Closer Readings Commentary

"But Are Mermaids Real?"

This question was posed earlier this month by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. The answer NOAA gave included a little overview of the mythological and literary significance of "those half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea" including their first appearance "in cave paintings some 30,000 years ago, when modern humans gained dominion over the land and presumably, began to sail the seas."

NOAA stopped short totally denying the existence of these creatures of mystery and myth stating: "No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." They followed it with: "Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists." NOAA's sidebar links to an animated feature on Manatees 101 your students may enjoy viewing along with this whimsical Ocean Fact page.

In this line of questioning we find a complementary intersection of the STEM and the Humanities disciplines. In it, we find an opportunity to provoke classroom discussion and reflection in both Science and Humanities classes. Moreover, this theme can inspire imaginative expresssion as your students return to school fresh from their summertime activities including beachcombing (if your students are like my kids and still spend some of their beach time searching along the shore for shells?)

Interestingly, NOAA has a history of addressing legends relating to oceans, including Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle. One part of NOAA’s mission is public outreach, and if they get enough queries on a given topic (even a mythical one) they will address it. Keeley Belva, spokesperson for NOAA, called this "a fun way to talk about it and to have information up about mermaids in different cultures and to draw people into our website and learn more about what NOAA and the National Ocean Service does. NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them."

Of course, this question also lies in the domain of the Humanities. It is the subject of many masterworks and characters in literature, folklore, art and film. We hope your students will join us in celebrating the mystery of the sea and the lure of the underwater world in the figure of the mermaid.

The following EDSITEment and NEH resources can be adapted for all ages:

Grades K–2:

Unicorns, Dragons and other Magical Creatures takes advantage of students' interest in all things magical by helping them learn about fantastical creatures within a cultural and historical context.

Grades 3–5:

Hans Christian Andersen's Fairytales discusses the orginal,The Little Mermaid or `Den lille Havfrue' (1837) along with several other classic tales.

"Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live."

Grades 6–8:

Chronicles of EDSITEment: Beyond the Wardrobe on the occasion of the release of the long-awaited episode of the C.S. Lewis saga, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Students climb aboard to encounter a host of dragons, dwarves, merfolk, and a band of lost warriors, EDSITEment provides additional ways to engage their creative imaginations!

Grades 9–12:

Lesson 3: Navigating Modernism with J. Alfred Prufrock This lesson is the third part of the curriculum unit, Introduction to Modernist Poetry, and leads students through a close reading of this T.S. Eliot poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". You might ask students if they identify with the speaker and no longer hear them "singing" as they consider the ending passage of the poem:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water and back.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

– T.S. Eliot

NEH online exhibit, Arts for Water Spirits and Its Diasporas: Mami Wata, opens a window through artistic representation into a cultural experience of the mermaid. Students can view the many faces of Mami Wata ~ Mother Water, Goddess of oceans, river and pools of West and Central Africa with manifestations throughout the African Americas. This resource is available from EDSITEment-reviewed National Museum of African Art.

But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretense; and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.

– The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley