Part of his world: Mythology professor finds facts from folklore

Prof. Ari Berk has lent his life to folklore. Now he is partnering to raise awareness of the sanctity of the seas


Ari Berk reads a book Monday, March 13 at his house in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Berk enjoys covering his walls floor to ceiling with things he has collected, and says he can't imagine living in a home with bare walls.

As Professor Ari Berk sits in his office preparing for class, he is surrounded by folklore figurines and mythological books, some of which are his own works. He is passionate about what he teaches, and is eager to share it with others. 

Berk is a folklore and mythology professor at Central Michigan University. 

He said his love for folklore started as a young child. He read stories on giants and hobgoblins, mermaids and fairies, stories having strong ties to the earth and the environment we live in and he made these connections early on. 

Berk said he frequently went camping with his parents and came to associate the sounds of the sea and the formidable mountains with the books he read. He surrounded himself with these stories, he said, and they felt like home to him. When he grew up and had a child, Berk said it became a home for his son, too. 

Berk spoke of his memories walking through Veits Woods with his son, noticing logs pushed up against trees and recognizing them as troll’s houses. He travels to places where folkloric stories take place, bringing his son with him. 

Ari Berk's Renaissance Fair posters are displayed Monday, March 13 at his house in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Berk says the Renaissance Fair is one of the reasons he was inspired to become a teacher.

The author of several folkloric books himself, Berk said his son would give feedback on early drafts and help him edit before publication. Folklore seems to have surrounded Berk’s life for as long as he can remember.

With degrees in ancient history, American Indian studies, and comparative literature and cultural studies, Berk has a desire for understanding the world in which we live and the importance of our ties to others. But it is his connection to folklore that shows his true passion for people and the planet. 

Berk said that folkloric stories can tell a lot about the history behind the places they are set in, as well as the history behind current events during that era. 

“Its easy to dismiss folklore as stories about mermaids, or elves or hobgoblins … but actually, (such tales are) always about how we treat other people and how we treat the world that we live in,” he said. 

He spoke of symbolic influences within folkloric stories, about mermaids that show us how our lives are tied to the welfare of the sea. Stories of giants showcase our connection to the land; mountains, hills, stones and rocks. Legends of fairies give way for us to deal with our past or help us grieve the loss of those we love, he said.

The creatures are different but the result is the same: there is wisdom in these stories that can teach humans how to live in accordance with the environment, whether they believe in the stories or not. 

Berk said he thinks there is more to mythology than just belief. 

“I’m often asked, ‘Do you believe in ghosts and fairies? Do you believe in mermaids or merpeople?’ … I always feel like that’s the wrong question,” he said. “What’s the difference if I say yes or no? … I think the question ought to be, ‘What do you think these things (mean)?’”

“What do they symbolize or represent?”

Berk said he believes that the mystery behind folklore is what can make it so interesting. He talked about how it’s easy for people to get caught up in the “literalness” of it, but what they should be paying attention to are the lessons they can glean from these stories. For example, he said, how to interact with neighbors and ancestors, how to treat the planet Earth, how to appreciate what the earth has given people and most importantly, how people can give back. 

Ari Berk poses at his desk Monday, March 13 at his home in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Berk also enjoys painting, and many of his works are hung on his walls.

Mermaid Expert

Named a “mermaid expert,” Berk has been invited to judge a contest hosted by the seafood company Chicken of the Sea. In order to win the contest, somebody needs to scientifically prove the existence of mermaids. According to the company’s website, if no one wins, Chicken of the Sea will donate 1 million ounces of seafood to food pantries around the United States.

According to Berk, the contest is part of a company rebranding for Chicken of the Sea in an effort to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable to the planet. 

“My hope is that [the contest] would encourage people to look a little bit more into the folklore,” he said, and added the contest allows people to “think about the sanctity of the world’s water. 

“It’s about shaking hands with the sea.” 

Berk said even if people don’t see an actual mermaid, it at least starts the conversation about folklore’s connection to the environment. 

Gifts for the River

Berk currently serves on the Denison Committee at CMU, an organization the school’s website said is committed to “enhancing the Native American Studies Program.” 

He has also helped create a program called Gifts for the River. The wellbeing of our planet is tied to the waters, and yet humans have destroyed over 75% of the earth’s rivers, according to The Guardian newspaper. Gifts for the River is the committee’s acknowledgment that it is time people start to give back.

Gifts for the River is an “online living notebook” that is a “celebration of the Chippewa River and the communities that live along it,” according to its website, The program seeks to bridge the connection between humans and the water by creatively engaging with it, whether that be through music, poetry, sketches, drawings or even cleaning up the river and the surrounding Isabella County area. 

Though the current state of our waters is troubling, Berk said, looking to Gifts for the River is a great way to start appreciating the environment we live in and learning how to take care of it. As a professor who is constantly surrounded by nature, through the books he reads, the lectures he teaches, his walks in the woods and his visits to the river, Berk has made a connection that he believes could benefit many others.

“There’s something about being (a part of a story) bigger than yourself,”  Berk said. “It is really powerful in the way it affects the human spirit.” 

Ari Berk poses with his cat Monday, March 13 at his house in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Berk adopted his two cats from Karma Kat Cafe.