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Just how long did a sailor have to be at sea before a passing manatee,seal, or dugong began to take on the appearance of the girl next door? And was his vision of an alluring creature, half-woman and half-mackerel, simply a product of agitated hormones induced by months, or in some cases years, of being deprived of intimate female companionship? Could a dubious bit of ship's biscuit, a portion of salt pork well past its due date, or one too many tokes on a favorite piece of hemp hawser have also been contributing factors? Without doubt, some combination of the preceding was responsible for his mind's transformation of an ordinary sea mammal into the sensual and desirable mermaid.
The Oxford International Dictionary says mermaids are "an imaginary species of beings, supposed to inhabit the sea, and to have the head and trunk of a woman, ending in a tail of a fish or cetacean." These beguiling creatures have been teasing sailors for over twenty centuries, with every sea-faring culture recording their existence.
The Greeks wrote of "Nereids" who lived in the sea and would foretell a sailor's future. This was a definite benefit for the sailor who might catch one and who planned an evening rolling dice in the forecastle. At the 6th century Christian colony of Iona, an isolated island off the Scottish west coast, legend says one of St. Columba's monks became romantically involved with a mermaid who wished for a human soul. The legend still persists, but there remains no tangible written record, suggesting damage control had been successfully instituted at the monastery.
Mermaids also appeared early in the history of the New World. Christopher Columbus recorded seeing mermaids gamboling about his ship off the coast of Guyana, South America, in 1493. But the Admiral of the Ocean Sea seems to have been little impressed with their beauty, recording in his log that they were "not so faire as they are painted." And a Dane known as Busseus wrote of a merman having been captured by two noblemen in a fishing net at Hordaland in Bergen Fjord. As the creature was hauled aboard, he cursed his captors and threatened (apparently in perfect Danish) to send their fishing boat to the bottom of the fjord. Not wishing to chance the loss of their vessel, the high-born fishermen promptly released him back to the water. There is no explanation why these noblemen had to labor as fishermen.
Endless stories of mermaids have been generated by the minds of those isolated in some way from mainstream culture, whether away at sea or living on an isolated island. And it seems the myth is destined to live on, revived perhaps by a future celestial sailor on a lonely flight of exploration to distant parts of our star system. To make the lengthy time and distance bearable, a solar-system sailor would enter a drug-induced dream world of suspended animation, and in this altered state of consciousness would reasonably be expected to generate an updated version of the mermaid vision: perhaps a comely little companion, half-human and half-rocket thruster!