Mermaids (masculine: mermen) – legendary creatures, half-human, half-fish. Generally considered mythical. But not so long ago, these creatures weren’t considered mythical. There have been a number of sightings of them – some by reputed persons – throughout history. Here are some of these sightings.
From a somewhat skeptical source:
Something strange began happening in the seaside town of Kiryat Yam, Israel in 2009. It started with one person, but soon dozens of other people reported seeing the same astonishing sight: a mermaid frolicking in the waves near the shore.
Eventually, so many eyewitness accounts were being reported independently of each other that the local government took notice and decided to offer a prize of one million dollars to the first person who photographed the mermaid.
Stories about mermaids have existed since the beginning of time. From Homer’s sirens to Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, these alluring half-women, half-fish creatures make appearances in folktales spanning cultures and centuries. However, that is generally where mermaids remain: in the realm of fiction.
It might seem bewildering that a government would actively endorse belief in a supposedly mythical creature, but a surprising number of the most legendary explorers in history have also recorded mermaid sightings.
Henry Hudson was famously the first European to sail up the river and explore the bay that both now bear his name. In 1608, Hudson noted in his logbook that a few of his crew had spotted a mermaid swimming close to the ship’s side looking up at them.
The sailors claimed that from the navel up “her back and breasts were like a woman’s” but when she dove under the water “they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise.”
Captain John Smith is probably best known for his exploits in Jamestown, the first American colony, but Smith had quite a few adventures on the high seas before he ever met Pocahontas. These maritime escapades continued in 1611, when he was sailing off an island in the West Indies and saw a woman “swimming with all possible grace” who, despite her “long green hair” was “by no means unattractive.” The intrigued Captain Smith then observed that “from below the stomach the woman gave way to the fish” as the lovely siren slipped away.
It should come as no surprise that the most famous explorer of all also spied some mermaids on his journeys. On Jan. 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids near the Dominican Republic. Columbus was not as fortunate as Captain Smith: his mermaids were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Overall, he was rather unfazed by the incident since he offhandedly noted that he “had seen some, at other times, in Guinea, on the coast of the Manequeta.”
So did three of Europe’s most famous explorers really offer proof of the genuine mermaid sightings? After all, men who spent their lives sailing the uncharted high seas seem like the best candidates to spot them. However, there may be a less fantastic explanation behind these siren sightings.
In fact, Smith’s tale may have been pure invention. The earliest traceable reference to the captain’s encounter with a green-haired mermaid is an 1849 newspaper article, written by none other than Alexander Dumas. The Three Musketeers author may have come up with the tale of Smith and the siren just to spice up his own story.
Historians generally agree that the mermaid sightings Hudson and Columbus likely saw were just manatees. These aquatic mammals (members of the “sirenian” order) have five sets of bones in their forelimbs that resemble fingers and can turn their heads in a humanlike manner thanks to neck vertebrae. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see how wishful sailors starved for female company might mistake the silhouette of a manatee below the water for a mermaid.
As for the Kiryat Yam mermaid, the town council denies the reward was a publicity stunt, although the prize money has yet to be collected.
The manatee explanation – pulled out every time historical mermaid sightings are brought up – simply doesn’t work for the Hudson sighting – as there was a very clear description of breasts, etc. If genuine, it could only have been a mermaid.
From another skeptical source (whose explanation simply fails to explain all sightings):
Mermaid accounts and sightings
“And I have heard a hundred times more about mermaids from the lips of Orkney peasants than I have ever saw in books.”
However, the sea was not merely home to long-necked behemoths, with a number of historical accounts of creatures that the witnesses referred to as “mermaids”.
The Deerness mermaid
Probably the most famous of the mermaid sightings in Orkney took place over a few summers around 1890.
At this time there were a series of sightings of a “creature” that came to be known as “the Deerness Mermaid”.
A regular visitor to Newark Bay, in Deerness, the mermaid went on to achieve considerable fame, with hundreds of eyewitnesses swearing to the validity of their encounters.
From documented reports, it appears the mermaid stayed some distance from the shore, so exact details are vague.
But one account does provide a good description of a sighting and, as you will see, it was a far cry from the archetypal storybook mermaid:
“It is about six to seven feet in length, has a little black head, with neck, a snow white body and two arms, and in swimming it just appears like a human being. At times it will appear to be siding on a sunken rock, and will wave and work its hands.”
The Hoy sea woman
Another mermaid encounter was reported in 1913, and detailed multiple sightings of a “mermaid” in the deep waters off the south-eastern coast of Hoy.
“Ralph Taylor and crew, when visiting their lobster creels the other day, saw a strange creature, which looked like a mermaid, close by the foot of the Old Man.
“It rose out of the water to the height of three feet and looked like a lady with a shawl round her shoulders, and streaming down her face.
“This is the third occasion it has been seen at close range by them. The oldest people have never seen anything like it before, and wonder what it can be. Some think it must be the Deerness Mermaid on tour.”
The King’s Mirror
What is intriguing about the Hoy mermaid account is the similarity between it and a medieval Norse text called The King’s Mirror.
In this text, the author gives a description of a merman encounter at sea:
“This monster is tall and of great size and rises straight out of the water. It has shoulders like a man’s but no hands. It’s body appears to grow narrower from the shoulders down, so that the lower down it has been observed the more slender it has seemed to be.
“But no-one has ever observed it closely enough to determine whether its body has scales like a fish or skin like a man. Whenever the monster has shown itself, men have always been sure that a storm would follow.”
This ancient account describes perfectly the creature the Hoy fishermen encountered three times in 1913.
But what was it?
An atmospheric phenomenon?
A recent study of atmospheric conditions may hold the key.
Could it be that the “Hoy Sea Woman” sightings owe more to an optical illusion than to supernatural denizens of the sea?
The clue lies in the strange, elongated shape of the creature and the fact that storms generally followed their sightings. In the cold northern waters surrounding Orkney, the warmer air that precedes a storm mixes, in a layer, over the sea, creating a swirling mass of air.
This vortex of air, constantly changing temperature, acts as a distorting lens that exaggerates the height of an object at sea level but not its width.
