Of all the myths and legends of the sea, mermaids are amongst the most persistent. Almost as soon as humans started to sail in ships around five thousand years ago, they began to be reported. They feature in the maritime cultures of Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. They are generally depicted as having the upper body of an attractive woman, combined with the lower body of a fish. Although they are occasionally reported as benign, in most accounts they use their lovely voices and feminine beauty to lure unsuspecting mariners to a watery doom.
One of the first accounts of a recognisable mermaid is the ancient Assyrian goddess Atargatis, who was transformed into a mermaid as a punishment for killing a lover. Her image in a temple was described by one traveller as “…a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length; but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish's tail.” To the Greeks, mermaids seem to have been common place. The historian Megasthenes, while he was ambassador to an Indian King, reported that the seas around Ceylon were full of them, while in Homer’s Odyssey the hero blocks his sailors’ ears with beeswax to prevent them falling victim to the beautiful voices of the Sirens, as they attempted to lure them towards the rocks. The Romans were so convinced that mermaids existed that Pliny the Elder included them in his book on wildlife Historia Naturalis, reporting that “…several distinguished persons of Equestrian rank have assured me that they have seen them off Gades” (now Cadiz), and that the governor of Gaul even wrote a letter to Emperor Augustus to inform him about them.
Mermaids are not a purely European or Middle Eastern phenomenon, but have been reported across the globe. They feature in several Arabic folk stories, as well as in Hindu mythology, where the golden mermaid Suvannamaccha is a daughter of the God Ravana. In Southern Africa, freshwater mermaids are known as njuzu and are said to be malicious creatures who should be viewed with great suspicion. In Russia they are said to live in underwater communities, like that recounted in the epic poem Sadko, in which an adventurer visits the underwater court of the "Sea Tsar" and marries his mermaid daughter. The ancient Chinese Shanhaijing text includes descriptions of mermaids, as do early Japanese and Korean sources, although their versions combine a fish body with a human head. Most oriental accounts list them amongst the dangerous sea monsters, while in Norse accounts they are said to be full of mischief, playing tricks on fishermen.
Mermaids are not just creatures of the ancient world, but inhabit a place in modern popular culture too. This is largely thanks to the success of Hans Christian Andersen's 1836 fairy tale "The Little Mermaid". They have subsequently been depicted in plenty of books, operas, paintings and comics. That interest continues to this day with Disney’s animated versions of Anderson’s original tale, live action films like “Splash!” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and most recently an Australian teen drama called “H2O: Just Add Water.”
What has helped sustain the public’s interest in mermaids has been the regular flow of sightings made by sailors. Christopher Columbus reported seeing three off the coast of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, although he was disappointed to note that they were “…not as beautiful as I had expected.” In 1608, during Henry Hudson’s second voyage, several mermaids were sighted in the Arctic Ocean. When the pirate Blackbeard’s logbook was recovered, it identified several parts of the American coast to avoid, because they were inhabited by mermaids likely to bewitch sailors into giving up their gold before dragging them off to the bottom of the sea.
Before such accounts are written off as old history, it should be noted that sightings have persisted into modern times too. Several mermaids were reported in the late 19th century near Vancouver, while one was reported off Victoria in British Columbia in 1967. In August 2009, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay and doing aerial tricks, the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam offered a $1 million reward for proof of the creature’s existence. As recently as February 2012, work on two reservoirs near Gokwe and Mutare in Zimbabwe stopped when workers refused to continue, stating that mermaids had hounded them away from the sites.
The desire of the public to have such accounts confirmed has led to the inevitable hoaxes being played on the gullible for profit. Fake mermaids made in China and the Malay Archipelago from monkey and fish parts were exported to Europe by Dutch traders from the mid-16th century onwards. In 1825 a very convincing mermaid from Japan drew large crowds to Bartholomew’s Fair in London where it was being exhibited. On inspection, it proved to be the body of a woman with an enormous fish’s tail stitched to her skin. Never one to miss a lucrative trick, P.T. Barnum was soon exhibiting his own “Fiji mermaid” in the US, produced in much the same way.
Hoaxes aside, the sheer volume of accounts from reputable observers does require some explanation. The probable cause of all these sightings is most likely to be animal in origin. The plaintive cries of seals and sealions have often been likened to those of children, and their surfacing heads can appear human when seen in poor light, or viewed fleetingly. Many experts also believe that the manatee family of aquatic mammals, sometimes called sea cows, are another likely explanation. Although now rare, they were once more common, and might be mistaken for mermaids. The female dugong manatee in particular can suckle her young in a curiously human attitude. Add to this the pre-disposition amongst sailors to believe in them, and you probably have the explanation behind the majority of sightings. It would certainly account for Columbus’s disappointment in the appearance of the three that he saw.
I am grateful to my youngest daughter, Suzy, for suggesting that mermaids might make a suitable topic for one of my blogs. “Much more interesting then all those old ships”, I think, is how she pitched it.