(Investigator 57, 1997 November)


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 comprehend.”

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 their legs.

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 singing.

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 later.

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!

Nevertheless, some 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:
probably 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 (1988).

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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