There’s probably a reason Columbus was disappointed at the masculine faces of mermaids
According to a ship log dated January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus said that on the previous day he:
“distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
The reason they weren’t as beautiful as he might have imagined is because he was, most likely, looking at a manatee.
Let’s face it – while adorable, a manatee looks like the blubbery love-child of a dolphin and a monk seal.
Mistaking a manatee for a mermaid is common enough that the scientific name for manatees and dugongs is Sirenia, like the mythical mermaids.
The first recorded half-fish, half-human creature is Oannes, a Babylonian god from the 4th century BCE. A part-timer, he would leave the sea every day and return at night.
The ancient Greek sirens, who lured sailors to their deaths in Homer’s Odyssey, were originally described as having bird bodies.
We’re used to seeing them portrayed as fish-tailed mermaids.
Just why sailors often mistook a manatee for mermaid is still debated by researchers.
From afar, perhaps their forelimbs and the fact that they can turn their heads made them look more human?
Manatees and dugongs can both rise out of the sea like the alluring mythical sirens, occasionally performing “tail stands” in shallow water.
Their big round eyes gazing from under the surface may have startled sailors who were already well aware of the mermaid myth.
The idea of mermaid-like creatures might not have totally originated with manatees.
It could just be that the manatee — when spotted — fit the bill.
While mermaids famously lured sailors to their death, some apparently became good citizens.
One story, dating back to the 1600s, claimed that a mermaid had entered Holland through a dike, and was injured in the process.
She was taken to a nearby lake and was soon nursed back to health. She eventually became a productive citizen, learned to speak Dutch, performed household chores and converted to Catholicism.
Another supposed mermaid encounter is described in Edward Snow’s “Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea“. A sea captain off the coast of Newfoundland described his 1614 encounter: “Captain John Smith saw a mermaid ‘swimming about with all possible grace.’
He pictured her as having large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was ‘somewhat short,’ and well-formed ears that were rather too long. Smith goes on to say that ‘her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.'”
In fact, Smith was so taken with this lovely woman that he began “to experience the first effects of love” (indeed) as he gazed at her before his sudden realization that she was a fish from the waist down.
This dilemma is reflected in a popular song titled “The Mermaid,” by Newfoundland band Great Big Sea:
“I love the girl with all me heart
But I only like the upper part
I do not like the tail!”
Even today there are false mermaid sightings.
After a fake documentary special on mermaids aired on Animal Planet in 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was flooded with calls from people asking for the truth about mermaids.
(The truth is that mermaids are entirely fictional.)
The manatee, however, is almost as incredible a creature.
Let’s hope that these endangered animals that inspired mermaid myths won’t become legends themselves.
Be sure to celebrate Manatee Appreciation Day.