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Mermaids & Mermen: Facts & Legends

mermaids, are mermaids real, merfolk
A Russian print from 1866 shows a mermaid and a merman.
Credit: Public domain.

With nearly three-quarters of the Earth covered by water, it's little wonder that, centuries ago, the oceans were believed to contain many mysterious creatures, including sea serpents and mermaids. Merfolk (mermaids and mermen) are, of course, only the marine version of half-human, half-animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages.

C.J.S. Thompson, a former curator at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, noted in his book "The Mystery and Lore of Monsters" (Kessinger, 2010), "Traditions concerning creatures half-human and half-fish in form have existed for thousands of years, and the Babylonian deity Era or Oannes, the Fish-god, is represented on seals and in sculpture, as being in this shape over 2,000 years B.C. He is usually depicted as having a bearded head with a crown and a body like a man, but from the waist downwards, he has the shape of a fish covered with scales and a tail."

Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions, including Hinduism and Candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian belief), worship mermaid goddesses to this day. In folklore, mermaids were often associated with bad luck and misfortune. They lured errant sailors off course and even onto rocky shoals, much like their cousins, the sirens  — beautiful, alluring half-bird, half-women who dwelled near rocky cliffs and sung to passing sailors. The sirens would enchant men to steer their ships toward the singing — and the dangerous rocks that were sure to sink them. Homer's "Odyssey," written around 800 B.C., tells tales of the brave Ulysses, whose naked ears were tortured by the sweet sounds of the sirens. In other legends — from Scotland and Wales, for example — mermaids befriended, and even married, humans.

'Real' mermaids?

There are many legends about mermaids and even a few dozen historical claims of supposedly "real" mermaid sightings. Hundreds of years ago, sailors and residents in coastal towns around the world told of encounters with sea-maidens. One story, dating back to the 1600s, claimed that a mermaid had entered Holland through a dike, and was injured in the process. She was taken to a nearby lake and was soon nursed back to health. She eventually became a productive citizen, learned to speak Dutch, performed household chores and converted to Catholicism.

Another supposed mermaid encounter is described in Edward Snow's "Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea" (Dodd Mead, 1967). A sea captain off the coast of Newfoundland described his 1614 encounter: "Captain John Smith saw a mermaid 'swimming about with all possible grace.' He pictured her as having large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was 'somewhat short,' and well-formed ears that were rather too long. Smith goes on to say that 'her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.'" In fact, Smith was so taken with this lovely woman that he began "to experience the first effects of love" (take that as you will) as he gazed at her before his sudden (and surely profoundly disappointing) realization that she was a fish from the waist down. This dilemma is reflected in a popular song titled "The Mermaid," by Newfoundland band Great Big Sea:

"I love the girl with all me heart
But I only like the upper part
I do not like the tail!"

Another story, from 1830 in Scotland, claimed that a young boy killed a mermaid by throwing rocks at it; the creature looked like a child of about 3 or 4, but had a salmon's tail instead of legs. The villagers are said to have buried it in a coffin, though there seems to be no historical evidence of this fishy tale.

By the 1800s, hoaxers churned out faked mermaids by the dozen to satisfy the public's interest in the creatures. The great showman P.T. Barnum was well aware of the public's interest in mermaids and, in the 1840s, displayed the "Feejee Mermaid," which became one of his most popular attractions. People paying 50 cents hoping to see a long-limbed, fish-tailed beauty comb her hair were surely disappointed; instead, they saw a grotesque fake corpse a few feet long. It had the torso, head and limbs of a monkey and the bottom part of a fish. To modern eyes, it was an obvious fake, but it fooled and intrigued many people at the time.

Modern mermaids?

Could there be a scientific basis for any of the mermaid stories? Some researchers believe that sightings of human-size ocean animals, such as manatees and dugongs, might have inspired merfolk legends. These animals have a flat tail and two flippers that resemble stubby arms — traits that may make them resemble merfolk. They don't look exactly like typical mermaids or mermen, of course. But many sightings were from quite a distance away, and since they were mostly submerged in water and waves, only parts of their bodies were visible. A glimpse of a head, arm or tail just before it dives under the waves might have spawned at least some mermaid reports.

Modern mermaid reports are very rare, but they do occur; for example, news reports in 2009 claimed that a mermaid had seen sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of Kiryat Yam. It (or she) performed a few tricks for onlookers just before sunset, then disappearing for the night. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, "I was with friends when, suddenly, we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first, I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached, she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail."

The town's tourism board was delighted with the town's newfound fame and offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature. Town spokesman Natti Zilberman thinks the reward money is well spent. "I believe if there really is a mermaid, then so many people will come to Kiryat Yam; a lot more money will be made than $1 million," Zilberman said.

Unfortunately, the reports vanished almost as quickly as they surfaced, and no one ever claimed the reward. It's not clear what people were seeing, though the power of suggestion and imagination can be strong. Identifying animals in water is inherently problematic, since eyewitnesses are only seeing a small part of the creature. When you factor in low light at sunset and the distances involved, positively identifying even a known creature can be very difficult. Many wondered if it was just a case of mass suggestion, or even a hoax to drum up tourism. Either way, the mermaid hasn't been seen since. 

In 2012, a TV special called "Mermaids: The Body Found" renewed interest in mermaids. It presented the story of scientists finding proof of real mermaids in the oceans. It was fiction but was presented in a fake-documentary format that seemed realistic. If the program fooled people, it's because it was intended to. As the show's website noted, the movie "paints a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids, what they may look like and why they've stayed hidden … until now."

The show was so convincing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, represented in the film, received enough inquiries following the TV special that the agency issued a statement officially denying the existence of mermaids. In a June 27 post, NOAA noted, "The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species. ... But are mermaids real? 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."

Legends of mermaids may be ancient, but they are still present in many forms; their images can be found in films, books, movies and even Starbucks.

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