Mermaid mummy from 1682, Zuiryugi Temple in Osaka, Japan
Throughout history, and in virtually all cultures, there has been widespread belief in mermaids/mermen, sirens, nixies, or other creatures that haunt the waters. Yet we should avoid the oversimplified belief that people in the past were all gullible and believed anything they were told. There were early doubters, such as the ancient Pliny, who stated "I do not believe in sirens." Yet stories still persisted throughout the centuries-and not just in folklore and legends, but history holds numerous accounts of eyewitnesses who claim to have seen such creatures. Many of the claims even had "great scientific merit." Many highly respected people were among those who reported mermaid sightings, including Christopher Columbus, who met with three sirens "dancing on the water." A fisherman in India joined the body of an ape with that of a fish in the early 1800s, and attracted many "experienced men" who dedicated much time to research what they thought was newly discovered scientific evidence, and it was sold for a high price.
The agreed upon scientific explanation for these scores of accounts now attribute the sightings to sea creatures such as manatees and seals, and it's likely that many of the witnesses were drunk at the time. There is a story of a drunk sailor who was grabbed by a seal in the port of Constantinople and dragged into the water-it's easy to see how, in an inebriated state, the soldier might have attributed the strange circumstance to a siren who had fallen madly in love with him.
The t.v. show "How I Met Your Mother" has an episode entitled "Mermaid Theory" in which the character Barney explains the existence of mermaids as the result of sailors, who, after months and months at sea and with women in sight, eventually began to go a little crazy and see manatees as beautiful women. Unlike many of Barney's theories on the show, this one isn't entirely wrong. I'm sure strange things can happen to men trapped on a boat with no land in sight for months at a time.
Maximilian Schele de Vere describes the many humanlike characteristics of several sea creatures, who might cry when mistreated, have big emotive eyes, and some can even be taught to say "Papa." Yet I still think you'd have to be extremely drunk to mistake a seal or manatee for a beautiful woman combing her long golden locks...many descriptions of mermaids are quite detailed, down to eye color. I think in addition to drunkenness and the loneliness of sailors at sea, there must have been some other explanations, either intentional deception or simply seeing what you want to see/have always believed.
Creating mermaid remains was at a peak during Victorian times, when live mermaids or "mermaid mummies" were common carnival attractions. According to Timothy Schaffert, such mermaids were created from a variety of sources, from the remains of other animals to papier-mache, and some would even rob human graves in an attempt to make their mermaids more realistic. Not all live mermaids were willing-De Vere cites an instance when some Quakers started an investigation and rescued a woman who had been forced to wear a fish tail and comb her hair in front of spectators. Some mermaid hoaxes became quite famous, such as P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid.
Replica of P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid
Schaffert claims that many in the audience who flocked to see such exhibits were not themselves believers (although some staunchly believed), but were almost more interested in discovering for themselves how the mermaid had been created-there is a certain appeal to being the one to figure out how it was done, much like watching a magic show and trying to see the strings, or the appeal of mystery and detective stories.
Victorian mermaid mummy
The desire to delude people with hoaxes exists today in tabloids and internet claims. Some people delight in attempting to pull one over on the masses; and we masses tend to eat up sensational stories, if for nothing else to prove that we are too sophisticated to believe what the gullible do. Yet I strongly agree with this quote by De Vere: "There is, however, quite enough that is truly marvelous in some of the greater denizens of the deep, to engage our interest, and to find in them the originals of the fabled beings of whom we have spoken, without resorting to such gross and cruel deception." As with the search for fairies, if we were to discover that such things existed as diminuitive flying creatures that resemble humans, or some creature has evolved that is a combination of fish and mammal, what would that prove? Does the world need these specific combinations of beauty and wonder to be considered marvelous? I hope that the excitement that fairies and mermaids brings us can help us not to be disappointed if they don't exist, but to realize how incredible each part of creation already is.
Maximilian Schele de Vere, Wonders of the Deep: A Companion to Stray Leaves from the Book of Nature, 1869. Found in Surlalune's Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World
Mermaid mummy images from Bayberrygallery.com