Almost three-quarters of our planet’s surface are covered with water, with the oceans holding about 97% of that within their depths. It’s no wonder that humanity often encounters the numinous there…there is so much more of it than there is of what we find easily explainable.
Take mermaids, for instance. There have been writings and sightings of these mysterious beings since there have been people able to record such things. What’s more, even with our modern scientific explanation that these sightings are probably just manatees or dolphins…we keep seeing mermaids. Not manatees. Not dolphins. Mermaids.
Starting with Pliny’s Natural History, written in the year 586, mermaid advocates been both describing and defending their position. Pliny wrote, “it is no fabulous tale that goeth of them: for looke how painters draw them, so they are indeed”.
While compilation dates vary somewhere between the second and the fourth century, the Physiologus Bestiary also records mermaids as being fact and agrees that they are comprised of the upper body of women and the tale of fish. The Bestiary (and the mermaid description in it) was still quite respected up to the 1700’s.
This would explain why in 1483 the Nuremberg Bible included an illustration of a mermaid, a merman (and even a mer-dog) swimming alongside Noah’s Ark: mermaids were a fact of life. A decade later, in 1493, Christopher Columbus himself reported seeing three mer-people, finding them “not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.” (note: had he seen mermaids he might not have made it back to land, mermen are much easier to get along with at sea).
Another famous explorer, Henry Hudson, came upon a school of mermaids at sea and made note of it in his ship’s log of 1608. Half a dozen years later, in 1614, Captain John Smith (yes, the Captain Smith of ‘Pocahontas’ fame) reported sighting a green-haired mermaid, who was “by no means unattractive”.
In the 1700’s, around Bantry in County Cork Ireland, there was said to have been one particular local mermaid who wooed a local fisherman, and had a scaly daughter who lived on the land. To this day, there is a Mermaid Restaurant in Bantry.
In 1810, a correspondent for the British Press wrote a story concerning a pair of mer-children found on the Isle of Man, brought in by a storm at sea. They had green sea-weedy hair, heads and torsos of humans, and tails of fish. One died, but the surviving mer-child ate mussels and drank milk while they kept it in a tub of water.
In 1886, the Canadian Press (the Cape Brooklyn Eagle newspaper) reported a mermaid sighting by a boat of fishermen off of Cape Breton, near Nova Scotia—unabashedly declaring it the first sighting for that area of the world.
Almost a century later, in 1967, another Canadian newspaper, the Times-Colonist, carried a story about a ferry of tourists sighting a woman with the tail of a dolphin; reportedly she had beautiful blond hair and was eating a salmon when they came upon her.
In 2013 in the Greenland sea, a marine geologist, Dr. Torsten Schmidt, not only sighted a mermaid but took footage of the sighting as well (you can find the footage online, as well as the inevitable discussions – pro and con – on its authenticity). Of his encounter, he said he “knew I was looking into the face of another intelligent species, like us.”
Whether or not the face Dr. Schmidt saw was the same sort of face that Pliny described in his Natural History or that Captain Smith thought not unattractive, if there is anything we can know for certain about mermaids…it’s this: we haven’t yet plumbed the depths as far as this particular watery secret goes.