The Natural History of the Mermaid | Horizon January, 1960

Fatata ti Miti (By the Sea), Paul Gauguin 1892

We had some fun last week with “The Cultural Class War” (of 1960). “The Education of the Renaissance Man” I’m sure would appeal to many, and if you’d like I can excerpt some. Petrarch is featured. Blurb on “The Pleasures of the Bastille” ends with this gem: But one lack of this model prison was that its inmates did not know when, if ever, they would be freed.

“A Proposal of Marriage”–Lytton Strachey to Virginia Stephens–is cute. Stephens had several suitors–E.M. Foster, John Maynard Keynes, and finally Leonard Woolf. I had occasion not long ago to read her suicide letter to him. It’s beautiful and profoundly sad.

“The Trove of Pazyryk” is about a 5th century Persian rug found in the early 1950s preserved in ice on the Siberian steppes.

But it is “The Natural History of the Mermaid” that caught my fancy.

A fifth-century mermaid enlivens the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna

Dear Sir–About twelve years ago… in the course of my walking on the shore of Sandside Bay, being a warm fine day in summer, I was induced to extend my walk towards Sandside Head, when my attention was arrested by the appearance of a figure resembling an unclothed human female, sitting upon a rock…. The forehead was round, the face plump, the cheeks ruddy, the eyes blue, the mouth and lips of a natural form… the breasts and abdomen, the arms and fingers the size of a full grown body of the human species. It remained on the rock three or four minutes after I observed it, and it was exercised during that period in combing its hair, which was long and thick, and of which it appeared proud, and then dropped into the sea, from which it did not reappear to me.

“The Mermaid Seen on the Coast of Caithness,” letter from Mr. William Munro to The Times [Scotland], 1809.

The author of the article, Richard Carrington, begins by noting a “distressing lack of mermaid sightings during the present century.” He attributes this to the “increasing gravity” of present-day scientists. Working backward through time, beginning with this letter, he says the 19th century was “mermaid prone… in tune with the exaggerated romanticism of the time.” Even Tennyson, a “respectable poet,” was not immune to the siren’s call.

The 18th century, “usually thought of an age of skepticism and good sense, produced a particularly good crop” of mermaid sitings. King George III was “graciously pleased to accept this illustration” by François Valentijn. Peter the Great of Russia sought out Valentijn’s verbal description of the mermaid who “uttered little cries like a mouse.”

Henry Hudson (c. 1565 – disappeared 23 June 1611) describes his mermaid sighting off Nova Zembla during an attempt to find the Northwest Passage.

Carrington discounts medieval and Renaissance accounts of mermaid sightings, taking them to be second-hand accounts and fevered imaginations. Further back in time, he connects mermen–not maids–with more ancient humans’ many gods, and the awe-inspiring forces of the sea. Naturally, he talks about the influence the sirens no doubt had on the creation of the mermaid myths. He concludes, “This infinitely desirable being manifested herself in many guises according to the age and region in which she was conceived–at Atergatis, the goddess of the moon, as the sirens beckoning Ulysses to destruction,…as the mermaid herself, a haunting and mysterious symbol of human desire.”

Buch der Natur, 1475

Horizon A Magazine of the Arts January 1960 • Volume II, Number 3. American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., New York.

2 thoughts on “The Natural History of the Mermaid | Horizon January, 1960”

  1. What a delightful article! I too am distressed by the lack of mermaid sightings in our present century, although I wouldn’t credit it to our present-day scientists, who are in fact engaged in fantasy. The fantasy of a post-human world sponsored by an unholy alliance of big pharma, big tech, and big government.

    I see that I am going to have to go on the hunt for a physical copy of this edition. I just received my copy of the January 1959 edition in the mail on Saturday. I dipped a toe in but haven’t had a chance to really read in depth yet.

    1. Glad you liked it! Beginning next week, in addition to posting the image with the cover art and TOC, I’m going to list the titles & subtitles, or first few lines to give people a better idea of what’s in each issue. Next week there are a bunch of photos of some ancient Greek sculptures that were uncovered in the main port of Athens recently (1960).

      Let us know how you liked the rest of the Jan. ’59 issue.

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