This summer, millions of Americans will flock to the beach, taking advantage of long days, warm weather and the end of classes. From Coney Island and Venice Beach to the shores of Lake Michigan and the Gulf Coast, bags will be packed, coolers dragged, sunscreen slathered, and sandcastles built. Similar scenes will be repeated around the world. In Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Barcelona, and Beirut, children will be splashing in the waves while sunbathers doze on the sand. A day at the beach is a cultural ritual.
But it hasn’t always been this way. From antiquity up through the 18th century, the beach stirred fear and anxiety in the popular imagination. The coastal landscape was synonymous with dangerous wilderness; it was where shipwrecks and natural disasters occurred. Where a biblical flood engulfed the world. In classical mythology, the wrath of the ocean is a major theme; the beach a bearer of misfortune. Tears flow on Homer’s shores while monsters lurk in the surf: Scylla surrounded by her barking dogs and Charybdis swallowing the sea only to spit it out again in a boiling whirlpool. “With few exceptions,” writes Alain Corbin, professor emeritus of modern history at Paris’s Sorbonne University and author of The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, “the classical period knew nothing of the attraction of seaside beaches, the emotion of a bather plunging into the waves, or the pleasures of a stay at the seaside.”
The specter of Leviathan or Kraken gave the beach its threatening aura, but so did real hazards that arrived on the shore: pirates and bandits, crusaders and colonizers, the Black Death and smallpox. No wonder Dante’s third circle of hell is lined with sand. On the beach, terror strikes Robinson Crusoe, the first of many castaways to confront destiny on the sand. In Western literature, the shoreline has served as a boundary; the beach the symbolic edge of the unknown.
How was the beach transformed from perilous place to preferred vacation destination — its white sand and rolling waves becoming the ultimate landscape of leisure? The modern embrace of the beach for the purposes of health and hedonism, recreation and retreat, came with the rise of urban, industrial society. The European “discovery” of the beach is a reminder that human ideas about nature have changed over time — with real consequences for the environment and the world.