There were three of them offshore of today's Dominican Republic on that January day back in 1493. One might suppose that Columbus would very much appreciate this threefold sighting of such exotic creatures. But in fact he was rather disappointed. He noted that they were "not half as beautiful as they are painted."
That's because manatees – while exhibiting the soulful eyes that sirens of the sea are bountifully endowed with - have other traits that contrast markedly with those of alluring mermaids. History.com describes manatees as "slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails." Their overall shape resembles the female human's breast (which is probably what most caught Columbus' attention after
that long a voyage). In fact, the name "manatee" derives from the Taino word for "breast." Although manatees have been rapaciously hunted by many cultures, West Africans considered them sacred.
Mermaids, on the other hand, were more likely to make humans their victims than vice versa. According to Wikipedia, they "are sometimes depicted as perilous creatures associated with floods, storms, shipwrecks, and drowning." The ancient Assyrian goddess Atargatis is said to have transformed herself into a mermaid "out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover."
Perhaps Columbus was fortunate, after all, to have crossed paths with gentle manatees rather than with seductive mermaids.
Copyright January 18, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke All Rights Reserved