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?
In the first century, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote a book called Natural History that would shape European science for centuries. In Natural History, Pliny wrote about half-human, half-fish creatures that he called nereids. Even though these mermaids were part human, Pliny said “the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales.”
Pliny had not seen the nereids himself, but he provided a source for his belief that they were real. One of Emperor Augustus’s military officers in France wrote that he found a pile of nereids “dead upon the sea shore.” Pliny also reported a “sea-man” who climbed onto ships at night and could sink the ship if he stayed on board long enough.
On his first voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus claimed to have encountered three mermaids. Columbus spotted the mermaids off the coast of Haiti in January of 1493. He wrote about the mermaids in his travel journal, where he said the mermaids “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.”
Apparently, all the European art showing mermaids exaggerated their beauty – just like artists did with Europe's royalty.
These mermaid-like creatures began to appear in Antwerp in the mid-16th century. Sailors called them Jenny Hanivers, and they sold the objects to tourists. The curious name may be an English translation of the French phrase jeune d’Anvers, or young person of Antwerp, where English sailors bought Jenny Hanivers.
For centuries, Jenny Hanivers were visible proof that mermaid-like creatures lived in the ocean. But others saw them as proof of something darker – they were also called devil fish, and one tradition claimed they were enemies of Christ.
Captain John Smith, famous for settling Jamestown and his relationship with Pocahontas, allegedly sighted a mermaid in 1614. In Edward Snow’s Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea, the sea captain described the encounter. John Smith spotted the mermaid off the coast of Newfoundland. Smith was instantly entranced, musing that “her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive.”
The mermaid also had large eyes, a finely shaped nose, and “well-formed ears.” As Captain Smith gazed at the mermaid, he began to fall in love with her – until he realized that she was a fish from the waist down.