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Painting of a sailor embracing a nude mermaid rising up from the water

Mermaids and Their Terrible Infatuation with us Humans


As irresistible to us as we are to them, before a legend, mermaids were an actual danger.

The ocean is our alternate world, the most foreign of them all and, therefore, the most populated by mirrors and speculations. It was a ubiquitous ancient belief which stated that every terrestrial animal has to have its oceanic counterpart, and humans are not the exception. For the first there are “seahorses” and “sea elephants”, and for us there is a chimeric and elusive version: mermaids. She, like a true reflection of man, has a voice, and her voice is so irresistible because it speaks for the fishes and for the sea, which move silently, keeping a secret. If one thing characterizes a sea nymph it’s her voice and her terrible infatuation with us, the sailors.

Regardless of Disney wanting to redeem her from her essence, we all know that a mermaid is as enchanting as she is pernicious. She is a chimera that embodies the two components of a perfect oxymoron: water and earth, beauty and bestiality. ––As irresistible to us as we are to her. But the mermaid was not always an incredibly sexy and terrible myth (as Odysseus well knew when he ordered his crew to tie him to the ship’s mast and cover his ears with wax so he would not fall victim to the irrepressible desire to go with them when he heard their song); this prodigious animal has suffered as many mutations as is fit for imagination, and before being a myth it posed a great threat. An excellent trap for humankind’s sensitive weaknesses.

16th century writer and cartographer Olaus Magnus, whose famous Carta Marina obsessively catalogued the many monsters of Scandinavian seas, noticed that fishermen believed that if you catch a mermaid “and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall.”

The number of mermaid sightings boomed with the arrival of the Age of Discovery; several explorers described them as having admirable, venerable features of “otherness”.  It is well known that Christopher Columbus, for instance, reported to have seen mermaids during his journey through the Dominican Republic, although they were later thought to be manatees. What’s peculiar is that these men, aboard their luxurious ships, had the mermaid figure so present that —whether manatees or not— these would appear before them here and there during their navigations.

To hold folklore close to us is to make a call to all its creatures. And even if hugely desired by the solitude of sailors, merpeople have gradually disappeared due to our change of manners. Our encounters with them are less and less common perhaps due to survival, emotional hardening or technological evolution ––but we have become deaf to their song. History, however, tells us that the best way of seeing them is keeping them in mind —there lays the key to recover these beings that gather the two most foreign worlds of all and reconcile beauty with monstrosity.

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