heroine’s fortitude, though he refuses to give her a happy ending.

For the mermaid, then – particularly in Anderson – legs are often a means of coping with a particular desire to be human, to assuage a feeling that her current body and her current environment frustrate her desires. Her newly-acquired legs can be at once enabling in helping her to achieve this desire and disabling as they cause her excruciating pain.

Pare - prosthetic hand

Prosthetic hand, illustrated in Ambroise Pare’s Works

By the time Silas Weir Mitchell coined the term ‘phantom limb’ in his fictional Case of George Dedlow in the nineteenth century, cited above, the phenomenon of phantom pain had been documented for centuries. (Weir Mitchell’s story of phantom legs takes the idea very literally: the protagonist, George Dedlow, summons his amputated legs during a séance, and, because they have been preserved in alcohol, becomes drunk as soon as he puts them on and starts reeling and swaggering about on them: it’s a great story and you can read it online).

In 1551, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré notes (the following quotation is from the 1649 English translation of his works)

‘the Patient who have many moneths after the cutting away of the legge, grievously complained that they yet felt exceeding great paine of that Leg so cut off’.[4]

Paré did as much as he could for his patients – indeed, he patented some pretty cool prosthetic limbs like this iron hand that was filled with levers and cogs so that, when buttons were discretely pressed in the palm, it could gesture and grasp objects (above).

However, before anaesthetic, amputation was always a painful affair in itself: the use of a tightly tied ribbon near the amputation site was often the only means of pain relief, and the bone was subsequently sanded down with an ornate metal knife, its exquisite patterns no doubt filled with bacteria (as in the depiction of an amputation below, right).

Most of the treatises describing amputation from the early modern period are written by surgeons at sea (a popular example was John Woodall’s The Surgeon’s Mate of 1617, where the stylised picture below of an amputation in progress comes from), confirming the sea as a site of violent bodily transformation.

Early modern amputation

Early Modern amputation in progress from the early seventeenth century ‘The Surgeon’s Mate’. The nerves and blood vessels were often stretched out, as in this picture, then cauterised or tightly knit.

Today, scientific studies and first hand accounts from suffers, show that phantom pain manifests itself in many ways, for instance phantom hands may dig their fingernails constantly and excruciatingly into phantom arms.

The pain of the mermaid when she gets her legs, the feeling that she is walking on upturned knives or swords, consolidates this idea of the transformed mermaid’s body as a painful phantom.

Legs on land, fins in the water

In more recent pop cultural representations of the mermaid (for example the 1984 film Splash!) the mermaid, unlike Andersen’s, can go onto land with her tail – ‘she has fins in the water and legs out of the water’, as the film’s scientist villain explains – but this decision calls attention to the mermaid’s helplessness within the wrong environments.

Darryl Hannah’s mermaid, Madison, is disabled by the appearance of her fins on land, which incapacity allows her to be taken to a laboratory and experimented upon.

This is a typical 1980s addition to the standard fantasy plot (see also: ET) that attempts to locate the Splash! mermaid within some kind of ‘rational’ biology – the scientist leading the examination is particularly interested in finding out how Madison’s reproductive organs work, arguably the central mystery of the mermaid figure since its first appearance in Western art many centuries ago. He doesn’t get to find out, because the ailing Madison is carried back to the sea in a blanket, and allowed to swim away freely.

However, we found a several parallel examples of mermaid tails in the popular imagination as enablers. Alongside the idea of ‘phantom limbs’ is the contrasting one of prosthesis – etymologically an ‘addition’ or an ‘attachment’. This sense of growth through an external appendage is present in, for example, Eric Ducharme’s ‘Mertailor’ company – a niche business making ‘various mermaid tail products varying from swimsuit fabrics to realistic full body mermaid tail prosthetics’ for both commercial and recreational markets.


Ducharme’s website states he wants to ‘promote the idea of “mermaiding”’, which is presented as a kind of self-discovery through underwater swimming. Like his compatriot, Mermaid Melissa (a professional mermaid performer) – Ducharme’s story focuses on a sense of personal growth through an affinity with the sea. Quoted, Ducharme says:

‘It’s taken me a really long time to kind of understand my place in life […but] when I put on a tail I feel transformed. I feel like I’m starting to enter a different world.’

Andersen’s Little Mermaid might recognise the feeling of not understanding one’s ‘place’ in life, but misfits can attain border-crossings through Ducharme’s mermaid prosthetics in a manner alien to the physical brutality of Andersen’s hacked limbs and disabling steps.

Snipped bell ropes

Snipped bell ropes

Mermaid Melissa’s story, too, focuses on the idea that a sea-crazy child came into her own, as an adult, by ‘owning’ her mermaid passion – something that was always there, but had never before come through fully (whether because of suppression or unawareness is unclear).

