Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More on Mermaids

Hi again. Sorry for no update last week, but I was a little busy. The reason why I'm revisiting the topic of mermaids is because I don't feel like I covered enough about them last time. Like dragons, there are so many myths and legends surrounding them that I had to do another blog post discussing what the ancient civilizations thought of these ancient creatures. First on the list is Greek culture.

In Greek legends, Triton, son of Poseidon was held to be the father of the mermaids and mermen. Instead of mermaids, however, they were simply known as Tritons and were often seen around the gods of the sea. Their appearance was also described as being more shark-like than what we have today. Some people may think that Poseidon had the basic appearance of a merman, but that is false. That was how his son Triton looked. Another myth of a sea god (though not as well known) is the tale of Glaucus. Glaucus was a fisherman who, after seeing his catch acting strangely, tasted some magic grass and was filled with a love for the sea. Poseidon called together many river gods and they made Glaucus a god of the sea, sealing the deal by giving him the tail of a fish. Therefore, we can conclude that the mermaids and mermen of Greek mythology were basically either gods or servants of the sea gods.

The mermaids of the Norse culture were called selkies, and were basically seals who took human form when they took off their seal skin. Legends vary at how often this would occur. Some say that it could only happen once a year, others say it only happens on Midsummer's eve. These legends say that humans could marry selkies, but very differently. Women had to shed seven tears into the sea to attract the love of a male selkie, while men had to simply capture the skin of a female selkie. This prevented them from returning to the sea and effectively made her his wife. It would appear that selkies were a type of wild person who could become tame if captured.

The Arabs also had their own tales of mermaids. Most of the time they were gods or goddesses of the sea (like Atargatis, who could not conceal her beauty no matter what). However, there were civilizations of merfolk who lived just like people do on the surface (and breeding between the two species did occur, with the result being children with the ability to breathe underwater). One tale from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights tells of how a sailor was brought to a mermaid city, where they lived in a society without money or clothing. Still, for the most part, the Arabs talked about how the societies of mermaids lived, something the rest of the ancient world didn't think of.

The British Isles had many tales of mermaids, most of the time taking a page from the Greek myths of the sirens and making them out to be a bad omen. They thought that if something bad happened, it was the work of a mermaid (whether they were trying to prevent it or not). They were also capable of swimming up rivers and living in freshwater lakes. One nobleman sought to rescue a woman he thought was drowning, but was saved by his servant who saw the maiden as a mermaid. The mermen were often wilder than their female counterparts, but basically had no part in the affairs of humans. Guess they enjoyed what they had under the sea.

Well, that's basically it for the ancient tales of mermaids. There tales of them in China, the Caribbean, and Africa, but unfortunately there wasn't enough to cover in this blog. I think that for the most part we like the modern tales of mermaids as half-fish people who love music and have civilizations under the ocean. I'm pretty sure that has long as we keep telling tales of mystical lands, we will tell tales of the mermaids and mermen.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sailors, Curses, and Mermaids. Oh My!

I meant to do this yesterday with the release of Captain Jack Sparrow's new adventure in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but unfortunately that didn't happen. I'll try to do better next week with blogging, but don't worry. I won't stay off for months. Anyway, on with the blog.

Ever since the release of the first film in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean has captured the imagination of the entire planet. Fans have gone to see the heroics of Will Turner, the courage of Elizabeth Swan, and the cunning of Captain Jack Sparrow. The series newest title, On Stranger Tides, does not feature Will or Elizabeth, but Captain Jack has a great new adventure ahead of him. The pirate now searches for the legendary Fountain of Youth while confronting the woman from his past Angelica, and hot on their trail are the English Navy, zombies, mermaids, and Blackbeard himself.

While Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the smartest (or craziest) men to sail the oceans, he is not the first seafaring hero in the world, and he isn't the first person to encounter creatures like mermaids. Across the world people have had told stories of men who brave the vast oceans and encountered many dangers. I'll discuss some of the heroes in this blog, and what makes them so famous.
Perhaps one of the best known sailors in the realm of fiction is Sinbad the Sailor. First appearing in the collection of stories known as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, what makes Sinbad so cool is that he didn't go on one, but seven voyages! Some of the adventures he's had involved a roc (a giant bird from Persian mythology that was supposed to carry off and eat elephants) that dropped rocks on his ship after he and his men ate the eggs of the roc. Another of his adventures find him on an island that turns out to be a giant sea animal. Some version say it is a turtle, but some recent adaptations had it as a fish. For some reason, no matter what happens, Sinbad always ends up setting sail again.
Another well-known tale of a seafarer is The Odyssey, which follows the adventures of Odysseus after the Trojan War is won by the Greeks. On his way home Odysseus and his men land on the Island of the Cyclopes, and end up having to blind Polyphemus to escape. Polyphemus calls on his father Poseidon to curse Odysseus, which seems to work considering the trouble that follows. Odysseus and his men encounter Sirens (bird women who lure sailors to their deaths with their voices), the sorceress Circe, and pass through Scylla and Charybdis before offending Apollo by eating some of his cattle. The result is that Odysseus loses his men and he takes twenty years total to get back home to Ithaca.

I think everyone's pretty familiar with what a mermaid is. Mermaids are the mythical sea creatures that are half-fish and half-woman, with the male counterpart being called a merman. Tales of mermaids extend all the way to the time of the Assyrians, over 3000 years ago (give or take). At first the tales of half-fish people were attributed to be the forms of the local mythology's sea god or goddess. Most of the ancient tales of mermaids are diversified, with some of them singing to lure sailors to their deaths to just being an underwater civilization that comes into contact with men. In our day and age the mermaid keeps the look of the original myths (although sometimes they're given seashell bikinis while the original mermaids were completely nude) while being portrayed as music lovers who live in the ocean like we live on the surface. Scientists believe that the stories of mermaids came up when sailors saw manatees swimming about, but that can't be so because tales of these beings have been told by the Arabians, the Greeks, and the Norse alike, long before America was discovered by the rest of the world. Some people even claim to see mermaids to this day. The legends are probably not true, but still it's fun to tell tales of these people and the sailors who encounter them.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Nature's Secrets

I am really behind on blogging. I'll try to do better as the summer goes by. Speaking of summer, how many of you are ready to enjoy the planet and its natural wonders? Do you plan on going to the beaches or to a faraway place? Will you see mountains or deserts? Well, be sure to keep your eyes open because you never know what the planet could be hiding from you.

How many of you have heard of a Snipe? If you have seen Up, you'll know that it was told by Carl Fredricksen to be something that doesn't exist. Boy scouts, on the other hand, sometimes take younger scouts Snipe hunting when they're just going exploring. Well, here's a little surprise: Snipes are real!
I learned this year that a snipe is a type of water bird commonly found in wet places like marshes or rivers. They use their long beaks to probe for food in the mud. The reason why snipes are so hard to spot is that the coloring of their feathers makes them appear to be shrubbery. So the next time someone tells you snipes don't exist, you know better.

Of course, some creatures from stories can actually be real. In Africa there were tales of a creature that were related to the giraffe called the okapi.The okapi was known to the Egyptians thanks to the Ethiopians they conquered. However, it was unknown to the Europeans until the Twentieth Century, when they came to what is now the Republic of the Congo. There they heard stories of a giraffe like creature that lived deep within the jungles. Of course, most people didn't believe this and wrote off the okapi as the "African Unicorn." However, as time went by, explorers obtained skin samples (and a skull eventually), and some saw the creature fleeing into the forest. Eventually the first live animal arrived in Europe in the year 1918, proving once and for all that the okapi is a real animal. To this day many people (called Cryptozoologists) search for animals that may be hidden somewhere in the world.

Of course it's not just swamps or forests and jungles that could be hiding animals. The vastness of the ocean could also have a few secrets. One of the most exciting discoveries was the coelacanth.The coelacanth was a prehistoric fish that swam in the seas of the Devonian era, about 400 million years ago (give or take a few hundred years). Coelacanths were related to the modern day lungfish, and were known for having hard scales and lots of fins. They were thought to have died out in the Cretaceous period with the dinosaurs. In the early 1900s, fisherman began to catch strange fish in their nets. Scientists began to offer a reward for the production of a live specimen. This was granted in 1938, when a live coelacanth was brought before the scientific community. The coelacanth is one of the most famous creatures of cryptozoology to this day because it shows that it is possible for creatures to survive for long periods of time by changing so little. So be sure to keep an eye out this summer. You might be the one who finds Sasquatch, or a giant squid, or maybe something else we had no idea existed.