‘It was, apparently, a genuine letdown.
Nearing the shores of the Dominican Republic in 1493, Christopher Columbus — yes, that Christopher Columbus — saw three mermaids bobbing along the surface near his ship. This was the moment he was waiting for. He’d been primed for a sighting — after all, he’d been at sea for months, and the Caribbean was known for its wealth of sea creatures — and finally, here they were.
“In a bight at the coast of Hispaniola, I saw three sirens,” he wrote in the ship’s log. He described how the creatures “came high out of the water,” and he had a chance to give each a good, hard look.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it was. The creatures were “not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.”
Alas, poor Christopher. When it comes to mermaids, things are never what they seem.
So, you know by now that what Columbus really saw was probably a Caribbean manatee, and while we can nudge-nudge, wink-wink at the idea anyone could mistake the two, he most likely believed — sadly, to be sure — that these three were the real thing. But by his time, mermaids had been part of seagoing culture for centuries, and it would be hundreds of years before anyone would dare challenge the notion.
That was a couple of hundred years ago. These days, mermaids are objects in folklore, parables for human desire, and cultural and commercial icons, so the little dickenses are just about everywhere. They just won’t go away, no matter how many times they’re debunked as myths and hoaxes. As a result, they tell us a lot about how we look at the ocean, and what we want out of the world around us.
Whether you call her a siren, sirinu, naiad, nixie, undine, rusalka, syrinka, lorelai, mami wada, merrow, or Nikki from the Weeki Wachee Springs water park — she’s the blonde one — the mermaid of legends has captured the imagination of anyone with an unobstructed view of the ocean for thousands of years.
The myths started as stories of water deities. The ancient Babylonians worshiped a sea god called Atergatis, which was often depicted as a human with a fish’s tail. She was a moon goddess, responsible for the rise and fall of tides and for issuing fishing licenses, whose requisite fees were payable to her high priests.
The Greeks and Romans had their fair share of water spirits, too. The siren, or mermaid, or triton, or whatever, the legend goes, has such the irresistible song and incredible beauty that men will give up their lives for her. Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar, described a mermaid in his “Natural History.” He reported that, “such a meremaid was seene and beheld plainely upon a coast neere to the shore: and the inhabitants dwelling neer, heard it farre off when it was a dying, to make piteous mone, crying and chattering very heavily.”
How that’s irresistible, I don’t know, but Ulysses, of “Odyssey” fame, barely escaped their tantalizing clutches on his way home to Ithaca from the fighting in the Trojan War. Ulysses, you will recall, is the originator of the term “Trojan horse,” deployed with shock and awe on the citizens of Troy and computer users everywhere. Anyhow, warned of the danger of the sirens while touring Hades, Ulysses stuffed the ears of his fellow sailors with wax, then tied himself to the mast of the ship as they approached the island, so as not to throw himself toward the island’s rocky shore — he wanted to hear the siren’s song, but he also wanted to live to tell about it. He ordered that, no matter how much he begged, cursed or cajoled, he was not to be untied. One of the sirens apparently was so distraught that Ulysses got away that she drowned herself — don’t ask me how, although, technically, the sirens had human faces and bird bodies, which makes the drowning part make more sense. However, sometime between the third century B.C. and the middle of last December — it was actually sometime in the eighth century, if you’re keeping score — they became fish-humans instead of bird-humans, at least in visual representation of the events.
By the middle of the last millennium, you had your pick of published, eyewitness sightings. Richard Carrington, in his book “Mermaids and Mastodons,” relates the story of Henry Hudson, who was attempting to sail the North West Passage in 1625: “This evening (June 15), one of our company, looking overboard, saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the company to see her, one more of the crew came up, and by that time she has come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navel upward, her back and breasts like a woman’s as they say that saw here; her body as big as one of us, her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind, of the color black. In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, speckled like a mackerel.”
Somewhere along the way, mermaids quit playing musical instruments and started preening with comb and mirror. I’ll leave that social commentary up to you, but I assure you that if you wanted to spend some quality time with perfectly stuffy books written by tenured faculty at prestigious universities, you’ll learn that mermaids are symbolic virgin-whore seductresses who destroy men by allowing them to pursue perverse sexual fantasies or, conversely, as archetypes for women who must deny themselves for love. I didn’t write it, I’m just passing it along.