Like Ducharme’s, Melissa’s is a tale of capitalist triumph and ‘girl done good’ happy ending: she manages to marketise her interest in mermaids to a mass audience and becomes a ‘mermaid for hire’, crossing from niche hobby and career misfit to semi-mainstream businesswoman.

These mermaid tail prosthetics provide access to another world – spiritual or psychological peace or exploration, career triumph – in a way that Andersen’s mermaid never experiences, even when she gets her much-desired legs. They also allow for an appropriation of the seas and sea mythology that is curatorial in both senses of the word, since there is also a strong ecological bent to both Ducharme and Mermaid Melissa’s work (Melissa’s strapline is ‘Saving the world’s oceans before all creatures become mythical’).

It’s an interesting parallel with the Angry Mermaid campaign against climate change, which appropriates Andersen’s own mermaid through the Copenhagen statue, and as with that campaign, these mer-businesspeople are using the boundary-crossing facilitated by mer-prosthetics to pull the concerns of one world into the public discussion of the other.


This becomes doubly interesting in the case of the prosthetic tail made for Nadja Vessey, a double amputee who commissioned Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop to make her a mermaid tail for swimming.

The Workshop had made mermaid tails before, but making one for a double amputee posed unique problems with mobility and weights, because Nadja was not able to manipulate the tail with her legs. These problems perhaps highlight the essential (and inaccurate) concept of the Ducharme / Melissa Mermaid franchise: that human and fish can be interchangeable, since both states rely on insistent use of legs to bring about the illusion of not having any.

Melissa’s tail in particular follows the line and movement of the human body beneath to the extent that it almost becomes unconvincing. Indeed both she and Ducharme (who spent childhood holidays at the Weeki Wachee Springs) are clearly in the tradition of the 1940s mermaid epitomised in ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ and synchronised swimmer Esther Williams, whose whole aesthetic is focused around the legs, thus highlighting the essential human-ness of these supposed magical beings with their slip-on tails.

Life within environments

This sense of being at home, or not at home in different environments, and how the body (or disabled body) might interact with different prostheses, takes on a new shape when comparing the mermaid idea with a work such as Sue Austin’s ‘Underwater Wheelchair’ performance work. Here, the artist – and her wheelchair – are filmed swimming underwater, in a project that (in the artist’s words) explores ways of ‘representing a strong and empowered image of disability’.

Portal’ (2007), the image produced as part of the project, showing the artist submerged underwater in her wheelchair seeks to ‘capture something of the experience of finding one’s identity being “submerged” by prejudice when acquiring a disability’ but also to ‘reshape cultural stereotypes associated with the wheelchair’.

As discussion around disability increasingly demands recognition for the significant impact of environments on the actual experience of being (or becoming) disabled, a work such as Austin’s asserts the perceived limitations of extreme environments (and, in metaphorical form, their power to efface ‘identifies’) whilst simultaneously seeking to ‘reshape’ those perceptions.

In bringing two worlds together it highlights the importance of environment for people who might find themselves marginalised and brings the question of identity to the fore.

These are some of the questions we’ve been exploring in response to the first two trips of the Poems Underwater project. Mermaids’ tails can prove both enabling and disabling, acting variously as phantom limbs or prosthetics – and it all comes together through this idea of an environment which accepts or rejects the mermaid. Though the mermaid’s body is neither ‘disabled’ , ‘ideal’, ‘able’, or ‘unable’ per se, she may encounter an environment which frustrates her desires, or makes it difficult to move. The environment itself, rather than her body, then, can be either disabling or enabling for the mermaid. The next trip is planned for very soon, and we look forward to seeing how these ideas might develop further in the context of a new space again.

[1] Rene Descartes, The philosophical writings of Descartes, trans. J. Cottingham et al, volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 64.

[2] For instance in his 1694 translation of Anthony LeGrand’s commentary on Descartes, the bookseller and author Richard Blome says ‘the Nerves, which came from the Brain to the Hand, upon the cutting off of her Arm, reacht no further than her Elbow, where being affected after the same manner, as they used to be when her Hand was yet pained, made her suppose, that she felt the same pain she formerly felt in her Fingers….As is manifest in a Rope, the End whereof may as well be pull’d or hal’d by that Part which is nearest to the midst, as by the other End opposite to it’, An Entire Body of Philosophy Relating to the Principles of Renate Des Cartes (London: Samuel Roycroft, 1694), Ddddv.

[3] VS Ramachandran and Sandra Blakesee, Phantoms in the Brain (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), 22-9, 45. Cf. JP Hunter, J Katz, and KD Davis, ‘The effect of tactile and visual sensory inputs on phantom limb awareness’, Brain (2003) 126, 579–89.

[4] The Workes of that Famous Chirugion Ambroise Parey, trans. Thomas Jonson (London: Richard Cotes, 1649), 773.