Mermaids (1000 BC- ) are creatures of the sea that look like women, often with a fish’s tail instead of legs. Best known in the West is the tragic mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (1836), made untragic by Disney in a film of the same name in 1989.
Mermen are their male counterparts but hardly anyone ever talks about them.
Mermaids were sometimes seen as good luck – in China the ones with purple tails were said to smell of happiness – but they were often bad news. Blackbeard and other pirates, for example, avoided them as having the power to make men give up their gold and drag them down to the bottom of the sea. In Shakespeare and Homer they drew men to their destruction with their songs.
Some reported sightings of mermaids:
- 1493: in the Caribbean by Columbus
- 1609: in the Hudson River (near present-day New York City) by Henry Hudson
- 1610: St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland by Richard Whitbourne
- early 1700s: by Blackbeard
- late 1800s: near Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, Canada
- 2009: off the coast of Kiryat Yam, Israel
- 2012: near Gokwe and Mutare, Zimbabwe
Columbus saw them well enough to report that they are ugly, unlike in their pictures.
- 1500s: Jenny Hanivers in Europe, made out of the bodies of rays or skates
- 1842: the Fiji mermaid, which appeared in P.T. Barnum’s museum in New York. It was made out of a baby monkey and a fish sewn together. Robert Ripley later copied the idea and put one in his sideshow at Coney Island.
Mermaids appear in stories, art and religion all over the world: Europe, the Middle East, India, Cambodia, Java, the Philippines, China, Japan, the Caribbean, West Africa, etc. Narnia had mermaids. The sirens of Homer and Ovid are often pictured as mermaids. So sometimes is the Yoruba orisha Yemanja, called La Sirène in Haiti.
The earliest recorded mermaid is from 1000 BC in the story of the goddess Atargatis, mother of Queen Semiramis of Assyria.
According to science there is no proof of mermaids. The National Ocean Service of the American government stated in 2012:
No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.
Things that may have led to mermaid stories:
- Manatees and dugongs, sea mammals that at a distance might look like mermaids. They were in fact called mermaids as late as the 1800s.
- People born with sirenomelia, who are born with their legs stuck together. They rarely live more than a day or two because their kidneys and bladders are screwed up too.
- Ama divers, who can stay under water a long time. Most are women. When they come back up they breathe in a deep sighing that the Japanese call the “song of the sea”. It is something women can train themselves to do but is hard for men. In the past the practice may have been more widespread.