Seen through this distorting wall of air, the top of a seal’s head, or even a rock, can appear like the towering mermaid described in both accounts.
More from the skeptics:
In 1493, sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three “female forms” which “rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented”. The logbook of Blackbeard, an English pirate, records that he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called “enchanted” for fear of merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard himself and members of his crew reported seeing. These sightings were often recounted and shared by sailors and pirates who believed that mermaids brought bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their gold and dragging them to the bottom of the sea. Two sightings were reported in Canada near Vancouver and Victoria, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967. A Pennsylvania fisherman reported five sightings of a mermaid in the Susquehanna River near Marietta in June 1881.
In August 2009, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay waters and doing aerial tricks, the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam offered a $1 million award for proof of its existence. In 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. It was reported by Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the water resources minister.
Another not-entirely-sold-on-it source:
Mermaid Sightings Throughout History Leave Us Wondering If We Believe It or Not!
Is there evidence of aquatic humanoids?
We recently examined the evidence of unicorns possibly being real at one point in history, but could the same be said for another glittery myth—mermaids?
Half beauty. Half fish. Don’t let Ariel dupe you. Even Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is more twisted than you think. Our protagonist mermaid has her tongue cut out, gets turned down by the prince, and bubbles away into sea foam because she doesn’t have the guts to literally stab his heart and bathe in his blood—a far cry from a dancing crab!
For centuries, stories of mermaids have taken a much darker turn than a short bout of chronic laryngitis. Russia tells the tale of rusalki, the vengeful souls of women that live on as mermaids to punish men and children by drowning, and Scottish folklore fears the Blue Men of Minch, who lure sailors to their death, dragging them into the water to feast on their flesh.
Aside from fearful folklore, eyewitnesses have claimed to see mermaids with their own two eyes. Famous for settling Jamestown, John Smith recorded a mermaid sighting in 1614, off the coast of Newfoundland.
“Her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive,” mused Smith.
Christopher Columbus was a little more picky. Arguing that he saw three mermaids off the coast of Haiti on his first voyage to the Americas, in 1493, Columbus wrote, they “rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
Columbus was likely checking out three manatees, making his mermaid logbook entry the first recorded observation of the marine mammal in North America.
Related to the manatee, the dugong may have also been confused for mermaids. Literally meaning “lady of the sea” in the Malay language, dugongs are very similar appearance. In at least one instance, an alleged mermaid skeleton was proven to be a dugong.
Jenny Hanivers were curious souvenirs that began to appear in Antwerp around the mid-16th century. For centuries, Jenny Hanivers were thought to be proof that mermaid-like creatures existed, but that theory was soon debunked. Jenny Hanivers are actually derived from skates and rays.
Sailors dried, carved, and varnished the carcasses of these fish to resemble mermaids. Much like P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid, Jenny Hanivers were a hoax—nothing more than dead, disfigured rays. Regardless, they remained popular up until the 19th century.
With over 95% of our ocean unexplored, could mermaids be lurking in the deep? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advises that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” But with numerous accounts of mermaids throughout human history, we’ll let you Believe It or Not!
There are even tales from Australia!
Mermaid tales appear in myths around the world — Arnhem Land included
From seductive sirens in ancient Greece to Disney’s Ariel, our fascination with mermaids has spanned centuries and cultures.
But lesser known are the ancient Indigenous mermaid stories from our own country, which still hold meaning today.
Burarra woman Jess Phillips grew up near the Blyth River near Maningrida in Arnhem Land.
She believes there are both saltwater and freshwater mermaids in Arnhem Land.
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Unlike the freshwater Yawk Yawks, the saltwater mermaids, known as Ji-Merdiwa, are more sacred and can’t be represented in artworks.
“Every time my grandmother spoke of [the Ji-Merdiwa], she would roll her eyes and say ‘yes they are mean and ugly’. They could take different forms, they were tricky,” Ms Phillips says.
“The only time you would be able to have a glimpse of them would be down at the beach under moonlight and you might see them bobbing around. And you can hear them talking or crying.”
Protecting the sacredPhoto: A painting by Sonya Namarnyilk, depicting Arnhem Land’s fresh water mermaids known as Yawk Yawks. (Supplied: Ingrid Johanson, Babbarra Womens Centre)
Ms Phillips says the Ji-Merdiwa play an important role in looking after sacred sites, and if people don’t look after the land then the mermaids will bring sickness to them.
The Burarra woman is very concerned about threats to the river from overfishing and fracking.
“We need to look after our water so the mermaids can continue to look after our sacred sites and keep that spiritual connection with the Aboriginal people,” she says.
The role of mermaids as protectors is one of the common themes that run through mermaid folklore.
Sarah Peverley, an English professor at the University of Liverpool, is currently writing two books on mermaids.
Merfolk were first recorded in ancient Mesopotamia, she says.Photo: A bronze statue of The Little Mermaid, a fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. (Wikipedia: Avda-berlin)
The water creatures came out of the oceans to bring culture and art, and were also known as “protectors of people and places”.
“Little versions of them, sculptures of them… were carried, clay figures of them were built into foundations of building to protect them from falling down or from evil creeping in,” Professor Peverley says.
“They are interceders between the natural world and civilisation as we construct it.”
Sirens and selkies
Across the Mediterranean, Homer wrote about the sirens who lived on small islands.
The sirens sang a song that lured sailors to shipwreck, but they didn’t sing promising sex or safety — instead they promised knowledge.
“Mermaids are often linked with knowledge from a very early time, and they would promise knowledge that is beyond the normal human being, they would promise divine knowledge of past, present and future,” Professor Peverley says.
“That was the sirens’ original allure and later that gets transferred to beauty.”
Kate Forsyth has been reading and writing about fairy tales all her life. She has a particular connection to the Scottish iteration of the mermaid — known as Selkies.
Selkies were creatures that, when in the water, took the form of a seal. On land they shed their seal skin and took the form of a beautiful woman. They too had angelic singing voices.
