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.

‘The Perils of Cultural Purity’ by Amanda Foreman in The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…

‘A History of Colors and Their Owners’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 2009, a graduate student working in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, brilliantly blue pigment while experimenting with manganese oxide and other materials. Dubbed “YInMn blue” after its chemical makeup, the pigment quickly spurred a research paper and a patent application. And soon the gorgeous new color will be available to all of us: Crayola recently announced that it would introduce a blue crayon “inspired” by YInMn and kicked off a contest to name it. Continue reading…

‘The Mystery of Genius’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?

People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…

‘Gold That Glitters—and Kills’ – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Since ancient times, the desire for gold has had a way of turning human beings into monsters of greed. The Greek god Dionysus granted the mythical King Midas the golden touch, but only after the king had inadvertently turned his daughter into gold—and realized that he himself would starve to death—did he see his wish as a curse. The Roman poet Virgil wrote in “The Aeneid,” “Accursed thirst for gold! What dost thou not compel mortals to do?”

The alleged discovery last month in Poland of one of the lost Nazi “gold trains” is a case in point. Missing from the excitement over the train—supposedly dispatched at the end of the war (and buried since then), with millions of dollars worth of stolen loot, gold bars and armaments—is acknowledgment that this so-called treasure is the effluence of evil.

Prospectors have flooded the area where the train is said to be. Last week, regional authorities sought the help of the Polish army, as if to prove the famous line in John Huston’s 1948 film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”: “When the piles of gold begin to grow…that’s when the trouble starts.”

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‘Lifting the veil on our past’ – Daily Express

Here’s a snippet to make the jaw drop. The women of Ancient Greece (you know, the place that created democracy) were so restricted in what they could do that they were no better off than the poor women of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Meanwhile just down the road in Ancient Egypt women were treated almost as equals of men, so much so there were six lady pharaohs… who would have thought it?  All this and more came to light during the brilliantly inter- THE ASCENT OF WOMAN (BBC2) which took as its eminently reasonable thesis the fact that although women have always comprised half the human race we don’t seem to have  featured very prevalently in the history of mankind.

The noted historian Amanda Foreman set out to find out why. Unfortunately, as scholarly and thought- provoking as this new four- part documentary series was, I’m not sure she ever really answered the question.  In the earliest known societies, as far as anyone can tell, men and women really did live equally, sharing all manner of But this all changed pretty sharpish when society became more prosperous, resources  were not shared equally and some people started to have greater status than others.

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‘A British Milestone in the Fight for Freedom’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMON

The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.

That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”

As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.

A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.

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‘From Gladiators to Mickey Mouse: Disneyland Turns 60’ – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

Sixty years ago, on July 18, 1955, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” better known as Disneyland, opened to the public. But on that day, the former orange grove in Anaheim, Calif., was one of the most miserable places in America. A heat wave caused the park’s new asphalt to stick to people’s shoes. A gas leak forced parts of the site to close, a plumbers strike led to a water shortage, and lax security resulted in dangerous overcrowding.

Reviewing the $17.5 million theme park, a journalist wrote in a local newspaper, “Walt’s dream is a nightmare…a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in 30 years of show life.”

Undeterred, Walt Disney added ever more attractions and innovations, transforming mass leisure from its violent origins in the ancient world to today’s amusement-park industry, with $12 billion of annual revenue in the U.S.

Though the ancient Greeks were among the first to build leisure spaces in the form of parks, gardens and gymnasiums, the Romans expanded the concept into a way of life. By the first century, most of Rome’s citizens were living in semi-idleness, while thousands of slaves and coloni—the equivalent of sharecroppers—toiled ceaselessly on their behalf.

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‘Why Walls Rarely Keep Enemies Out’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological  comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.

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‘From Ancient Greece to the Oscars, Acting Prizes Have Always Meant Drama’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Some kind of controversy always seems to surround the Oscars. If it isn’t outrage beforehand over who was snubbed, it is derision afterward about the embarrassing speeches or the taste-­‐challenged outfits that were paraded down the red carpet.

Yet the “Oscar effect” on nominated movies can be transformative. In 2004, a low-key film about a female boxer had earned just $8.5 million. But after being nominated for best picture, “Million Dollar Baby” enjoyed a spectacular resurgence and raked in additional $56.4 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

The enormous financial rewards that the Oscars can bring are a far cry from the more modest prizes given out by their spiritual ancestor, the ancient Greek festival of Dionysus. Most historians agree that the festival was responsible for awarding the first drama prizes in history. The original winner, in the sixth century B.C., is said to have been Thespis, from whom the word “thespian” came. Instead of a golden statuette, Thespis received a live goat.

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