Mermaids: The official U.S. position (yes, there is one)

HANDOUT IMAGE: "Mermaids: The New Evidence" (Animal Planet) “Mermaids: The New Evidence” (handout image from Animal Planet)

Yes, there is an official U.S. government position on mermaids and the existence thereof.

Mermaids were in the news in recent days after Animal Planet broadcast a show called “Mermaids: The New Evidence,” a follow-up to last year’s “Mermaids: The Body Found.”  The new show earned the station its largest audience ever, my colleague Lisa de Moraes reported here. And, of course, that means Animal Planet won’t leave the subject alone and is now considering the next twist in the story.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was none too amused by the television shows’ claims that there is evidence that mermaids were/are real, and issued a statement on its Web site. It says:

Mermaids — those half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea — are legendary sea creatures chronicled in maritime cultures since time immemorial. The ancient Greek epic poet Homer wrote of them in The Odyssey. In the ancient Far East, mermaids were the wives of powerful sea-dragons, and served as trusted messengers between their spouses and the emperors on land. The aboriginal people of Australia call mermaids yawkyawks – a name that may refer to their mesmerizing songs.

The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species. Magical female figures first appear in cave paintings in the late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period some 30,000 years ago, when modern humans  gained dominion over the land and, presumably, began to sail the seas. Half-human creatures, called chimeras, also abound in mythology — in addition to mermaids, there were wise centaurs, wild satyrs, and frightful minotaurs, to name but a few.

But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · May 31, 2013

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