The myth of a marine human extends as far back as 5,000 B.C., when the Babylonians worshipped a fishtailed god named Oannes. John Ashton, author of Curious Creatures in Zoology, proposes that this is the first depiction of a merman. Also in classical antiquity, Atargatis, chief goddess of northern Syria, was depicted as a fish-bodied human.
In the centuries that followed, many people claimed to actually see mermaids. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed out from Spain with a mission to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, he found something altogether more mysterious. On January 9, 1493, near the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three mermaids. He wrote: “They are not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man.” In 1608, during an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson claimed that several crewmembers spotted a mermaid. From the naval upward she was like a woman with long, black hair, but she had a tail like a porpoise.
The official painter of the Dutch East India Company, Samuel Fallours, included a tantalizing mermaid within his 1718 drawing depicting the assortment of exotic biodiversity found around the islands. Francois Valentijn included a copy of Fallours’ mermaid, seen above, in his publication on the East Indies, entitled Natural History of Amboina (1727). He claims that this “monster resembling a siren” was captured on the coast of Borneo. But merpeople were not always represented in a sensual light. The 13th-century Norwegian manuscript Konungs skuggsjá describes a tall beast with shoulders but no hands that rises from the water, saying “whenever the monster has shown itself, men have always been sure that a storm would follow.”
Bernard Heuvelmans studied cryptozoology, the process by which unknown animals become monsters, or monsters are identified as known animals. He wrote that “the mythifying process can sometimes be carried to the point of altering its object beyond recognition.” Case in point: the manatee. “Since the manatee has pectoral mammae … and a body that tapers to a fishlike tail, it has always been identified, on both side of the Atlantic, with the fascinating mermaid, despite its (to our eyes) ugly face.” The three mermaids that Columbus spotted in 1493 (or sirens as he called them), were undoubtedly manatees. He, and many explorers after him, determined that these aquatic mammals were mermaids in flesh and blood. Sightings of dugongs, a member of the manatee’s order, have also been associated with mermaids throughout history. Indeed, the order containing manatees and dugongs to this day is called Sirenia.