A mermaid is a legendary aquatic creature with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Africa and Asia. The first stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. Mermaids are sometimes associated with perilous events such as floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. In other folk traditions (or sometimes within the same tradition), they can be benevolent or beneficent, bestowing boons or falling in love with humans.
Some of the attributes of mermaids may have been influenced by the Sirens of Greek mythology. Historical accounts of mermaids, such as those reported by Christopher Columbus during his exploration of the Caribbean, may have been inspired by manatees and similar aquatic mammals. While there is no evidence that mermaids exist outside of folklore, reports of mermaid sightings continue to the present day, with recent examples from Canada, Israel, and Zimbabwe.
Mermaids have been a popular subject of art and literature in recent centuries, such as in Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” (1836). They have subsequently been depicted in operas, paintings, books, films and comics.
In 1493, sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, Columbus reported seeing three “female forms” which “rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented”. The logbook of Blackbeard, an English pirate, records that he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called “enchanted” for fear of merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard himself and members of his crew reported seeing. These sighting were often recounted and shared by sailors and pirates who believed that mermaids brought bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their gold and dragging them to the bottom of the sea. Two sightings were reported in Canada near Vancouver and Victoria, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967.
In August 2009, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of Haifa Bay waters and doing aerial tricks, the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam offered a $1 million award for proof of its existence. In February 2012, work on two reservoirs near Gokwe and Mutare in Zimbabwe stopped when workers refused to continue, stating that mermaids had hounded them away from the sites. It was reported by Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the water resources minister.
Animal Planet broadcasts
In May 2012, a Mermaids: The Body Found, a television docufiction aired on Animal Planet which centered around the experiences of former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, showing a CGI recreation of amateur sound and video of a beached mermaid and discussing scientific theories involving the existence of mermaids. In July 2012 in response to public inquiries, and the possibility that some viewers may have mistaken the programme for a documentary, the National Ocean Service (a branch of NOAA) made the unusual declaration that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found”.
A year later in May 2013, Animal Planet aired another docu-fiction titled Mermaids: The New Evidence featuring “previously unreleased video evidence”, including what a former Iceland GeoSurvey scientist witnessed while diving off the coast of Greenland in an underwater submersible. The videos provide two different shots of what appears to be a humanoid creature approaching and touching their vehicle. NOAA once again released a statement saying “The person identified as a NOAA scientist was an actor.” The actor is separately identified as David Evans of Ontario, Canada.
In the middle of the 17th century, John Tradescant the elder created a wunderkammer (called Tradescant’s Ark) in which he displayed, among other things, a “mermaid’s hand”. In the 19th century, P. T. Barnum displayed a taxidermal hoax called the Fiji mermaid in his museum. Others have perpetrated similar hoaxes, which are usually papier-mâché fabrications or parts of deceased creatures, usually monkeys and fish, stitched together for the appearance of a grotesque mermaid. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, pictures of Fiji “mermaids” circulated on the Internet as supposed examples of items that had washed up amid the devastation, though they were no more real than Barnum’s exhibit.