Weird History
674.8k readers

People From History Who Claimed To Have Encountered Mermaids (And Their Evidence)

Updated July 31, 2019 674.8k views13 items

By now, you've heard about the evidence that unicorns were real. But what about other magical creatures? Specifically, are mermaids real? For centuries, there have been tales of beautiful mermaids seducing sailors with their songs, along with disturbing stories about mermaids eating human flesh. But the evidence goes beyond stories. There is even physical mermaid proof in existence, albeit dubious. 

For centuries, eyewitnesses claimed to have seen real mermaids around the world. The sightings go all the way back to the Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE). Multiple artists produced images of mermaids drawn from life. Thousands of sailors bought Jenny Hanivers, little mermaid-like creatures. Even Christopher Columbus argued that he saw three mermaids off the coast of Haiti.

When it comes to mermaid history, there is historical evidence that mermaids are real. Before you doubt the evidence, keep in mind that more than 95% of the ocean has never been explored by humans. Could mermaids be hiding in the deep sea?

  • According To NOAA, Mermaids Don’t Exist – So What Gives?

    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, definitively says that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” And some of the mermaid sightings from history can be easily explained away – sailors might go mad after weeks or months at sea and think they see seductive fish-women calling them to shore. 

    But what about the Jenny Hanivers? And the eyewitness accounts of mermaid sightings? Is it possible that all the historical evidence that mermaids exist might be wrong? 

  • Manatees Have Been Mistaken For Mermaids

    Photo: Henry Lee / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    When Christopher Columbus spotted three mermaids off the coast of Haiti, he was probably seeing manatees. Just as Columbus described, manatees are able to rise out of the sea, especially in shallow water. They also have fingerlike bones on the forelimbs and a neck that allows them to turn their head – so from the deck of a ship, a manatee might easily transform into an “ugly mermaid,” like Columbus described. 

    Even though Columbus likely didn't see real mermaids, his logbook entry is the first recorded observation of a manatee in North America. Once again, Columbus had no idea what he was looking at – he also insisted that he had discovered Asia, not the Americans, until his death. 

  • The “Lady Of The Sea” May Have Been Confused For A Mermaid In The Pacific

    Photo: Peter Lund Simmonds / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the Pacific Ocean, an animal named the dugong may have also been confused for a mermaid. The dugong, which literally means “lady of the sea” in the Malay language, has a similar appearance to the manatee. In at least one instance, a “mermaid skeleton” was proven to be from a dugong. England’s Magazine of Natural History published a description of the skeleton of a mermaid “which had been shot in the vicinity of the island of Mombass.” The dugong’s skeleton was similar enough to a mermaid to fool many people. 

    Even though manatees and dugongs are not mermaids, their biological classification is in the order Sirenia (siren, get it?), reminding us of a case of mythological misidentification. 

  • The Jenny Hanivers Are Actually Skates, Not Mermaids

    Photo: M.Violante / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    In another case of misidentification, the Jenny Hanivers that sailors and tourists flocked to Antwerp to buy were actually skates and rays. Sailors dried, carved, and varnished the carcasses of cartilaginous fish and shaped them to resemble mermaids, demons, and devil fish. Much like the Fiji mermaid exhibited by P.T. Barnum, the Jenny Hanivers were a hoax. 

    Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner tried to debunk the myth of the Jenny Hanivers back in 1558, when he said the mermaids were simply disfigured rays, but the objects remained popular into the 19th century, and some can still be found today