"Beauty and the beast” - hasn’t this theme been a perennial fascination in both Eastern and Western culture? How much of the “brute animal” is hidden inside humans? Contemporary theories about evolution tell us that we all descend from ape-like ancestors. But there were many centuries before humans were irrevocably linked to animals by Darwinian evolution theory. During these periods, we expressed our fascination with human animality through reports of sightings of legends and myths, engrossed in imagining humans that were half animal. We had centaurs, we had werewolves; but especially we have had alluring half human, half fish individuals - we've had mermaids.
In early-modern days, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries, many scientists were fascinated by organisms that seemed to bridge distinct categories of classification. There were fish; then there were humans; and ultimately fish-humans. Reports flooded in from sailors and explorers about the existence of mermen and mermaids. There were speculations that these were degenerated humans who had found a new environment to survive in the sea. Ideas that these perhaps fish were in the process of becoming humans lead to the French naturalist and philosopher Benoit de Maillet considering stories about mermen and mermaids as true, and put them forward as an argument in favour of a kind of evolution theory. In his anonymously published Telliamed (his last name spelled backward) he speculated along those lines, and his book became a classic among the "forerunners" of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
Maillet scientifically clarifies that "[he] shall reject everything which may be supported to be the effect of fancy and imagination, in the works of the ancient poets, and only adhere to well-attested facts." He continues to describe cases in which these sea-humans came to land and adopted this way of living: "But after having some years contracted a habitude of respiring nothing but air, perhaps they could not have afterwards lived in the element in which they were born." Maillet goes into detailed description of sea men: “His head was of the bulk and form of that of an ordinary man, with straight black hair intermixed with grey. His nose big and flat, his eyes of the usual form, and his ear large. And when he appeared above water, he snorted as dogs do when they come up after being plunged into water.”
By the early 19th century, actual cadavers and mummified corpses of mermaids came into circulation and were widely exhibited. P.T. Barnum was an American entertainer who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum is known for the “Fiji Mermaid”, an object made up out of the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish, covered in paper-mâché. Even though fraudulent, it was exhibited throughout the Circus shows as the mummified body of a mermaid. Such concept of exposing mermaid artifacts was popularized by Barnum and since copied by many other traveling shows, highlighting the continuing fascination with the scientific existence of mermaids. It’s not enough for them to exist in collective imagination; rather - they must be proven real.
Slowly scientific voices began to emerge doubting the reality of mermaids and the truthfulness of sightings. William Clift, in London, the father-in-law of the great Richard Owen who disproved the existence of the great sea serpent, showed that the Fiji mermaid was a fraud, cobbled together from the remains of two different apes and a salmon. The idea of a “mermaid skeleton” ceases to create public interest. Later in the 19th century, Henry Lee wrote several books, not only supporting Owen’s "deconstruction" of the great sea serpent, but also denouncing the reality of mermaids. He strongly supported the theory that sightings of mermaids were the product of sexually frustrated sailors who had seen dugongs, manatees or such-like sea creatures.
In his book Sea Fables Explained he forms a narrative of how mermaids were believed to be real: "From the very earlier period of history, then, the conjoined human and fish form was known to every generation of humans. It was presented to their sight in childhood by sculptures and pictures, and was a conspicuous object in their religious worship. By the lapse of time its original import was lost and debased; and from being an emblem and symbol, it came to be accepted as the corporeal shape and structure of actually-existent sea-deities, who might present themselves to the view of the mariner, in visible and tangible form, or any moment. Thus were maintained and prepared to believe in mermen and mermaids, to expect to meet with them at sea, and to recognize as one of them any animal the appearance and movements of which could possibly be brought into conformity with their pre-conceived ideas."
Lee introduces the idea that all fables told and re-told by sailors and scientists stem from superstition and imagination: "To the best of his belief he had told the truth. He has seen some living being which looked wonderfully human, and his imagination, aided by an inherited superstition, has supplied the rest.” He goes on to explain numerous historical examples all referring to mermaids and mermen as real, however possible to disprove in explaining their experiences as hallucinatory and fictional.
Yet at approximately the same time that science dropped its earlier belief in mermaids and proved the mummified specimens to be frauds, mermaids gained a new life, this time in fairy tales and in the revival of Nordic mythology. Hans Christian Anderson most famously writes a popular fairy tale about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince. An illustration by Edmund Dulac illustrating Anderson's tale marks the merge of the mermaid's scientific existence into the continuation of a fictional and visual one. Richard Wagner created in Die Lorelei, his “rhinemaidens", who appear in his opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.They are three water-nymphs who reference typical traits of mermaids. The mermaid image is now not only visually represented but enters the musical world.
Thus begins the narrative of a "social turn" in the history of science and the history of the fine arts, when scholars such as Peter Burke, Raymond Williams and others, broke away from a positivistic, highbrow, elitist, intellectual history; to advocate the importance of popular culture and a social history that has been concerned with previously marginal groups. Rather than focusing on the issue of "scientifically true or false", we begin seeing a persistence of the mermaid archetype in popular culture, linking it to dreams, fears, and perennial preoccupations with the place of "the female” and "the male" in human society. The amazing and significant fact is that the scientific disprove of the existence of mermaids, the elitist destruction of a belief in fish-women, has not killed off in society at large the fascination and preoccupation with such hybrid creatures.
Much of what can be deciphered by looking at the history of mermaids is still true for our society today. It could even be argued that mythology and legends are an elemental part of cultural production, even if disproven scientifically. Imagining “the other” and projecting what we desire to see, even if it is not there and even if we are told it is not there. The evolving fascination with mermaids, and the ways in which we are continuously finding “new evidence of their existence”, engages a very developed part of the human psyche responsible for desiring mythology in the face of verifiable “truth”. Seemingly, mythology is accepted as equally valid as its scientific counterpart, saying something significant about how two opposite fields of knowledge look intrinsically interwoven.