WSJ Historically Speaking: How Mermaid-Merman Tales Got to This Year’s Oscars

ILLUSTRATON: DANIEL ZALKUS

‘The Shape of Water,’ the best-picture winner, extends a tradition of ancient tales of these water creatures and their dealings with humans

Popular culture is enamored with mermaids. This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” about a lonely mute woman and a captured amphibious man, is a new take on an old theme. “The Little Mermaid,” Disney ’senormously successful 1989 animated film, was based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, and it was turned into a Broadway musical, which even now is still being staged across the country.

The fascination with mermythology began with the ancient Greeks. In the beginning, mermen were few and far between. As for mermaids, they were simply members of a large chorus of female sea creatures that included the benign Nereids, the sea-nymph daughters of the sea god Nereus, and the Sirens, whose singing led sailors to their doom—a fate Odysseus barely escapes in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey.”

Over the centuries, the innocuous mermaid became interchangeable with the deadly sirens. They led Scottish sailors to their deaths in one of the variations of the anonymous poem “Sir Patrick Spens,” probably written in the 15th century: “Then up it raise the mermaiden, / Wi the comb an glass in her hand: / ‘Here’s a health to you, my merrie young men, / For you never will see dry land.’”

In pictures, mermaids endlessly combed their hair while sitting semi-naked on the rocks, lying in wait for seafarers. During the Elizabethan era, a “mermaid” was a euphemism for a prostitute. Poets and artists used them to link feminine sexuality with eternal damnation.

But in other tales, the original, more innocent idea of a mermaid persisted. Andersen’s 1837 story followed an old literary tradition of a “virtuous” mermaid hoping to redeem herself through human love.

Andersen purposely broke with the old tales. As he acknowledged to a friend, his fishy heroine would “follow a more natural, more divine path” that depended on her own actions rather than that of “an alien creature.” Egged on by her sisters to murder the prince whom she loves and return to her mermaid existence, she chooses death instead—a sacrifice that earns her the right to a soul, something that mermaids were said to lack.

Richard Wagner’s version of mermaids—the Rhine maidens who guard the treasure of “Das Rheingold”—also bucked the “temptress” cliché. While these maidens could be cruel, they gave valuable advice later in the “Ring” cycle.

The cultural rehabilitation of mermaids gained steam in the 20th century. In T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” their erotic power becomes a symbol of release from stifling respectability. The sad protagonist laments, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” By 1984, when a gorgeous mermaid (Daryl Hannah) fell in love with a nerdy man ( Tom Hanks ) in the film comedy “Splash,” audiences were ready to accept that mermaids might offer a liberating alternative to society’s hang-ups, and that humans themselves are the obstacle to perfect happiness, not female sexuality.

What makes “The Shape of Water” unusual is that a scaly male, not a sexy mermaid, is the object of affection to be rescued. Andersen probably wouldn’t recognize his Little Mermaid in Mr. del Toro’s nameless, male amphibian, yet the two tales are mirror images of the same fantasy: Love conquers all.

WSJ Historically Speaking: In Epidemics, Leaders Play a Crucial Role

ILLUSTRATION: JON KRAUSE

Lessons in heroism and horror as a famed flu pandemic hits a milestone

A century ago this week, an army cook named Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, paid a visit to the camp infirmary, complaining of a severe cold. It’s now thought that he was America’s patient zero in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

The disease killed more than 40 million people world-wide, including 675,000 Americans. In this case, as in so many others throughout history, the pace of the pandemic’s deadly progress depended on the actions of public officials.

Spain had allowed unrestricted reporting about the flu, so people mistakenly believed it originated there. Other countries, including the U.S., squandered thousands of lives by suppressing news and delaying health measures. Chicago kept its schools open, citing a state commission that had declared the epidemic at a “standstill,” while the city’s public health commissioner said, “It is our duty to keep the people from fear. Worry kills more people than the epidemic.”

Worry had indeed sown chaos, misery and violence in many previous outbreaks, such as the Black Plague. The disease, probably caused by bacteria-infected fleas living on rodents, swept through Asia and Europe during the 1340s, killing up to a quarter of the world’s population. In Europe, where over 50 million died, a search for scapegoats led to widespread pogroms against Jews. In 1349, the city of Strasbourg in France, already somewhat affected by the plague, put to death hundreds of Jews and expelled the rest.

