The Mystery and Mythology Behind The Mummified “Mermaid”

By: Mia Williams | Published: Apr 06, 2022

You might consider mermaids fictional, as they have been represented in fairytales and fiction, such as The Little Mermaid. However, medicine, history, and mythology provide the basis for the pervading fictional characterization of the half-human, half-fish woman, and her partner, the merman.

Let’s begin by exploring the fascinating discovery of the mummified “mermaid.” Where did it come from? What is the mythology behind it? And of course, is it real?

Mermaids, Mummies, and Legends

History provides an interesting facet to the mermaid legend. Although no remains of an actual mermaid as modern literature describes exist, a few seemingly mummified versions have been discovered.

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Credit: Pen News

In Japan, one village prays to the remains of what it believes to be a mermaid, also known as amabies or ningyos. In Japan, two types of mermaid exist in historical lore. The amabies feature a human torso, a face with a beak instead of a mouth, and a fish-like lower region. The ningyos feature a human head on a fish’s body.

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Discovering the Mummified "Mermaid"

A fisherman purportedly caught these remains with his fish catch during the years 1726 to 1741 in the Pacific Ocean. He then sold it to an affluent family as a curiosity. The family kept it as a treasure and passed it down through generations until putting it on display in the Enjuin temple.

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Kunio Ozawa

It’s difficult to deny the human-like qualities of this mummified discovery. It has pointy teeth, hairs on its head, and two arms reaching up towards its face. As for its lower-half, it appears to be that of a fish. Could this be evidence of mermaids or ningyos?

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Archaeologists Weigh In

In Japan it is said that eating flesh from a mermaid grants you immortality. For more than 300 years, the people who worship at the temple in Okayama Prefecture prayed to the mummified remains of a mermaid-like creature. But how could this creature be real?

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Kunio Ozawa

Archaeologists believe someone either created the specimen by sewing a monkey’s torso to a fish’s tail, but it could also be the remains of an infant born with sirenomelia, also known as mermaid syndrome.

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All Eyes on the Mermaid

The world’s fascination with mermaids was at an all time high in the 1600s through 1800s. Many historians believe that during this time manufacturers would create stuffed or taxidermied items such as the one shown here.

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Kunio Ozawa

Specifically in Japan, sailors would make these curious creations to sell to tourist or export to Europe to help the legend and mystery grow further. Today, scientists are curious what this mummified discovery is made out of. They plan to do CT scans and DNA testing to uncover whether it is made from living animals or not. These results will be published later this year.

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P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid

This wasn’t the first time someone discovered a mermaid related hoax. A famous fake immortalized by the television show The X-Files, the Feejee Mermaid or Fiji Mermaid, baffled scientists in the early 1800s as they didn’t have access to further investigate the specimen. Dutch travelers bought it, sold it to English merchants, who then sold it to an American who featured it in P.T. Barnum’s collection.

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That three-foot-long faux mermaid featured the remains of an orangutan for the head and torso with a salmon tail attached. Scientists eventually gained access and proved it a fake. It was all just an enticing hoax on display to exploit money from the curious public.

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Mermaids in Greek Mythology

Mythology also contributes to our modern picture of mermaids. In ancient Greek mythology, mermaids began as a half-human, half-bird. As mermaid myth’s developed, they transitioned from their avian roots to aquatic in Greek culture.

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Painting: John William Waterhouse

The famed Sirens hold the record as the most famous mermaids, until the mythological character Odysseus resisted their song. In mythology, the sirens could hypnotize anyone who heard their tunes. Odysseus had his ship’s crew tie him to the ship’s mast and plug their own ears with beeswax while sailing past the Sirens. The Sirens would die off if one person existed who could resist their music, and Odysseus succeeded.

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The First Recorded Mythology

The mythology of most world cultures features a mermaid, perhaps attributable to the sirenomelia disorder or to our shared Panagia roots. The first recording of this creature occurred in Syria, then known as Assyria, in 1000 BC.

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Dennis Jarvis/ Wikipedia

The fertility goddess Atargatis threw herself into a lake, transforming into a mermaid. This account of the first mermaid creature didn’t feature any horror or danger about her.

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Mermaid Sightings in History

On at least two occasions, seafaring captains considered to be some of the most trusted sources of the high seas for reported mermaid sightings. The man who mapped North America, Christopher Columbus, reported sighting one while on an exploration voyage.

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The famed pirate Blackbeard also spotted one. He marked the area on his sea map as enchanted and refused to sail into it. He warned his men to avoid doing so as well. Modern historians attempt to explain the sightings as a sea creature such as the manatee. After seeing a foreign creature in murky water after days at sea, it’s quite possible to start imagining them with more human qualities.

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Chinese Mermaid Folklore

Chinese folklore depicts mermaids as benevolent creatures who turn tears into pearls. These gentle creatures exhibit exquisite beauty. Capable and smart, the Chinese consider their mythological mermaids a blessing of the sea.

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No one knows why some cultures see the mermaid as good and others see it as an evil creature. That’s a matter for future anthropological or geographic research.

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Korean Mermaids Warn Of Danger

Korea shares China’s depiction of the benevolent, lovely sea creature. Seeing a mermaid provides a good omen. In Korean culture, the mermaid protects fishers by warning them of danger.

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Considered goddesses, they warn seafaring crews of storms brewing and “impending doom.” However, not all Asiatic cultures believe in this same vision.

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Japan's Mermaid Legend is More Grotesque

Japan sees mermaids as grotesque creatures serving as a harbinger of war if someone finds the body of one washed up on the shore. In Japanese culture, the mermaid signifies bad luck and stormy weather at sea. Because of this, sailors avoid areas known to contain mermaids.

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Eating their flesh is said to provide immortality, but few dine on them due to the dangers of approaching one. Other cultures also share the Japanese distaste for mermaids.

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Blaming Misfortune on Mermaids

Outside of Asian cultures, Brazil finds the mythological sea creature as evil, too. Known as the Iara, the mermaids receive the blame for individuals who disappear in the Amazon. Their “Lady of the Waters” mainly targets men for the disappearances.

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The British share this idea of the mermaid but blame her for sailors lost at sea. The creatures are believed to seduce sailors then drown them for folly or out of anger. Seeing the mere creature provides a bad omen.

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