The fable goes that a fisherman found a selkie skin and hid it. Unable to return to the water, the selkie married the fisherman and had children together. Eventually the selkie found her skin and returned to the sea.
It is believed that the first man to marry a Selkie was from the Macfee family — originally meaning son of the dark fairy.
Ms Forsyth, who is a descendent of the MacPhee family, says anthropologists believe the story was perhaps inspired by the sight of Inuits, indigenous people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska, paddling in their kayaks made from seal fur.
“In the ocean they looked like they had the body of a human from the waist up and the tail of a seal in their kayaks — but it is only conjecture no-one really knows for sure,” Ms Forsyth said.
A deep connection
Ms Forsyth believes our subconscious connection to water is why mermaids have appeared in so many different cultures.
“[Water] certainly has some deep mythic resonance,” she says.
“Water is seen as a symbol of the unconscious and also the feminine, the idea of the womb being the inner sea, children have gills before they are born. We are all connected by this sea of the subconscious.
“Perhaps it also has something to do with a longing to be freed from the shackles of our human body to be able to swim as swiftly and as gracefully as a dolphin.”
But perhaps the mermaid was created simply as a warning of the dangers that water posed.
Ms Phillips was told by her grandmother not to go out too deep in the water or the mermaids would get her.
“Mermaids would grab you using their hair. So when in the water, watch out for hair or they will take you under the water,” she says.
“One day I was out in a boat, and the engine got tangled. The driver told us not to look because he had seen what was tangled, but being a kid I looked.
“I saw something that I can’t really explain. It was very quick. There was a lot of hair, a lot of movement, and it wasn’t fish.”
While Ms Phillips believes mermaids in the Blyth River are real, Professor Peverley and Ms Forsyth don’t agree.
But we can still imagine that they are.
“It’s not impossible that there are still creatures, obviously not mermaids, still waiting to be discovered,” Ms Peverley says.
“Our oceans are like space, there is this appeal of the unknown, that desires to be explored but it’s not our native element.
“I would love mermaids to exist and in my imagination they do.”
Then there’s the relatively recent sightings in Zimbabwe:
Some more (some already covered):
10 Astonishing And Infamous Mermaid Sightings
Since the beginning of recorded history, legends have been born surrounding the elegant, beautiful, and sometimes treacherous mermaid. Their siren songs, beautiful looks, and ocean dwelling lifestyle has made the mermaid an enigma in the minds of people everywhere. Cultures across the world have their own versions of this magical being, from the ningyo of Japan to Ariel of Disney fame. A question does come to mind at the mention of mermaids: are they real?
For centuries, people from all walks of life have claimed to see this myth in the flesh. Are they real sightings? Are they tricks of the light and the eye? Are people feigning mermaid discoveries for the attention and publicity? It seems history has not answered any of those questions, as sightings are still occurring to this day. Is the mermaid a legend, or is her powerful song still pulling people into her mythical realm?
10The Mermaid of Kiryat Yam
In 2009, mermaid fever swept through the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam as a mermaid was making appearances at dusk, often performing tricks for locals and tourists alike. People in the town were claiming to see a being that was part young woman and part fish. The first local to have seen the mermaid claims that she was sunbathing, and as he and his friends approached her, she bounded from the sand and disappeared into the waves. They were all shocked to discover that the sunbathing woman had no legs, but a tail instead.
This one sighting was not an isolated event; as word spread about the mermaid, hundreds of people came forward claiming they had seen the Kiryat Yam mermaid. The Kiryat Yam mermaid has become so popular, that the town council has offered a one million dollar reward for any evidence that this mysterious creature exists. So far, only passing glances have been noted, and no one is a million dollars richer.
9Columbus and Caribbean Mermaids
Christopher Columbus is famously known for his encounters with mermaids on his voyages near Hispaniola. Columbus wrote in his ship’s log that he and the crew encountered three mermaids whilst in the water around the island of Hispaniola. Columbus documents that the mermaids were cavorting in the water, and when the ship drew near, the three mermaids rose out of the water.
To Columbus’s dismay, the mermaids were not as beautiful as depicted in the stories of yore. Columbus thought the mermaids to be quite undesirable and mannish. Today, it is believed that Columbus and his waterlogged crew were actually seeing a group of manatees. Questions arise, however: would a seasoned captain like Columbus truly mistake the chubby sea cow for a woman, no matter her appearance?
In 2012, constructions crews in Zimbabwe were scared away from their work on the Gokwe and Osbourne dams by an irate mermaid. Referred to as the mamba muntu by the locals, the mermaids were harassing workers as they attempted to complete construction on the dams. The local workers, raised in an area of folklore and myth, believed the appearance of the mamba muntu to be a bad omen and refused to finish construction on the dam.
The local council, in an attempt to pursue the continued construction of the dams, hired white workers to finish the job; this was an attempt to hire persons not engulfed in the legend and popularity of the mamba muntu sightings. However, these workers fled the construction site as well, and they vowed never to return due to the rage and harassment of the Zimbabwe river mermaid.
In an attempt to placate the irritated mermaids, local council members and chieftains decided to perform ritual rites and cleansings to allow for further development of the dams. The natural and supernatural are often of the same realm in the country of Zimbabwe; mermaids, or just illusions of the brain and eye?
7The Orang Ikan
During 1943, World War II was still raging on; the war, however, did not stop the appearance of one of the most well-documented mermaid sightings. On the Kei Islands of Indonesia, Japanese soldiers had set up a surveillance team. During the time there, several members of the surveillance team reported seeing a small humanoid figure in the water with spines on its neck and head and a mouth like a carp. The mermaid figure was often seen playing in lagoons and near the beach shores of the Kei Islands. The Japanese soldiers were bewildered by what they were seeing, but after speaking to the natives, they learned that the mystical mermaid-like creature was actually a known entity called the orang ikan or “human fish.”