But not all authorities lost their heads at the first sign of contagion. Pope Clement VI (1291-1352), one of a series of popes who ruled from the southern French city of Avignon, declared that the Jews had not caused the plague and issued two papal bulls against their persecution.

In Italy, Venetian authorities took the practical approach: They didn’t allow ships from infected ports to dock and subjected all travelers to a period of isolation. The term quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “40 days”—the official length of time until the Venetians granted foreign ships the right of entry.

Less exalted rulers could also show prudence and compassion in the face of a pandemic. After the Black Plague struck the village of Eyam in England, the vicar William Mompesson persuaded its several hundred inhabitants not to flee, to prevent the disease from spreading to other villages. The biggest landowner in the county, the earl of Devonshire, ensured a regular supply of food and necessities to the stricken community. Some 260 villagers died during their self-imposed quarantine, but their decision likely saved thousands of lives.

The response to more recent pandemics has not always met that same high standard. When viral severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) began in China in November 2002, the government’s refusal to acknowledge the outbreak allowed the disease to spread to Hong Kong, a hub for the West and much of Asia, thus creating a world problem. On a more hopeful note, when Ebola was spreading uncontrollably through West Africa in 2014, the Ugandans leapt into action, saturating their media with warnings and enabling quick reporting of suspected cases, and successfully contained their outbreak.

Pandemics always create a sense of crisis. History shows that public leadership is the most powerful weapon in keeping them from becoming full-blown tragedies.

WSJ Historically Speaking: The First Fixer-Upper: A Look at White House Renovations

Rude visitors, sinking pianos and dismayed presidential residents

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This year marks the bicentennial of the public reopening of the White House after the War of 1812, when the British burned the executive mansion and sent President James Madison fleeing. Though the grand house has legions of devotees today, its occupants haven’t always loved the place.

The problems began in the 1790s, as the Founding Fathers struggled with the question of how grand such a residence should be for an elected president in a popular government. Was the building to be a government office with sleeping arrangements, a private home, the people’s palace or all of the above? Frequent name changes reflected the confusion: President’s Palace, President’s House and Executive Mansion. The president made its official name the White House only in 1901.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Ancient Magic of Mistletoe

The plant’s odyssey from a Greek festival to a role in the works of Dickens and Trollope

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Is mistletoe naughty or nice? The No. 1 hit single for Christmas 1952 was young Jimmy Boyd warbling how he caught “mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.” It may very well have been daddy in costume—but, if not, that would make mistletoe very naughty indeed. For this plant, that would be par for the course.

Mistletoe, in its various species, is found all over the world and has played a part in fertility rituals for thousands of years. The plant’s ability to live off other trees—it’s a parasite—and remain evergreen even in the dead of winter awed the earliest agricultural societies. Mistletoe became a go-to plant for sacred rites and poetic inspiration.

Kissing under the mistletoe may have begun with the Greeks’ Kronia agricultural festival. Its Roman successor, the Saturnalia, combined licentious behavior with mistletoe. The naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79, noticed to his surprise that mistletoe was just as sacred, if not more, to the Druids of Gaul. Its growth on certain oak trees, which the Druids believed to possess magical powers, spurred them to use mistletoe in ritual sacrifices and medicinal potions to cure ailments such as infertility.

Mistletoe’s mystical properties also earned it a starring role in the 13th-century Old Norse collection of mythical tales known as the Prose Edda. Here mistletoe becomes a deadly weapon in the form of an arrow that kills the sun-god Baldur. His mother Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, weeps tears that turn into white mistletoe berries. In some versions, this brings Baldur back to life, carrying faint echoes of the reincarnation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Either way, Frigga declares mistletoe to be the symbol of peace and love.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s powers managed to survive the Catholic Church’s official disapproval for all things pagan. People used the plant as a totem to scare away trolls, thwart witchcraft, prevent fires and bring about reconciliations. But such superstitions fizzled out in the wake of the Enlightenment.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A History of the Unloved Electoral College

Opponents have ranged from John Adams to Richard Nixon. Why has the system survived?

