Springtime Ode to the Manatee

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? It’s also National Manatee Awareness Month! And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate spring than by writing some poems about manatees. But, I hear you ask, what do manatees have to do with spring, or poetry for that matter? That is an excellent question, my little dugongs, and the answer is, there’s always a connection between one thing and another, and poetry is one of the best ways to explore those connections. How about some haiku? Haiku is traditionally about nature, which happily includes both spring and manatees.

The sea cow grazes

Rounding her back to the sun

Fat and contented

Folklore has it that manatees were first spotted by forlorn sailors, who in their loneliness imagined the gentle beasts as mermaids (should you have any doubt that even the most lovesick mariner could possibly think of such creatures in a romantic light, consider the very word manatee, from the ancient language of the Taino, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean: it means “breast.”) The order of Sirenia, the sea cow, to which the manatee belongs, was named for this legend, and the Sirens who tormented Odysseus in another. Our month of April likewise owes her appellation to mythology; she is descended from a venerable lineage of fertility goddesses who were traditionally worshiped in the spring. This month is dedicated to Venus, and very likely acquired the name we use today from the goddess Apru, an Etruscan derivation of the ancient Greek Aphrodite. Oestre, an equivalent fertility goddess from the north, gave us the name for our spring celebration, Easter, the time of rebirth, which we usually celebrate in April.

Emerging from waves

A glowing Aphrodite

Lovely manatee

Manatees are highly endangered because they evolved to live in placid areas with lots of food, and had no natural predators until the careless human came along, replacing their habitat with vacation resorts and speedboats, whose motors often cause deadly injuries. Manatees reproduce slowly; gestation lasts over a year, and it takes an additional two to five years for a calf to grow to maturity. Only then is mama ready to breed again. Manatees gather in special herds for the purpose of mating, and these underwater orgies frequently occur in April, when numbers of females reach the peak of their cycle, or oestrus.

It would seem obvious that the goddess Oestre also gave us this word for the period of sexual receptiveness in a female mammal’s cycle. But when the trawling nets of the religious patriarchy upended all that had once been rooted in Nature, the official etymology was revised. Oestrus was recorded in books as a synonym for “madness” or “frenzy,” and it was proclaimed by priests, doctors and scientists (all men, of course) that human females did not, could not, must not experience such sexual excitement, let alone in regularly recurring cycles like other animals. Women who nevertheless continued to disobediently show a fondness for sex, especially at certain phases of the moon, or in such pagan practices as orgies, like our innocent manatee, were therefore called witches and whores and were frequently whipped, imprisoned, or burned (in more enlightened ages they were merely declared “hysterical” and often “cured” by way of having their reproductive organs removed, which sometimes led to death, also an effective cure for wanting to have sex). But April remembers her origins, even in the tidied up Latin etymology: Aperire means to open, as a flower blooming in spring.

Venus parts her thighs

Glistening with honeydew

Making the men squirm

One of the numerous side effects of killing off a world view in which women held unabashed claim to their own sexuality is that you end up with a lot of sexually frustrated men. Some of them angrily preach scathing sermons about the evils of woman; but others might daydream over the lolling breasts and bellies of a herd of contented sea cows and remember the arms of fat, loving mamas and the warm, soft bodies of their sweethearts, waiting to open like spring blossoms for them when they return to shore.

In West Africa

They call her Maame Water

Goddess of the sea

Captain Bogg and Salty – Manatee

This article originally appeared at Hippymom.com


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