As sightings continued, a sergeant with the group, Mr. Taro Horiba, was invited by the indigenous people of the island to see what they had caught in their fishing nets. Upon arrival at the village, he entered the chieftain’s home to find one of these creatures splayed out on the floor. Horiba described a small body with red-brown hair, spines along the neck, a humanoid face with a lipless, fish-like mouth full of needle sharp teeth. Mr. Horiba was confused and shocked by what he saw and urged zoologists to investigate after the war. No one believed any of his stories of mermaids in the Kei Islands. Did Mr. Horiba see a true mermaid or was this a simple misidentification?
6Active Pass Mermaid
In 1967, British Colombia became a hub of mermaid excitement when a mermaid was spotted lounging on the shore of Mayne Island. Ferry riders that evening saw a blonde woman sitting on the beach shore, she was topless, had long blonde hair, and the tail of a porpoise. Some witnesses became very upset as they believed they saw the mermaid eating a salmon, raw, on the beach that day.
After the sighting by the ferry passengers, the mermaid was seen one more time the following week. As the locals got swept up by the spotting of this mysterious mermaid, the town locals began to seek any information relating to her. The town newspaper, The Colonist, put up at $25,000 reward for the mermaid. Arrangements were even made for the mermaid to have room and board once she was found and successfully acclimated into the town setting. Although many believe that this entire mermaid sighting was a charade, there were still many who believed that what they saw was real. Is the Mayne Island mermaid a myth and or a well-played tourism ploy?
In 2008, waves were being made in South Africa as a legendary mermaid called the Kaaiman was making a splash in the news. A group of friends were camping near a river when they heard loud splashing and loud banging noises. Upon further investigation, the group came upon a woman in the water. The woman appeared to be pale white, with long black hair. Her skin had an opalescence that made her seem as if she was nearly glowing. The most shocking feature was seen when the woman turned to the group—she had piercing red eyes.
A woman ran to investigate the claims that the Kaaiman had been seen. She noted that the mermaid made a sorrowful cry, like a woman crying. After a moment of chaos with the group, the mermaid disappeared into the murky water. People of South Africa are leery of the Kaaiman, as she is known for pulling people under and trapping them beneath the depths with the objects in which you most desire. A distressed swimmer or a legendary mermaid? The people of South Africa are still questioning if they saw a legend in the flesh.
Scotland has countless mysteries and legends, with mermaids taking a place in their folklore. However, in 1830, a mermaid was apparently seen and subsequently killed by the people of Benbecula. While cutting seaweed near the shore one day, a woman claimed to have a seen a miniature woman swimming in the water. Surprised by her discovery, she called many people over to view the water dweller. As men began to rush at her in the water, she quickly swam out of their reach. Some boys in the group threw stones at the scared mermaid, one actually striking her in the back. A few days later, the corpse of the mermaid supposedly washed up on the shore. Like many of the other claims of mermaids, this one was small, with pale white skin and had the tail of a fish without scales.
After the body of the deceased mermaid had been found, the sheriff of the town thought it was only fitting that the mermaid have a proper burial. A coffin was made and the body was wrapped in a shroud. The mermaid’s coffin was then buried above the shoreline where she was found. Although the tale of the mermaid’s grave has withstood the test of time, no one is certain where the body was buried; no markers or signs have denoted where she may lie. So what did the people Benbecula see that day? Did they actually make the horrible mistake of killing a legend?
3The New Zealand Mermaid
New Zealand found itself swept up in mermaid legends when, in 2014, a crew of fisherman claimed to have found the remains of a mermaid on the South Island . The fishermen were concerned they had discovered the body of a possible murder victim. However, upon closer inspection by local authorities, it was evident that the skeleton was not entirely human.
The body resembled that of a human-like creature that was shown to have aquatic features. The discovery ran rampant with everyone in New Zealand learning about the aquatic humanoid found on the South Island. Since the authorities were unsure what to make of the find, the University of Auckland was brought in to explain what the fisherman had found. Can mermaids be added to the already odd assortment of wildlife found in the land of New Zealand?
2Bering Sea Mermaids
Henry Hudson was exploring the cold northern waters off Norway in the year 1608. Written in his journal, he describes a day when he had a strange encounter with a group of mermaids. The mermaid, Hudson claimed, saw his crew and proceeded to call up more of her mermaid sisters. He described the women as being as big as the men in his crew, with very white skin and long dark hair. Making his way down their bodies, Hudson discovered the tail which he described like that of a dolphin, but with the spotting of a mackerel. Hudson seemed thrilled with his discovery of mermaids.
Like many of the sailors of the time, people often assume that it is possible that sailors on the high seas were mistaking animals, often manatees, as these nautical beauties. Hudson’s case is strange because, sailing in the Bering Sea near Norway, there are no manatees. Naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, in his mid-1800s work The Romance of Natural History, believes there is no way that Hudson was mistaking an animal for this mermaid. He believes seasoned sailors such as Hudson would be able to identify animals in that location easily. Gosse believes Hudson either made this entire story up or Hudson saw something truly unique to the realm of science. Are their mermaids living in the cold arctic waters? Or was this just a wild sailor’s tale?
1The Deerness Mermaid
Scotland appears to have its fair share of mermaid sightings throughout history. Beginning in 1890, Newark Bay became the location of multiple mermaid sightings. Many people thought the talk of mermaids was just hearsay and rumor, however, many people began sharing their tales of what they termed the Deerness mermaid. However, this mermaid was not the beauty of past legends. People described a seven-foot long humanoid, with pale white skin and black hair. The locals described her crawling onto rocks using her arms and sliding back into the waves. The few glances of her that people got were at a distance; the Deerness mermaid was apparently quite wary and stayed far from the beach shore. However, the Deerness mermaid only stayed in the bay for a few summers and then silently disappeared back into the murky depths. Mermaid or whale? Fact or fiction? For the people of Newark Bay, the legend lives on.
Mermaids Are Real: Columbus, Shakespeare, and Pliny the ElderMermaid sightings and experiences have happened for centuries
May 30, 2013 Updated: August 15, 2013Share
People are asking, prompted by a new special on Mermaids, whether mermaids exist or not.
A look over the years shows that many people around the world have sighted or even directly experienced mermaids. Here’s a timeline of some of the major sightings and experiences, including Christopher Columbus, John Smith, and William Shakespeare.
