A Brief History of Mermaid Hoaxes

Sirens, mermaids, selkies, merrows - whatever you call them, these half-fish, half-human creatures have been apart of folklore for centuries. Representing transformation, seduction, mystery, and femininity, mermaids have held man's imagination since the beginning of time. But for some, the lines between imaginary and reality became blurred. Read on to learn about the lengths people have gone to convince themselves and others that the siren song is true: 

In 2011 The Discovery Channel released a fake documentary called Mermaid: The Body Found. The special attracted a record 3.4 million viewers and spurred a sequel called Mermaid: The New Evidence, which broke the previous record with 3.6 million viewers. Despite the films including disclaimers about the fictional nature of the production, thousands of viewers took to the internet to voice a renewed interest in the possible existence of mermaids.

It may sound rather odd that so many would be willing to watch and believe in a film that presents itself as having orchestrated material. Or is it? Throughout history, humans have been fascinated with the mysterious and supernatural. This may explain why many have tried to capitalize on this willing or unsuspecting suspension of belief.

In the 1800s, hoaxers churned out numerous fake creatures to capitalize on the public’s interest in supernatural creatures. These sideshows usually showed dead manatees whose fins have skeletal structures with 5 fingers that resemble human hands. One of the most famous of these hoaxes came from the great showman P.T. Barnum, who displayed the torso of a monkey sewn to the skeletal tail of a fish. Barnum presented the manufactured mummified remains as the “Feejee Mermaid” and made a fortune from the public’s curiosity. Those who paid fifty cents in the hopes of seeing a long-haired, fish-tailed beauty were sorely disappointed, but the exhibition is an example of people’s desire to witness and believe in the supernatural.

Selina FenechPainting by Selina Fenech

This desire has also been visible in the form of innumerable ancient and recent records of mermaid sightings. These include accounts from famous historical figures including Christopher Columbus, who wrote in his diary that he saw mermaids on his voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, and John Smith who said he saw a mermaid off the coast of Newfoundland. These may be the hallucinations of sailors who have been out at sea little too long, but it begs the question of whether these sightings, being so numerous, were ordinary occurrences misinterpreted or misunderstood by superstitious minds.

There are many explanations for these misunderstandings. One of the most common is the emergence of manatees at the ocean’s surface. These gentle giants, the ocean’s largest herbivores, are quietly vocal in a way that some may confuse for an unfamiliar, unearthly music. Manatees also sometimes perform tail stands, raising their lengthy bodies out of the water. This display could have been confused for a mermaid rising out of the water, particularly when the light of dusk or dawn glimmers on the ocean’s surface playing tricks on the eyes.

Based off her artwork and designed by Selina Fenech, our Motherhood Mermaid Pendant

Ancient reports of mermaids may also have arisen in part due to Sirenomelia (mermaid syndrome), a rare and fatal congenital malformation. Named after the Greek sirens of lore, the disorder is characterized by the fusion of the legs to form a single limb, which ancient peoples may have misinterpreted as being a fishtail.

The mind can be very powerful and as we've learned, it can be deceptive. Whether motivated by greed or wishful thinking, the "truth" of mermaids has often been touted. What do you think? Have you heard the mermaid melody and lived to tell the tale?
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