But come to think of it, I do recall a case in Kent, Washington, last September, in which an elementary school principal asked teachers to wrap up their Starbucks Coffee cups that they planned on taking into class. The coffee company, in a fit of nostalgia, had reintroduced its original bare-breasted cartoonish mermaid logo in Washington and Oregon, to celebrate its 35th anniversary. The administration, apparently, was concerned that transfixed young boys would toss themselves headlong into fits of giggles at the sight, and that waxy eye patches would be an inappropriate way to maintain classroom control, even though that strategy seemed to work for the Greeks. Similarly, illustrated posters for the 2006 Miss World beauty contest held last fall in Warsaw, Poland, were modified after the fact to cover the exposed breasts of the depicted mermaids. So maybe there’s something to the Little Vixen theory.
On the other hand, you get the feeling that being a mermaid isn’t all its cracked up to be. Take the Little Mermaid — not the “Unda-da-Sea” Disney one; the Dutch one. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the littlest of the King Merman’s daughters — that would make her a little princess — saves a handsome prince from a shipwreck, falls in love, asks the sea witch to give her a secret potion to help her turn into a human, takes the potion, loses her tail, which splits into two legs, and learns to walk upright, albeit with excruciating pain. Oh, because she’s given her tongue to the witch, who covets her beautiful singing voice, she can’t talk and tell the young prince of her good deed. Anyhow, long story short, the prince doesn’t fall in love with her, and she dissolves into foam on the sea. The prince, on the other hand, lives happily ever after with his beautiful new wife. I’m guessing this happy little ditty isn’t told at storytime in Kent, Washington, public schools.
The more cynical, and probably more correct, take on the whole mermaid thing was that the mermaid became a symbol of empire and domain, a creature that demonstrated one’s ability, in a national sense, to travel to disparate parts of the world and, of course, come back again. Mermaids were common figureheads on sailing ships from many countries for hundreds of years, and there are mermaids on the bridge supports in St. Petersburg, Russia, along canals that lead out to sea.
As such, the mermaid myth was one of the great cultural exports of colonial Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. That’s how the sirinu story spread to the Andes, and the mami wata myth to Africa. Actually, there’s some question about the latter. Mami wata is either pidgin for “mother water,” or it’s derived from ancient Egypt, whereby “ma” is wisdom and “uadi” is ocean, which puts the 15th century date off by a touch more than 4,000 years.
Anyway, mami wata is noteworthy for bestowing riches and good fortune on those she favors and impotence, poverty, insanity, and probably a poorly defined fashion sense for those she doesn’t. Spirit medium Edina Chizema was found guilty last March of swindling a Harare, Zimbabwe, businesswoman out of $30,000 with promises that she’d invoke mermaids to help recover the woman’s stolen car and help solve the woman’s unspecified “personal problems” — whatever that means — according to the Associated Press. The sum was to be used to feed and house the mermaids in a Harare hotel, invoke ancestral spirits to find the car, and buy generators to illuminate a lakeside ceremony.
Indeed, for much of the last 3,000 years, mermaids are no more unlikely than sea monsters, dog-headed humans, or other misfits of the zoological catalog that were embraced as mysteries of The Maker’s imagination. Up through the 17th century, there were few naysayers. People believed, and why wouldn’t they? I mean, it’s not like anyone was trying to model the mermaid genome back then. And, obviously, depending on who you ask, some people around the globe still do believe.
Yet, by the 1800s, the main constructs of modern natural history were emerging, and a few folks who cared about such things started to think twice about just how unlikely these things might be. And they began their campaign to ruin it for the rest of us forthwith.
Yet, while they were busy with that, everyone else was lining up to see a curiosity from Asia. Jan Bondeson relates the exact story in his book, “The Feejee Mermaid”: Capt. Samuel Barrett Eades was either an entrepreneurial genius or a woeful schmuck, or maybe both, but while in Dutch Indonesia, he came across the creature that would eventually be called — what else — the Feejee Mermaid. It was a ghastly sight. Shriveled, dry, with an anguished face, and claws — hands — extended as if its last moments as the mythical creature were particularly, and unpleasantly, long.