First Century AD: Pliny the Elder writes about Nereids, or women with rough, scaly bodies like fish. They are “sitting upon dolphins, or ketoi, or hippocamps,” in some cases, he writes in Natural History.
Pliny describes how the legatus of Gaul wrote to the late Emperor Augustus about “a considerable number of nereids” being “found dead upon the seashore.” Further, “I have, too, some distinguished informants of equestrian rank, who state that they themselves once saw in the ocean of Gades a sea-man,” Pliny writes, according to a translation by the University of Chicago.
Fifth Century AD: In the book Physiologus, which is said to have been written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, there is a portion dedicated to “The Nature of the Mermaid” that is translated by graduate student Mary Allyson Armistead as follows:
“In the sea there are many marvels.
The mermaid is like a maiden:
In breast and body she is thus joined:
From the navel downward she is not like a maid
But a fish very certainly with sprouted fins.
This marvel dwells in an unstable place where the water subsides.
She sinks ships and causes suffering,
She sings sweetly —this siren—and has many voices,
Many and resonant, but they are very dangerous.
Sailors forget their steering because of her singing;
They slumber and sleep and wake too late,
And the ships sink in a whirlpool and cannot surface anymore.
But wise and wary men and are able to return;
Often they escape with all the strength they have.
They have said of this siren, that she is so grotesque,
Half maid and half fish: something is meant by this.”
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Sometime between 1040 and 1105: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, or Rashi, describes mermaids in the Talmud.
“There are fish in the sea with which half is in the form of man and half in the form of a fish, called sereine in Old French,” he wrote.
Also, not too long after, the Moshav Zekeinim, a commentary on the “Torah” by the medieval Tosafists, explains mermaids while calling them sirens, according to the book Sacred Monsters.
“This refers to the creature in the sea which is similar in part to a person, from the navel upwards, and it is similar to a woman in all aspects, in that it has breasts and long hair like that of a woman, and from the navel downwards it is a fish,” it is written in the commentary. “And it sings beautifully, with a pleasant voice.”
13th Century: Bartholomew Angelicus, in De Propietatibus Rerum, describes a mermaid, and tells of her stealing sailors from their ships.
Middle of 13th Century: Speculum Regale, or The King’s Mirror, is written in Old Norse, a translated version appearing several centuries later.
In the book there is a description of a creature found off the shores of Greenland.
“Like a woman as far down as her waist, long hands, and soft hair, the neck and head in all respects like those of a human being. The hands seem to be long, and the fingers not to be pointed, but united into a web like that on the feet of water birds. From the waist downwards this monster resembles a fish, with scales, tail, and fins. This shows itself, especially before heavy storms. The habit of this creature is to dive frequently and rise again to the surface with fishes in its hands. When sailors see it playing with the fish, or throwing them towards the ship, they fear that they are doomed to lose several of the crew ; but when it casts the fish from the vessel, then the sailors take it as a good omen that they will not suffer loss in the im-pending storm. This monster has a very horrible face, with broad brow and piercing eyes, a wide mouth and double chin.”
1389: The book Eastern Travels of John of Hesse is published, in which many perils during a voyage are relived. At one point the author writes: “We came to a stony mountain, where we heard syrens singing, mermaids who draw ships into danger by their songs. We saw there many horrible monsters and were in great fear.”
1403: A mermaid drifts inland through a broken dyke on the Dutch coast during the heavy storm. She was spied by some local women and their servants, “who at the first were afraid of her, but seeing her often, they resolved to take her, which they did, and bringing her home, she suffered herself to be clothed and fed with bread and milk and other meats, and would often strive to steal again into the sea, but being carefully watched, she could not.”
The mermaid later learned how to sew but never spoke. She died 15 years after she was discovered. John Swan, an English minister, describes the story in the 1635 book Speculum Mundi.
The book also includes the following describing mermaids:
“Transform’d to fish, for their bold surquedry :
But th’ upper half their hew retayned still,
And their sweet skill in wonted melody
Which ever after they abused to ill,*
T’ allure weake travellers whom gotten they did kill.”
1493: Christopher Columbus spots three mermaids rise high from the sea. Columbus wrote in his ship’s journal: “They were not as beautiful as they are painted, although to some extent they have a human appearance in the face.” He also noted that he had seen similar creatures off the coast of West Africa.
1560: According to Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould: “Near the island of Mandar, on the west of Ceylon, some fishermen entrapped in their net seven mermen and mermaids, of which several Jesuits, and Father Henriques, and Bosquez, physician to the Viceroy of Goa, were witnesses. The physician examined them with a great deal of care, and dissected them. He asserts that the internal and external structure resembled that of human beings.”
1590: William Shakespeare is believed to have written Midsummer Night’s Dream between 1590 and 1594. In it, he writes:
“I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid’s music.”
Soon after, he continues. “Come over here, Puck. You remember that time I was sitting on a rocky coast when I head a mermaid? She was riding on a dolphin’s back. Her singing was so sweet and pure that the rough sea grew calm and stars sot madly about the sky on hearing the sea-girls song.”
1608: Explorer Henry Hudson recounts an experience in the ship’s journal that happened on June 15, while sailing through the Bering Sea off the top of Norway.
“This morning one of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the company to see her, one more came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men. A little while after a sea came and over- turned her. From the navel upward her back and breast were like a woman’s, as they say that saw her ; her body as big as one of ours ; her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind, of colour black. In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayney.”
Later, in the mid 1800’s, in an analysis of the incident in The Romance of Natural History, naturalist Philip Henry Gosse says that the usual claim of sailors mistaking manatees for mermaids won’t work here.
“Whatever explanation may be attempted of this apparition, the ordi-nary resource of seal and walrus will not avail here. Seals and walruses must have been as familiar to these polar mariners as cows to a milkmaid. Unless the whole story was a con-cocted lie between the two men, reasonless and objectless, and the worthy old navigator doubtless knew the character of his men, they must have seen some form of being as yet unrecognized.”
1614: Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, sees a mermaid off the coast of Massachusetts.
