Of Mermaids and Mermen (from the archives)

When I moved over to WordPress I archived all of my old posts so today I thought I would delve into the Early Modern World blog archives and reshare this post (first published in November 2011). Thank you for reading, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing I hope you have a brilliant day!:

Eyes not look on the mermaids face,

and Ears forbear her song;

Her Face hath an alluring Grace,

more charming is her Tongue.

 ~ Anon. The Beginning, progress and end of man (1688)


I grew up by the sea and spent a lot of time playing on the beach, perhaps because of this I have always loved the legends and folk tales of mermaids (and mermen!) so I thought I would do a post on them.

It is difficult to trace exactly where the idea of mermaids originates from as they feature across a number of different cultures. It is likely that mermaids as we know them today are in part a mixture of Greek mythology and fokelore, In Greek mythology the sirens were half bird/half women temptresses whose enticing music and song lured saliors onto the rocks on the island where they lived. Later sirens became depicted as aquatic creatures and rather than living on an island they were depicted as lying in wait on rocks singing, gazing at their reflection in a mirror and combing their hair (as in the 17thc image above).  It is interesting that today a ‘siren’ is still used as a description for a woman who is seductive and beautiful.

By the 17th century the the terms mermaid, siren and seamaid were interchangable, in Blount’s dictionary the definition the mermaid/siren is used as an allegory for unbridled passion:

Mermaid, Seamaid, or Siren, whereof the Poets had three, Parthenope, Leucosia and Ligea; the first used her voyce, the second a Citern, the third a Pipe; and so are said to entice Marrinersmusick, and then to destroy them. The upper part of their bodies, was like a beautiful Virgin, the neather was fishy. By these Syrens, pleasures are emblematically understood, from which unless a man abstain, or at least use moderately, he shall be devoured in their waves.

 ~ Thomas Blount, Glossographia or a Dictionary (1656)

Well nothing like the thought of an icy death to put you off sex for a while.

For mermen we again can look to Greek mythology for their inspiration; Poseidon and his son Triton are both typically presented as half fish half male creatures. In the early days of scientific discovery though, there was belief that such creatures could exist. Some male ‘sea monsters’ made an appearance in Ambroise Paré’s 16th century book Monsters and Prodigies, which was his attempt to catalogue some of the many monsters believed to exist. In the text Paré explains how a male sea monster (pictured below) came out of the Illyrian (Adriatic) sea to snare a small child, but was repelled by fishermen with stones and later came ashore only to die. Paré gives no date for the incident but quotes Gesner for the tale, persumably he had read Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (Zürich, 1551-1587) as the image is a direct copy of one Gesner used. Gesner himself was suspicious of the existence of such creatures but felt he had to include them as he could not disprove their existence.

Seemingly the question mark over whether or not such creatures existed continued into the 18th century as shown by this interesting artefact now held in the British Museum:

Although we now know that this merman was created out of the dried parts of a monkey and a fish tail, artefacts such as this one were used in 18th century curiosity collections and seemingly presented as examples of real creatures. This particular merman was gifted to HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught (the grandson of Queen Victoria) by Arisue Seijiro and was presented as a real merman which had been caught and mummified in Japan in the 18th century. Many similar creations which often originated  from Japan were used in western sideshows and curiosity collections throughout the 18th century. Even as late as the 19th century examples were exhibited, one famous hoax by P. T. Barnum in 1842 saw thousands of people in New York duped into paying to see a mermaid which was said to have been caught near the Fiji Islands. 

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