‘Beyond Mermaids’

The story of mermaids goes back to AD 100, when Roman gods took pity on a beautiful priestess named Atargatis. Photo courtesy everythingmermaid.com

In ancient Roman times, Atargatis was a beautiful and powerful priestess who fell in love with a human shepherd boy. He, simply being mortal, did not survive her divine lovemaking and died. She became pregnant with his baby and soon became distraught and remorseful. After the birth of a baby girl named Semiranis on the shore, she threw herself into the ocean to drown. Her beauty was so great that the gods did not let her die, but changed her into a mermaid. Not only did she become a mermaid, but a goddess of the seas. Half woman and half fish, Atargatis was depicted as having long, flowing hair like the water. Legend has her as the first mermaid, around AD 100.

Why the repetitive nature of mermaid sightings over such a long history? Why have these waterborne nymphs endured, and become so fixed in the public consciousness for so many centuries?

Historical accounts of mermaids, such as those reported by Christopher Columbus during his exploration of the Caribbean, may have been inspired by manatees and similar aquatic mammals. While there is no hard evidence that mermaids exist outside folklore, reports of mermaid sightings continue to the present day, including 21st century examples such as a supposed sighting in Israel posted on YouTube: https://bit.ly/2TZcr4a. It’s fascinating to read what’s written in the comments section of the video. It’s clear that a few obviously relish being skeptics, but so many clearly just want to believe. And why not? To date we’ve only explored 5% of the ocean, and the deeper it gets the more mysterious it becomes in our world, a world that’s 72% water, just as we humans are 72% water. Odd about that number: In a 2017 Wakefield Research study, 72% of those surveyed say they feel healthier after spending time on the water. Ultimately, the appeal of mermaids to humans may have a lot to do with water. It may have to do with what’s called the “blue mind.” Neuroscientists have found that even just looking at water can trigger feelings of wellness, compassion, empathy and happiness. Blue mind separates us from the pressures and distractions of life. According to psychologist Dr. Paul Piff of the University of California, water is the number one source of awe, which is the “feeling of connection to something larger than ourselves, no matter whether that awe is created by dramatic experiences or by visions.” Awe is an important emotion that helps us get outside ourselves. Of course, many humans love to tightly embrace reality, if only to dignify their limitations, as if afraid to challenge the “impossible.”

Yet mermaids continue to grow stronger in the public domain. There’s a drinking establishment in Sacramento, Calif., called Dive Bar, where professional mermaids (and mermen; though the mermaids are more popular) perform routines in a 40-foot aquarium. We also have Fin Fun, just one of many brands creating and selling mermaid fish-tail swimwear for adults and children. Fin Fun alone sells 50,000 mermaid tails per month! Mermaid exercise classes have come into vogue. There’s now an International Mermaid Swimming Instructor’s Association. There’s an influx of Young Adult novels about mermaids. And, of course, we’re constantly reminded of mermaids from the countless printed and artistic consumer mermaid products we see in gift shops. If you look at the site Shutterstock, you’ll find nearly 10,000 shots of mermaids. Finally, of course, there were the phenomenal successes of such films as “The Little Mermaid” and “Splash.”

Minnie and Maisie came along to me in the 1950s, in the form of my dad’s stories of mermaids. That was nearly 2,000 years after Atargatis. And then, a few years after Dad’s stories, in 1959, as a young boy rounding a bend in a remote Maine cove, I stumbled upon two mermaids. I wrote about that incident in a book called “Watching for Mermaids,” remembering when I was looking at two creatures curled against a smooth boulder near the sea. They glistened in the sunlight, their lower halves like scales . . . shiny, reflective. Their upper torsos were soft, pink and smooth like the morning’s sunrise, or like the skin on my friend Johnny Wyman’s baby sister. Motionless, mesmerized, my eyes wide with wonder, I simply and silently mouthed one word: “mermaids.” One of the creatures was running her hands through her long black hair. Her back was arched, her head tipped back. Then she shook her head, and ran her hands through her hair again. I looked at her whole body, up and down, over and over, my eyes stopping – I was a boy, after all – in a predictable place. I looked at her face, and thought of the paintings of angels I’d seen at the museum, faces smooth and rosy with the kind of pink that comes from being a bit embarrassed. But, the tail. It was definitely a tail, and it was bent around, partly under a rock, where the other creature, who looked about the same, lay curled up, perhaps sleeping. It was all too much for a little boy, and I backed away slowly. They were probably 150-feet off, and hadn’t heard or seen me. Never taking my eyes off of them, I backed around the corner of protruding rock and jutting shore that protected the cove until the mermaids were out of sight. Then I leaned against the ledge, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, counted to 10, and looked around the corner again. They were still there. Perhaps I had Minnie and Maisie in mind from Dad’s stories several years earlier, when the seeds of imagination, of possibility, of belief in what could be, were planted.

We never know what could be until it is.

Maybe what mermaids represent is what’s true to all of us in our lives: magic, mystery, possibility, uncertainty, romance, and joy – as we swim along, through life’s tangles, knots and bends.

David Roper, whose eyes always twinkle when answering the inevitable “C’mon, really?” question in the affirmative, has a forthcoming book: “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends (a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller available on amazon.com) will be published in 2019.

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