He writes that “the upper part of her body perfectly resembled that of a woman, and she was swimming about with all possible grace near the shore.” It had “large eyes, rather too round, a finely shaped nose (a little too short), well-formed ears, rather too long, and her long green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive.”
1619: Two senators in Norway capture a merman, according to Adventures in Unhistory. The senators, Ulf Rosensparre and Christian Hollh, decided to release the merman back into the sea.
1739: The Gentleman’s Magazine describes in an issue an experience with a creature.
“Some fisherman near the City of Exeter drawing their nets ashore, a Creature leap’d out, and run away very swiftly, not being able to overtake it, they knock’d it down by throwing sticks after it,” the description reads, according to Adventures in Unhistory.
“At their coming up to it, it was dying, having groan’d like a human creature: Its feet were webb’d like a duck’s, it had eyes, nose, and mouth resembling those of a man, only the nose somewhat depress’d; a tail not unlike a salmon’s, turning up towards its back, and is four feet high.” It was publicly shown in the city.
1797: William Munro, a schoolteacher in Scotland, writes a letter to a Dr. Torrance in Glasgow, which is published in The Times of London on Sept. 8, 1809.
“About twelve years ago when I was Parochial Schoolmaster at Reay, in the course of my walking on the shore of Sandside Bay, being a fine warm day in summer, I was induced to extend my walk towards Sandside Head, when my attention was arrested by the appearance of a figure resembling an unclothed human female, sitting upon a rock extending into the sea, and apparently in the action of combing its hair, which flowed around its shoulders, and of a light brown colour. The resemblance which the figure bore to its prototype in all its visible parts was so striking, that had not the rock on which it was sitting been dangerous for bathing, I would have been constrained to have regarded it as really an human form, and to an eye unaccustomed to the situation, it must have undoubtedly appeared as such. The head was covered with hair of the colour above mentioned and shaded on the crown, the forehead round, the face plump. The cheeks ruddy, the eyes blue, the mouth and lips of a natural form, resembling those of a man; the teeth I could not discover, as the mouth was shut; the breasts and abdomen, the arms and fingers of the size in which the hands were employed, did not appear to be webbed, but as to this I am not positive. It remained on the rock three or four minutes after I observed it, and was exercised during that period in combing its hair, which was long and thick, and of which it appeared proud, and then dropped into the sea, which was level with the abdomen, from whence it did not reappear to me, I had a distinct view of its features, being at no great distance on an eminence above the rock on which it was sitting, and the sun brightly shining.”
“Immediately before its getting into its natural element it seemed to have observed me, as the eyes were directed towards the eminence on which I stood. It may be necessary to remark, that previous to the period I beheld the object, I had heard it frequently reported by several persons, and some of them person whose veracity I never heard disputed, that they had seen such a phenomenon as I have described, though then, like many others, I was not disposed to credit their testimony on this subject. I can say of a truth, that it was only by seeing the phenomenon, I was perfectly convinced of its existence.
If the above narrative can in any degree be subservient towards establishing the existence of a phenomenon hitherto almost incredible to naturalists, or to remove the scepticism of others, who are ready to dispute everything which they cannot fully comprehend, you are welcome to it from,
Your most obliged, and most humble servant,
1801: Dr. Chisolm recounts a visit four years prior to the island of Berbice in the Carribbean. The residents call mermaids mene mamma, or mother of waters. Governor Van Battenburgh gives the following description to Chisolm:
“The upper portion resembles the human figure, the head smaller in proportion, sometimes bare, but oftener covered with a copious quantity of long black hair. The shoulders are broad, and the breasts large and well formed. The lower portion resembles the tail-portion of a fish, is of immense dimension, the tail forked, and not unlike that of the dolphin, as it is usually represented. The colour of the skin is either black or tawny. The animal is held in veneration and dread by the Indians, who imagine that the killing it would be attended with the most calamitous consequences. It is from this circumstance that none of these animals have been shot, and, consequently, not examined but at, a distance. They have been generally observed in a sitting posture in the water, none of the lower extremity being discovered until they are disturbed; when, by plunging, the tail appears, and agitates the water to a considerable distance round. They have been always seen employed in smoothing their hair, or stroking their faces and breasts with their hands, or something resembling hands. In this posture, and thus employed, they have been frequently taken for Indian women bathing.”
1822: A young man, John McIsaac of Scotland, testifies under oath that he saw an animal that had a white upper half with the shape of the human body, while the other half was covered with scales and had a tail, according to a story in the London Mirror. The sighting took place in 1811. McIsaac describes the creature as having long, light brown hair, being between four and five feet long, and having fingers close together.
“It continued above water for a few minutes, and then disappeared,” according to the article. “The Minister of Campbeltown, and the Chamberlain of Mull, attest his examination, and declare that they know no reason why his veracity should be questioned.”
1830: Villagers at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland saw a small woman on shore. They tried capturing it, but failed, so they pelted it with rocks. A few days later,its corpse washed ashore, according to Hidden Animals. They then examined it. “The upper part of the body was about the size of a well-developed child of three or four years of age, with an abnormally developed breast. The hair was long, dark, and glossy, while the skin was white, soft, and tender. The lower part of the body was like a salmon, but without scales.” The creature was buried in a coffin later on.
1842: Phineas Barnum, of Barnum and Brothers fame, got connected with what was said to be a mermaid who had been caught near the Feejee Islands in the South Pacific. There is much debate whether the mermaid was a mermaid or something else.
On the supporting side, the New York Sun had a review which in part said: “We’ve seen it! What? Why that Mermaid! The mischief you have! Where? What is it? It’s twin sister to the deucedest looking thing imaginable—half fish, half flesh; and ‘taken by and large,’ the most odd of all oddities earth or sea has ever produced.”
In a portion of an autobiography written by Barnum, published by the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, Barnum says that he obtained the specimen from the estate of a dead sailor, who had purchased it from Japanese sailors.
Barnum recounts going to his naturalist to ascertain the “genuineness of the animal.” His naturalist tells him that he cannot conceive of how it was manufactured, “for he never knew a monkey with such peculiar teeth, arms, hands, etc., nor had he knowledge of a fish with such peculiar fins.”
