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!