In 1851 Phineas T Barnum
announced a new exhibit for his American Museum in New York – a
mummified mermaid from Figi! On the first day the queue seeking
admission extended five blocks!
In 1809 Scottish
schoolmaster Dominec William Munro reported seeing a plump,
full-breasted, green-haired mermaid on the coast of Caithness,
Scotland. In his letter in The London Times of September 8
Munro concluded: “some people will dispute everything they cannot fully
Mermaids of legend had
the head and torso of a human and the tail of a fish. These half-human,
half-fish creatures would be seen – usually by sailors – swimming in
the ocean or reclining on rocks and combing their long hair. To spot a
mermaid was considered a sign of imminent storms or disaster.
Mermaids are still being
spotted. There were several sightings off the Isle of Man in the 1960s
including one by the Mayoress of Peel. In 1947 a sighting was reported
on a Hebridean Island.
Last century "mermaids" were popular exhibits at natural history shows
and circuses. Some "mermaids" were parts of different animals sewn
together. Others were real live girls with a rubber tail over
The name "mermaid" may be
derived from "mere" meaning "lake" and so refers to a "maid of the
lake." There have been attempts to trace mermaids back to the
Babylonian goddess Tiamat, the Syrian goddess Atergatis (pictured with
the torso of a woman and the tail of a fish), the fish-headed god
Oannes of Assyria, and to Aphrodite the Greek Venus who was born from
the foam of the sea.
The ancient Greeks had stories about "Sirens" of the island of
Anthemoessa near Italy who lured sailors to destruction with music and
In The Greek Myths
Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Penguin 1960) Robert Graves retells the ancient
Greek tales of gods, heroes and goddesses. Volume 2 recounts an event
in the adventures of Odysseus:
She [Circe, a
sorceress] warned him that he must next pass the Island of the Sirens,
whose beautiful voices enchanted all who sailed near. These…had
girls' faces but birds' feet and feathers, and many different stories
are told to account for this peculiarity… They no longer had the power
of flight, however, since the Muses [the 9 daughters of the god Zeus]
had defeated them in a musical contest and pulled out their wing
feathers to make themselves crowns. Now they sat and sang in a
meadow among the heaped bones of sailors whom they had drawn to their
death. ‘Plug your men’s ears with bees-wax,’ advised Circe, 'and
if you are eager to hear their music, have your crew bind you hand and
foot to the mast, and make them swear not to let you escape, however
harshly you may threaten them.'…
As the ship approached Siren Land, Odysseus took Circe's advice, and
the sirens sang so sweetly, promising him foreknowledge of all future
happenings on earth, that he shouted to his companions, threatening
them with death if they would not release him; but, obeying his earlier
orders, they only lashed him tighter to the mast. Thus the ship sailed
by in safety, and the sirens committed suicide for vexation. (p. 361)
Eventually Sirens became
portrayed with fish tails like mermaids later were. In the first
century Pliny the Elder wrote of "sirens" and described them as "rough
scaled all over, even in those parts where they resemble a woman."
Syrian, Norse and Indian myths also spoke of mermaids.
The monk Ralph Coggeshall
told of a "merman" caught by Suffolk fisherman in the 12th century. The
merman was imprisoned in Orford Castle but escaped upon being allowed
to swim in the sea.
The following century the
historian Bartholomew Anglicus wrote of mermaids:
She is a
beast of the sea, wonderfully shapen as a maid from the navel upward
and a fish from the navel downward. With sweetness of song she
maketh shipmen to sleep. Then she goeth into the ship and bringeth one
out into a dry place. And she maketh him lie with her and if he
will not or may not she slayeth him and eateth his flesh.
The Aberdeen Chronicle
(1688) claimed that mermaids can be seen and heard singing hymns at the
mouth of Scotland’s River Dee on May 1, 13 and 29.
In 1739 newspapers reported that sailors of the English ship Halifax,
newly returned from the East Indies, had eaten mermaid flesh.
In 1804 two girls
in Scotland claimed they saw a green-haired mermaid swimming in the sea
off Caithness. This may have been the inspiration for Munro five years
In the early 1820s an
embalmed mermaid, originally captured by Japanese fishermen, was
exhibited in Cape Town, South Africa. Thomas Eades, an American sea
captain, bought the mermaid for 1,000 pounds and took her to London.
There, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, Sir Everard
Home, examined the creature.
The result? The head and
arms were from an orang utan with human finger nails attached to the
fingers, the jaw-bone came from a baboon, the teeth were human, the
torso was a stuffed fake, the tail and fins came from a fish, and the
head was covered with synthetic skin with eyes painted on.
Occasional reports of
sightings of mermaids continued through the 19th century and into the
20th but were increasingly ignored by major newspapers. The age of
science including the biological sciences had dawned and people were
simply less gullible – at least about some things!
writers continue to suggest that mermaids exist. For example:
We cannot so
easily dismiss the mermaid as a purely mythical figure of nautical
legend. As with the elusive Loch Ness Monster, for example,
sightings of mermaids have been recorded throughout history with many
being caught by man.
(Sirens of the Sea, Ian Thomas, Prediction
May 1993, p. 68)
Skeptics sometimes attribute mermaid reports to sightings of seals,
dugongs and walruses. By moonlight or in poor seeing conditions
these creatures may at times resemble humans. Brewer's
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that the mermaid myth:
arose from sailors' accounts of the dugong, a cetacean whose head has a
rude approach to the human outline. The mother while suckling her
young holds it to her breast with one flipper, as a woman holds her
infant in her arm. If disturbed, she suddenly dives under water,
and tosses up her fish-like tail. (p. 722)
Mermaids continue to
appear in fiction – comics, novels and movies. Superman comics often
had Superman swimming down to Atlantis where Lori the mermaid fancied
him. Movies on the mermaid theme include Miranda (1948), Mad
About Men (1954), Splash (1984) and Splash Too
Mermaids are an example
of a myth continuing for centuries because people considered reliable
made confident pronouncements; others supported these by making up
stories of sightings perhaps for the fame and prestige; yet others made
money through fake exhibits; and victims of all this deceit who were in
no position to investigate believed it.
Incidentally, the Figian
mermaid exhibited by Barnum in 1851 was a combination of mummified
monkey and dried fish.
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