Writes Barnum: “Then why do you suppose it is manufactured?” I inquired. “Because I don’t believe in mermaids,” replied the naturalist. “That is no reason at all,” said I, “and therefore I’ll believe in the mermaid, and hire it.” Barnum showed the animal in his museum in New York and got out of it quite a bit of money.
Others say that the whole thing was a hoax, and that it was created by Japanese artisans.
1857: The Shipping Gazette reported that Scottish seaman had spotted a creature off the coast of Britain.
“We distinctly saw an object about six yards distant from us in the shape of a woman, with full breast, dark complexion, comely face, and fine hair hanging in ringlets over the neck and shoulders. It was about the surface of the water to about the middle, gazing at us and shaking its head. The weather being fine, we had a full view of it and that for three or four minutes,” said John Williamson and John Cameron.
1947: A old fisherman in Scotland reported that he had seen a mermaid in the sea about twenty yards from the shore, sitting combing her hair on a floating herringbox used to preserve live lobsters, according to Sir Arthur Waugh in The Folklore of the Merfolk. “Unfortunately, as soon as she looked round, she realized that she had been seen, and plunged into the sea,” he writes. “But no questioning, says Mr Maclean, could shake the old fisher- man’s conviction: he was adamant that he had seen a mermaid. So one never knows!”
2008: A sighting of a mermaid happened in Suurbraak, a village in the Western Cape of South Africa, reported Aldo Pekeur, a correspondent for the New Zealand Herald. A resident of the village, Daniel Cupido, said he and his friends were next to the river around 11:30 p.m. when they heard something like someone “bashing on a wall.” Cupido went toward the sound, and found a figure “like that of a white woman with long black hair thrashing about in the water”.
Cupido said he tried to help the woman but the woman made “the strangest sound,” which Dina, Cupido’s mother, said was so sorrowful “my heart could take it no more.” The creatures are described as Kaaiman, or half human and half fish creatures living in deep pools. Suurbraak tourism officer Maggy Jantjies said she knew the people who saw the Kaaiman well, and that they did not misuse alcohol
2009: The reports from dozens of people of seeing mermaids spurred the town council in Kiryat Yam, near Haifa, to offer $1 million to anyone who can prove by photo or capture that mermaids do exist.
“Many people are telling us they are sure they’ve seen a mermaid and they are all independent of each other,” council spokesman Natti Zilberman told Sky News. “People say it is half girl, half fish, jumping like a dolphin. It does all kinds of tricks then disappears.”
2012: An official in Zimbabwe said that mermaids were hounding government workers off dam sites in several different areas. Water Resources Minister Sam Sipepa Nkomo told a senate committee in March that traditional chiefs were going to perform rituals to get rid off the mermaids believed to live in reservoirs in Gokwe and Mutare, where workers are afraid to go, according to Voice of America. Some workers reportedly went missing while others have refused to go back to install water pumps.
Traditional leader chief Edison Chihota of Mashonaland East told the media outlet that mermaids exist. “As a custodian of the traditional I have no doubt,” chief Chihota said. “For anyone to dispute this is also disputing him or herself.”
Daniel He contributed research to this article
More from Australia:
Via our friends at Corvus we recently published Secrets of the Seahouse by Elisabeth Gifford, and she has written this wonderful piece for us pondering how many Australians carry the ‘mermaid’ gene brought over with the Scots emigrants.
Secrets of the Sea House takes place on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland and explores the possible truths behind the Gaelic legends of the Seal People or Selkies – men who are seals in the water and human on land; if their sealskins are stolen, they can never go home to the water.
While researching the Selkie legend on the internet, I was intrigued to find references coming up from half way around the world in Australia. Acclaimed Australian writer Margo Lanagan recently wrote a wonderful reworking of the seal people myth entitled Sea Hearts.
I was interested to also find that the Melbourne beach district, St Kilda, carried the same name as the Hebridean island I used as a template for Moira’s home in the novel. Moira is evicted from her croft during the clearances and most of the village cleared. After potato blight from Ireland struck the islands of the Hebrides in 1840, there was a large wave of evictions and emigrations from Scotland – and Australia and New Zealand were the primary destinations.
The level of famine seen in Ireland was avoided in the Highlands and Islands when Edinburgh merchants rallied round to send grain to the starving communities, and the Scots Presbyterian church began the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society, sending well-run emigrant ships out to Australia in particular; the gold rush meant that there was a shortage of workers across all trades, especially in sheep farming. The journey to Australia was a long three months, but the passage much less perilous than those endured by the first clearance refugees forced out to America and Canada where disease was rife on the overcrowded and insanitary ships crossing the Atlantic and many families saw their loved ones committed to the sea.
The Gaelic communities arriving in Melbourne and other Australian towns were organised and educated. They brought with them a belief in education for all classes, and for both men and women. It’s no coincidence that in the novel the Reverend Ferguson of Harris is an amateur evolutionist – Darwin first mooted his evolution theories while a student in Edinburgh, a town known as the Athens of the North for its enlightenment ideals and medical universities. It wasn’t long before Scots were founding schools in Australia, including schools for girls.
The Scots communities also valued kinship, fairness and self reliance, skills that had enabled them to survive the harsh farming conditions of the Highlands and Islands and which underpinned the pioneering spirit needed to thrive in the new world.
These Scots communities fought hard to hold on to their Gaelic language and customs; sadly, the language faded within a generation or two, but not the Gaelic stories told in fireside ceilidhs – including stories of Selkies and rumours of families who were descended from the sea people.
The first inkling I had that there might be something very real behind the sea people myths came from a real letter to The Times newspaper, reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster while he was walking along the coast of Scotland. There were several such sightings reported up and down the coast by perfectly respectable people. In 1830 there was a famous funeral for a mermaid whose body was washed up on the shore of Benbecula island, her half-human remains witnessed by many people. What on earth was going on?
