I have gained a reputation throughout my life, rightfully so, for being a collector, admirer, and sometimes even believer in mermaids. Because of this, anyone who knows me and happens to come across anything mermaid related sends it my way. When Mermaid: The Body Found was aired on Animal Planet I must have gotten ten notifications from friends that wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. And I didn’t, of course! When I was a child I received so many mermaid statues, books, figurines, etc. that by the time I graduated high school I was a bit mermaided out and actually made it known that I had put a pause on my collecting of mermaid paraphernalia. But then several years passed without those gifts and I started regretting it. Needless to say, the collection continues.
My friend Kim, who I met in DC a few years ago, shares the very same affinity for mermaids. (And happens to kind of look like one too.) Her husband Trey sent me this article this morning, and I love it. At the end of the day, I am a science person. I am a skeptic. I don’t believe in mermaids, but I really wish I did. It’s like when I was a kid, I wanted so badly to believe in Santa Claus, but even at the youngest age, I knew the truth. But believing is so much more fun, if one can muster it up.
Anyway, the article Trey sent me addresses the myth of the mermaid and some animals that lay behind that myth. Mermaids, Sirens, nereids, etc have cropped up in Greek mythology and in many other cultures in different manifestations. But most of them are based on something people saw, something that provided enough visual evidence to allow them to believe in the mythical creatures. These are stories that I find fascinating from a history perspective as well as a mermaid perspective.
There is one animal kingdom classification in particular that is responsible for the myth. It is called Sirenia. I use this in my evolution story for the Sirens in my book, whose scientific name is Homo sapien sirenia. In real life, the dugong and the manatee fall under this category. The dugong is a rare and intriguing creature. I remember reading about it in Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and being terrified. The manatee is similar and both have human-looking faces, albeit very unattractive. Christopher Columbus says it here…
“The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.” And then they got back to the murdering and enslaving.
In reality, the admiral had likely seen a manatee (what Smith had seen is anyone’s guess, considering manatees don’t venture that far north). And indeed it was strange creatures like these, a group known tellingly as the sirenians that also includes dugongs, that explorers encountered as they made their way around the world. Sadly, they ended up driving the most incredible sirenian to extinction: Steller’s sea cow. At an astonishing 33 feet long and 24,000 pounds, it was 20 times heavier than the manatee. But because it was so large, it never needed to fear predators before humans. By the turn of the 19th century, it was gone.
But it was the dugongs that were likely the source of the myth in the first place. They swim the waters around what used to be the former Syrian and Babylonian empires, and could well have inspired the half-human half-fish gods Atargatis and Ea. And as Michael Largo notes in his Big, Bad Book of Beasts, the mermaid as a bad omen could come from ships sailing too close to shore, where sirenians congregate, only to run aground. Because when in doubt, blame the harmless aquatic mammal.