top of page

Mermaids And The Fashions Of Belief

FATE Magazine June 2003

There is a modern mythology that holds sway over those who research and investigate strange phenom ena. There are certain subjects that have been deemed acceptable while others are given the cold shoulder. Bigfoot, alien abductions, telekinesis, lake monsters, ghosts... There are only so many topics that those who claim to study the unexplained are willing to let into their belief systems. Time has shown that these beliefs come and go that they are fashions. Their stock rises and falls as we learn more about their origin and growth. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a widespread belief in mermaids and mermen. Today, mermaids are out. Way out. At least in the West. Some years ago I wrote about a southeast Asian mermaid sighting that was taken completely seriously by the populace. Mermaid belief is very strong in Asia, particularly along the coasts. Many people in Hong Kong believe in mermaids as fervently as many Ameri- cans believe in Bigfoot. In fact, there are serious sightings of mermaids that predate recorded Bigfoot sightings, and with a lesser degree of ambiguity than the early recorded Bigfoot accounts. Horace Beck, in his excellent volume Folklore and the Sea (Mystic Seaport Mu- seum: Mystic, Connecticut, 1985), suggests that most rational people today, particu- larly scientists, hold the belief that “there are no such creatures [as mermaids] and those who attest to having seen them are either mad or liars.”Beck,an expert in mermaid folklore, feels that the belief that all mermaid accounts are the result of lies and insanity may be a convenient attitude but that it “hardly jibes with the facts, for many people of considerable stature, including Henry Hudson and several bish- ops, have reported seeing merfolk.” Sightings by Credible Witnesses Beck wonders what we are to make of the provincial governor who housed what he called a “sea-wyfe,” which was de- scribed in some detail. The governor wrote that his unusual house guest stayed in a tub of water for four days, seven hours. She was 59 inches long, cried like a mouse, refused shellfish, and had excrement like a cat. The Henry Hudson case that Beck men- tions occurred during the great explorer’s attempt to find a northern passage to the East Indies. On June 15, 1608, Hudson recorded in his log that two of his com- pany, Thomas Hill and Robert Raynor, said that they had seen a mermaid: “From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a womans. . . her skin was very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.” On September 8, 1809, William Munro, a schoolmaster in Caithness, wrote a most unusual letter to The Times of London, England, stating that 12 years earlier he had been walking along a Sandside Bay shore when he saw what he first thought was a naked woman sitting on a rock and combing her light brown hair.After a few minutes it dropped into the sea and swam away into waters considered too dangerous for any normal person to swim in. In Munro’s letter to The Times, he wrote that, “It may be necessary to remark, that previous to the period I beheld this object, I had heard it frequently reported by several persons, and some of them persons whose veracity I have never disputed, that they had seen such a phenomenon as I have described, though then, like many others, I was not disposed to credit their testimony on the subject. I can say of a truth, that it was only by seeing this phenomenon, I was perfectly convinced of its existence. If the above narrative can in any de- gree be subservient towards establishing the existence of a phenomenon hitherto almost incredible to naturalists, or to re- move the skepticism of others, who are ready to dispute everything which they can- not fully comprehend, you are welcome to [it]. Your most obliged, and most hum- ble servant, William Munro.”

Of Seals and Strangeness Horace Beck notes that a “very popu- lar theory is that the mermaid is a poorly identified seal. This is credible when we consider that seals do have breasts and rea- sonably human faces, live in both warm and cold water and in many ways resem- ble the picture-book mermaid. “Furthermore,”Beckcontinues,“inrel- atively recent times mermaid stories were told almost interchangeably about seals.” The downside of the seal theory is that it does not satisfactorily explain mermaid cases in which the entity was seen at very close range. Also, mermaid sightings have been most common among fishermen in northern locales, and these men live close to thousands of seals. Since seals are a normal part of their daily lives, it would be highly unlikely that weather conditions or too much to drink would cause these old salts to mistake a seal for a mermaid at close range. For example, in one undated case on the Isle of Man, it was reported that a crew affirmed that they had found a mermaid in their herring net: “ On examining their captive, by the largeness of her breasts and the beauty of her complexion, it was found to be female, nothing...could be more lovely, more exactly

formed, in all parts above the waist resembling a complete young woman, but below that, all fish, with fins, and a huge spreading tail.” She was taken ashore, but they could not get her to eat or drink, and at the end of the third day when “she began to look very ill with fasting,” they opened the door of the house. She then slid on her tail to the beach and plunged into the sea, where she swam away. In 1830, the Outer Hebrides island of Benbecula was the site of one of his- tory’s stranger mermaid accounts. Women cutting seaweed reported that they had met a creature of “female form playing happily off the shore.” Several days later, the mermaid’s dead body was found two miles from where she had first been seen. The description of the female unknown was detailed and quite strange: “The upper part of the creature was about the size of a well-fed child of three or four years of age, with an abnormally developed breast. The hair was long, dark and glossy; the skin was white, soft and tender. The lower part of the body was like a salmon, but without scales.” In 1833, off the Isle of Yell, six fishermen reported that their fishing line had be- come entangled with a mermaid. They said they had kept her on board their boat for three hours and that she was about three feet long. She had neither gill nor fins, and there were no scales on her body. The fishermen, who were very superstitious, threw her overboard eventually and said that she dived in a perpendicular fashion. A natural history professor who was familiar with the case wrote that, “The usual resources of skepticism that the seals and other sea-animals appearing under certain circumstances operating upon an excited imagination and so producing ocular il- lusion, cannot avail here. It is quite im- possible that six Shetland fishermen could commit such a mistake.”

Want to read more?

Subscribe to to keep reading this exclusive post.

Subscribe Now
bottom of page