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

The 2016 election results caused plenty of bitterness—not the least of which had to do with the Electoral College. Donald Trump won the presidency a year ago this week but lost the popular vote—something that has happened a handful of times in the republic’s history and twice in the past two decades. In a December press conference, President Barack Obama declared the system to be past its sell-by date: “It’s a carry-over from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”

What were the Founding Fathers thinking? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they created a unique system for choosing the president. Each state got a number of electors based on the total of its U.S. senators (two) and U.S. representatives (as set by census). Each state legislature could decide the method of picking electors, but if the electors’ vote was inconclusive, the choice would be sent to the House of Representatives. “The original idea,” wrote Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling in 1992, “was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Driving on the Left

Over the centuries, plenty of empires and nations have driven on the left side of the road

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Fifty years ago this month, on Sept. 3, 1967, the world turned upside down in Sweden. Or rather it went from left to right: On that day, the Swedes abandoned 200 years of left-hand traffic, or LHT, to switch over to RHT. The event was commemorated as Högertrafikomläggningen (the right-hand traffic diversion) or H-Day for short.

Bahrain, Finland and Iceland soon followed Sweden’s example. Pakistan considered switching to RHT in the 1960s but decided it would be too difficult, am

ong other things, to change the habits of the country’s numerous camel-cart drivers. Even the U.K. briefly toyed with the idea only to drop it because of cost and rising nationalist affection for driving on the left. Continue reading…

The Daily Mail: ‘WHAT BOOK would historian Amanda Foreman take to a desert island?’

Historian Amanda Foreman shares that she is currently reading The Dry by Jane Harper

. . . are you reading now?

The Dry, by Jane Harper. The hero, Aaron Falk, is a Melbourne-based federal agent, whose life has settled into a narrow furrow of work and more work.
However, he harbours a dark past that comes back to haunt him after his childhood friend inexplicably kills himself and his family.
Falk reluctantly returns to his home town and finds a seething community that’s suffering from more than just a prolonged drought. A complete page-turner.

. . . would you take to a desert island?

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. One of the reasons people love the LOTR so much is because it’s both familiar and strange at the same time.

Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and, when he wasn’t writing about elves and hobbits, he was analysing Beowulf and other epics. He poured all his scholarship into LOTR and then disguised it through layers of mythology and imagination. Continue reading…

WITF TV Picks for the week of August 20, 2017

Sunday August 20 at 9:00pm – Endeavor on Masterpiece – Follow Endeavour, who while struggling with Joan Thursday’s sudden departure, is consumed by a nightmarish hunt for a serial killer. He must race against time to find the connection between a chess-playing “thinking” machine and a baffling drowning.

Monday August 21 at 9:00pm – NOVA – Join scientists and citizens alike as they observe the first total solar eclipse to traverse the US mainland in more than a generation. Discover the storied history of eclipse science and follow current, cutting-edge research into the solar corona.

Tuesday August 22 at 8:00pm – Diana – Her Story – Twenty years after Princess Diana’s death, this new film reveals her story in her own words. What emerges is the narrative of a shy young girl who stepped onto the world stage in 1980 and departed in 1997 as its most famous woman.

Wednesday August 23 at 9:00pm – The Farthest – Voyager in Space – Launched in 1977, NASA’s epic Voyager missions revolutionized our understanding of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their spectacular moons and rings. In 2012, Voyager 1 left our solar system and ushered humanity into the interstellar age.

Thursday August 24 at 10:00pm – The Ascent of Woman: A 10,000 Year History – Dr. Amanda Foreman journeys around the world to study the experiences and expectations of women living in various societies throughout history.

Friday August 25 at 9:00pm – Great Performances at the Met – Hear Sonya Yoncheva sing the tragic courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s classic, with Michael Fabiano as her ardent lover Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as his disapproving father Germont, in a revival of Willy Decker’s staging conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

Saturday August 26 at 9:00pm – Death in Paradise – When a prisoner is killed in their custody, DI Goodman and the team are under pressure to solve the case quickly. Humphrey’s father visits Saint Marie intent on meddling in his son’s life.