The owner of the mermaid made Eades an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he traded his ship, the Pickering, and all its cargo — mind you, it wasn’t exactly his ship, and it definitely wasn’t his cargo — for the prune of a monster. Eades hitched a ride home — no doubt impatiently, given the status he expected to achieve as one of the world’s greatest explorers who had found the missing link between man and fish — and on his roundabout way, he met with a certain Dr. Philip, a representative of the London Missionary Society in South Africa. The good doctor was astounded, and wrote a long letter to the London Philanthropic Gazette, which was dutifully reprinted in Gentleman’s Magazine — sort of the Time magazine of the era — to relate the incredible discovery.
When Eades, and more importantly, the mermaid, arrived in London in September 1822, the city, and the Pickering’s owner, was waiting. Eades booked the backroom of a popular coffee shop — after paying a special deposit for wear and tear on the carpet — and charged a pretty penny, or rather, a whole shilling, for admission. And people lined up for a chance to gawk at the freak show, to the tune of 300 or 400 shillings a day. Eades’ case was bolstered when naturalist Dr. Rees Price had the opportunity to examine the mermaid and publish his findings. He declared, indisputably, that the scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries were right — mermaids did exist.
Of course, all good scams must end. The ship’s owners were peeved to Biblical proportions, and were doubly perturbed when Eades refused to share in his profits. There was a custody battle — Eades threatened to take his mermaid and leave the country, while the ship’s owners petitioned to have the mermaid made a ward of the crown — but once a noted anatomist and zoologist declared the creature a fake, things went downhill fast. Dr. Rees Price, the guy who said it was real, suffered something of a “career crisis” — apparently it’s not a good move for a would-be scientist to exclaim that a creature held together by wire hoops is the real deal — the mermaid was relegated to second-billing in a traveling show with Toby the Learned Pig, and Eades spent a lot of time working for free to pay back his little business blunder.
Yet, Eades wasn’t the first person who tried to make a buck off a fake mermaid and, frankly, the guy who made it got off scott free, unless Eades somehow happened across him again. In fact, mermaid-making was something of a closet industry with a pretty hardy return on investment. Here’s how it worked: Fisherman stitches together a monkey and a fish during arts-and-crafts hour. Fisherman throws mermaid into his net, hauls it ashore, and exclaims to the town folk that he’s found a magic creature. Conveniently, he lets drop that in its death throes, the mermaid told him certain destruction was coming in the form of a great flood, and the only way to protect one’s self was to carry a special mermaid amulet of protection. You guessed it: The fisherman just happened to have a collection of said amulets for sale, given to him by the prescient mermaid. Sure, he could be making all this up, and no disaster was coming, but who wants to guess wrong?
Fact or Fiction
As good a tale as it is — get it, “tale”? — Eades’ Feejee mermaid isn’t even the most famous of the hoaxes. That honor is reserved for, who else, P. T. Barnum. The irony is that it may very well have been the same mermaid. It’s all in the marketing.
The chain of custody is a little shaky, but an associate of Barnum’s, a Miles Kimball, proprietor of the Boston Museum, reportedly acquired the mermaid from London in the 1840s from someone who could have been Eades’ son. But if Eades was naïve in his optimism that the mermaid would somehow prove true, Barnum recognized a sure-fire way to separate gullible Americans from their money when he saw one, according to Bondeson. The great showman leased the mermaid from Kimball to serve as the centerpiece of his new Scudder’s Museum.
From there, he set out to create an elaborate back story for the creature. By now — this is the mid-1800s — the scientific community had all but abandoned the idea of a “missing link” between man and fish. The average exhibit-goer, though, reserved a wait-and-see attitude, so Barnum pooh-poohed the former by making up “experts” to appease the latter. He hired a friend to portray the expert to mermaid-hungry newspaper reporters. He had no shame. None whatsoever.
Neither, apparently, did the friend, who gave great lectures under the guise of Dr. Griffin of the equally mythical London Lyceum of Natural History, during which he explained his “Great Chain of Being” theory of natural history. The mermaid was the link between man and fish, the flying fish was the link between bird and fish, and the platypus the link between the seal and duck. Since there were sea dogs, sea horses, and sea elephants, according to the theory, there should be no reason why there couldn’t be sea humans.
