Mermaids have appeared in the oral and written traditions of cultures for thousands of years. According to a Syrian myth, 3,000 years old, the beautiful goddess, Atargatis, dove into the sea to become a fish. Smitten with her beauty, the gods intervened and let only the bottom half of her body transform itself.
A thousand years later, Pliny the Elder, a well-educated Roman philosopher and naturalist, not only believed in the existence of mermaids but described them in what was the prototype of the modern encyclopedia.
And though most people are familiar with mermaids, I bet many aren’t familiar with their close relatives, water sprites or naiads. The difference is that mermaids are physical beings like humans whereas naiads are less physical and more spirit. Most will not harm you unless disturbed. I know a lot of women today who are like that.
People who dismiss mermaids as a fairy tale are making a big mistake. Throughout history, quite a few intelligent people have sworn to sighting mermaids. Christopher Columbus in his journal noted that he and his men spotted three mermaids in the Caribbean just off Haiti though he was not impressed with them. In fact, he thought they were downright ugly.
I can’t help but wonder what the mermaids thought of him. The native peoples whom he brutalized weren’t particularly impressed with him either. Then there’s the explorer Henry Hudson who, with his men, spotted a mermaid and described her in detail in his log.
“She had the tail of a porpoise and was speckled like a mackerel…” When she turned over, his men discovered “From the navel up, her back and breasts were like a woman’s, her body as big as one of us; her skin very white with long black hair…”
If someone as sober and serious as the great explorer Henry Hudson is so certain of what he saw, it becomes difficult to reject the notion that these lovely aquatic creatures exist.
A few mermaids have the reputation of being downright dangerous. Some have been accused of dragging unsuspecting sailors off their ships and drowning them. Homer tells how Odysseus, on his journey home from war, encountered sirens. These seductive, mermaidlike creatures sang so beautifully that sailors, unable to resist steering their ship towards them, ended up dying on the rocky shore.
Odysseus was clever though. He had his men tie him to the mainmast of the ship with orders not to pay attention to him when they sailed past the sirens. Next, he had his men put wax in their ears. When they passed the sirens, only Odysseus was able to hear their seductive songs and howled for his men to steer towards them. More people should be as wise as Odysseus. I think the world would be in much better shape.
Another story recounts a young man taken by a mermaid below the sea where he fathered a family with her. I bet she was a lot prettier than the mermaids Columbus spotted. In fact, for him to father many children, she must have been a knockout.
In Medieval times, mermaids, with their voluptuous breasts exposed, appeared as figureheads at the end of church pews to remind friars to be ever vigilant to the temptations of the flesh. I don’t know about those monks, but if I were in that pew, I would have been meditating on all the fun we would have after a day at the beach.
But who knows? Maybe those carvings increased the religious fervor of the monks. I, for one, would be showing up at chapel early, knowing I had one of God’s beautiful creatures to meditate on. At the very least, I’d be praying that she’d come alive.
Some people are surprised to learn that when mermaids come ashore, they can grow legs, though it becomes extremely painful for them to walk. Hans Christen Anderson was following tradition when he had his mermaid walking with great pain in The Little Mermaid.
Throughout history, there have been accounts of mermaids who were captured by men. Eventually, they escaped, but not without great consternation and pain. And I think that’s a shame. No creature should be taken from the sea and be treated as a pet or an oddity. Not mermaids, not dolphins, and certainly not whales That’s why the folks at SeaWorld and those who visit them should be filled with shame. How would you like it if dolphins captured you and made you do stupid tricks for the amusement of their friends when all you want is to be free and with your family?
I’ve always been fascinated with mermaids, and I guess that’s why I’ve been married to one for forty-five years. And before you think I’ve been drinking too much of Blackbeard’s rum, let me point out my wife has all the traits of a mermaid. She’s beautiful, mysterious, seductive, charming, and enchanting. Her long, red hair, streaming in the wind or the sea, always confirms my suspicions.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, you should know that mermaids also have the power to grant someone their wishes. I can’t tell you how many wishes my mermaid has granted me over the years. And I’m not revealing what they were either.
The skeptics, no doubt, think I’ve gone off the deep end. But if you want to live with a mermaid, you have to go into the deep where they live. Besides you know what they say. If it looks like a mermaid, sings like a mermaid, and swims like a mermaid, it must be a mermaid.
Christmas and Hanukah will soon be upon us, and I want to wish all the mariners and mermaids out on the sea and those who journey no farther than their living room chair, a wonderful holiday season.
I invite you to let me know if you suspect you’re a mermaid or know a mermaid personally.
The Uncommon Mariner