From research by Gaelic historian, John MacAulay of Harris, I discovered that the sea people legends are very possibly a form of oral history, going back thousands of years. The mythical Selkie is a seal that steps out of his skins on land to become a man. It could well be that the Selkie legend is describing Sami kayakers who travelled down from Norway in sealskin canoes and jackets, from as far back as the end of the last ice age; once on land they would step put of their kayaks and remove their sealskin jackets. Evidently some of the Sami kayakers stayed and intermarried with Hebrideans, giving rise to the tales of families descended from Selkies.
Sometimes these Eskimo-style Sami kayakers may have been mistaken for mermaids. After several hours at sea, the sealskin kayak becomes waterlogged and sits just below the surface of the water, looking for all the world like a wavering tail. Was this what the schoolmaster was describing in his letter to The Times?
The sightings died out, just over 200 years ago, at the very same time that the community of Sea Samis disappeared under pressure to assimilate into the Norwegian culture; their customs and their Sami language banned in Norway.
In a similar way, Gaelic and its customs were put under pressure in Scotland. Following the clearances and widespread mass emigration from the Isles, there are now no families claiming to be descended from sea people left in Hebrides. The descendants of the MacOdrum family – reputedly sons of seal people – now live in Canada.
Secrets of the Sea House is a traditional novel, written as a page-turner, I hope. But within it is a great deal of research into Scots history that is also the heritage of the descendants of Scots communities in Australia. There is evidently a lot of Scots DNA there in the Australian character. The words to the unofficial Australian anthem, Waltzing Matilda, were penned to an anonymous tune played by a band at a racecourse. The tune was later identified as a Scots song, ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ [Ed: we’ve published a book on the secret history of the song].
I don’t doubt that walking around in New Zealand and Australia there will be some very special Scots, people who are the living descendants of the sea people, whose genes have travelled from the Arctic circle to the Hebrides in sealskin canoes, and then to the other side of the world in emigrant ships bound for Melbourne and other Australian towns.
Mermaids are one of those mythical creatures that have haunted our imaginations for thousands of years. There are literally hundreds of mermaid legends spanning continents dating back centuries. Why are there so many stories of mermaids, if there isn’t some kind of truth behind the legend? Turns out, real mermaid sightings have happened in recent years from Israel to Africa to Canada! Perhaps they’re more than just mythical…
1. A Real Mermaid Sighting in Israel
- What happened and when: In 2009 a huge hub-bub in Israel swept the nation; one could call it the “mermaid craze.”
- What happened? On a small beach in Kiryat Yam, a real mermaid sighting took place, leaving the city and the entire country enthralled. For a period of several months, locals and tourists witnessed a real mermaid appear and then disappear into the ocean.
- The sighting: The woman, or mermaid, had the tail of a fish and the upper body of a lady, was beautiful. She was at first mistaken to be a sunbathing tourist by a few local men. Then, as they drew closer to the woman on the beach, they noticed she had a tail. She then dove into the water and into the sunset, without resurfacing for air even once. They knew then that they had experienced a real mermaid sighting.
- The craze: This is what began the mermaid craze in Israel. After that first real mermaid sighting, more individuals claimed to have seen this real mermaid. She only appeared at sunset and seemed to play tricks on eyewitnesses, never allowing them to get too close to her before splashing into the sea never to be seen again.
- The aftermath: The town of Kiryat Yam saw a major increase in tourism after this mermaid craze. They even offered an award of one million dollars to the person who could catch the mermaid on film. Of course, no one ever did get that real mermaid sighting evidence that the town so longed for. But we can still hope.
2. Mermaid Songs
A friend of mine told me a story of how her father heard mermaids singing from within the depths of the ocean. He and his mates were in submarines and would hear the seductive song of mermaids emanating from the ocean waves. Some men would even jump off the vessel while in a trance from the mermaids’ songs.
3. Antartica: The “Ningen”
There have been real mermaid sightings, or what the Japanese have called “ningen” sightings, in the waters off the coast of Antartica. These sea creatures appear to be very human-like, but are completely white and obviously live under the water just as other mermaids of legend.
4. Mermaids in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages in the twelfth century, a merman was caught from the waters off the coast of Orfold Castle in Suffolk. The owners of the castle held the merman for about six months, but then escaped and returned to his home in the ocean. The stories say that this merman was quiet—he apparently never said a single word to his captors, and would only eat fish when provided with meals.
5. Real Mermaids in Dyfed
In Dyfed, twelve people watched a beautiful mermaid bathing in the water. She had the body of a beautiful human woman, but a black tail splashed from behind her. This real mermaid sighting occurred in July of 1826 and was talked about for years after the occurrence.
6. Mermaids in Zimbabwe
Mermaids were seen and heard in Zimbabwe in 2002 from men who were working on a reservoir. They were driven away by mermaids, and wouldn’t return to work again. A mermaid report was published in the papers and backed by the Minister Nkomo. Apparently, all of the workers were terrified to go back to work and so the resolution was to brew traditional beer and offer it to appease the mermaids. After they did this, they were able to return to work on the reservoir.
7. Canadian Mermaid Sightings
In British Columbia, Canada, a real mermaid sighting occurred in 1967 when people saw a woman with the tail of a dolphin. She had beautiful blonde hair and was spotted eating salmon. Some tourists on the ferry actually saw this mermaid in Active Pass near Victoria. The town went nuts for the mermaid, but she has not been seen since.
8. Mer-child sightings in Britain
One intriguing story, written and published in the British Press in 1810, tells of mer-children found on the Isle of Man. Apparently, a fisherman thought he heard a dying bird and went toward the noise. There he found one dead mer-child and another that had been injured in a recent storm. He took the injured mer-child home and nursed it back to health. The mer-children were under two feet in length, had the torso of a normal child and the tail of a fish. Also, their hair was like seaweed, stringy and green. The mer-child ate mussels provided by the man and sometimes drank milk.
As with everything, it is up to the individual to decide for themselves what they believe. I myself believe these creatures to be real.
That of course raises the question about their origins, etc. Evolution-wise, they’re impossible; but then again, evolution-wise, everything today is impossible. (Simple fact.)
I believe they are Nephilim – the offspring of the fallen angels, both by humans and animals.
What do you think?