Barnum’s pal eventually split the gig, apparently irked by both Barnum’s tightfistedness with the rewards of his hard work and by the daily doses of irritated viewers who had expected half-nude women instead of shriveled monkeys. The Feejee mermaid, it turns out, did not meet anyone’s ideal of what a mermaid should look like any more than a manatee did, and most felt taken. Imagine. Eventually, the scene got a bit too tense, and Barnum recruited a friendly Universalist minister to scorn cynics in a sermon for doubting God’s ability to create any such creature as he pleased.
As I said, no shame at all.
The mermaid went back to Kimball and, years later, Barnum sent away to Japan to have a replica made for another oddities tour. The original mermaid was probably destroyed in a fire at the Boston Museum in the late 1800s, though rumors abound that the mermaid ended up in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology at Harvard University. But the museum would like you to know that this is just a rumor. They’ve checked, thanks for asking. Please don’t call. You kind of get the feeling they don’t like to talk about it.
They are, however, happy to pass along a brochure called Buried Treasures of the Peabody Museum that describes the mermaid’s history and the museum’s efforts to authenticate its source. In short, they don’t have any idea where it came from, but, gosh, what a tizzy it’s caused. “The light she sheds on early nineteenth century mass production among primitive peoples for the titillation of gullible American sailors is of as much interest to ethnologists as to zoologists,” the brochure says.
Compare and contrast the two episodes, and you can see that something was afloat by the mid-1800s. While Eades glommed on to the notion that anyone could be an expert, and wittingly or not, picked “scientists” who would vouch for the creature’s authenticity, Barnum went ahead and leapt across the line between authentic and artificial.
As the Feejee mermaid made its succession of exhibits, the science of natural history was speeding through its teen-aged years into full-fledged grown-up reason. Remember, about this time, natural history adopted wholeheartedly the Linnaean System, which uses genus-and-species categories to not only organize the catalog of plants and animals but also show relationships. The system, of course, is named for Carolus Linneaus, the father of modern taxonomy, and the acceptance of his work contributes to why Barnum’s Great Chain of Being seems so darn cute now.
“One reason we know that it’s an impossible creature has something to do with our understanding of the whole creation,” says Harriet Ritvo, Arthur J. Conner professor of history and the head of the history faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Even before there was ‘evolution,’ scientists who were interested in systems could see [ways that] animals resembled each other, and ways they didn’t resemble each other.”
Consider this: Early descriptions of animals found in the “New World,” that is, your back yard, often incorporated combinations of two or more dissimilar animals — neck of a horse, head of an alligator, ears of a wildebeest, and so forth. “When there isn’t a systematic way that animals are related to each other, you’re left thinking they were created in the beginning by God, who is completely all-powerful and can do as he likes,” Ritvo says. “So there’s no reason not to have animals that are composed of pieces of other animals, no matter how dissimilar.”
Still, the legend persists.
A few weeks after the tsunami ravaged the Indian Ocean region in December 2004, tragically killing hundreds of thousands of people, a story began to circulate on the Internet that a mermaid had washed ashore on Marina Beach in Chennai, India. According to the rumor, the creature was being held under tight security at the Government Museum Chennai. The e-mail even included pictures of a shriveled, mop-headed kadal-kanni not unlike Eades’ creature. The story stirred up enough fervor that an English-language newspaper in Singapore, The Straits Times, even gave it some tongue-in-cheek attention while exposing the hoax for what it was.
The legend’s endurance probably has as much to do with how it illustrates a hope — ill-guided or not — that there’s more out there that reason and logic can’t explain than any particular belief that mermaids are probable. When it comes to fish women, and Bigfoot, and aliens, and the Loch Ness monsters, we just can’t help ourselves. We want to believe.
“The natural history of mermaids cannot be understood by the methods of natural science alone,” cautions Carrington in “Mermaids and Mastodons.” “These hauntingly beautiful goddesses of the seas, full of mystery and danger, were surely conjured from the chaos of the waters in answer to some primal human need … these genus and species may not be carefully docketed in the Nomenclator Zoologicus, but their reality in terms of poetic truth is firmly established in the impassioned imagination of men.”
At least as long as they don’t look too closely.