Can you convince a mermaid expert?

Tuna company taps folklore professor as contest judge

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

If you can prove that mermaids exist by the end of the month, Chicken of the Sea will give you a cool million dollars. The catch: You need to convince the company’s mermaid expert, a Central Michigan University faculty member.

A cartoon mermaid with a green tail sits on the cover of
The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep (2009) by Ari Berk.

Ari Berk, professor of folklore and mythology, got a call from Chicken of the Sea at the end of last year. They were looking for a mermaid expert and saw his resume.

“It was weird enough that if there was a mermaid expert, it might be me,” Berk said with a chuckle. The many books he wrote about giants, hobgoblins and mermaids may have played a small part in his selection.

Berk will judge contest entries in March. The grand prize winner gets $1 million. If no one wins, the company will donate 1 million ounces of seafood to food pantries.

Berk said that promise attracted him. So did the company’s environmental policies. In fact, in folklore, mermaids – called merfolk when referring to all genders – are used as stand-ins for lessons on how we treat important natural resources, Berk said.

If people pollute a river they live on – if they mistreat a mermaid – they are punished by a body of water that produces less food. If they exercise wise stewardship over it, they are rewarded with sustainable harvests.

In addition, people who mistreat merfolk often bring disaster upon themselves, Berk said. Merfolk were believed to send huge waves to swamp harbors or block them with sandbars as revenge.

People who treat merfolk with kindness are rewarded with long, prosperous lives. In folklore, people occasionally marry merfolk, and their children are often born with special gifts.

Berk also said that people looking for mermaids as popularly imagined might want to think a bit more broadly. Every civilization near large bodies of water has folklore about merfolk, and those merfolk usually look something like the critters living in them.

A male professor wearing glasses reads a book at a desk covered with figurines and small statues.
Ari Berk, professor of folklore and mythology.


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