According to legend, a creature about thirty centimeters in size was caught in a fishing net on the coast of the province of Tosa. This happened around 1740. And only recently the priest of the temple in which the mummy was kept agreed to give it to scientists for a detailed study.
What conclusion did the experts come to? And where did the myths about mermaids come from in the folklore of various countries?
300-year-old mermaid mummy in Japan
Japanese scientists have uncovered the secret of the mermaid from Okayama. The 300-year-old mummy of a mysterious creature turned out to be … a skillful fake. To create a “mermaid” used the torso of a monkey, a fish tail, and human nails. To study the composition of the mummy in more detail, scientists examined its DNA.
“Still, the Japanese believe in the miraculous power of this mummy,” said Doctor of Cultural Studies Alexei Kylasov. “And after research, it will be returned back to the temple so that they can still worship it.”
In Japan, mermaids are called “ninge”. In local mythology, this is a creature with a human face, a monkey mouth and a fish tail covered with golden scales. According to legend, ninge can bestow longevity. Enough to eat at least one gold flake.
Because of the popularity of such legends, craftsmen create mummies that look like magical creatures. Some even try to pass them off as real mermaids.
“The simplest fake is to take the top from the monkey, the bottom from the fish, skillfully sew it all, and, in fact, put it somewhere. Different options, different craftsmen, but the goal, in fact, is the same – to get fame, money,” said culturologist Natalya Terenkova.
Mermaid skeleton with thick hair in Denmark
Another unusual exhibit is from the National Museum of Denmark. Guides say that the skeleton of the so-called Harald mermaid was accidentally discovered by a local farmer while plowing a field.
Allegedly, this skeleton is that of a mermaid that had been found at Haraldskaer in mainland Denmark by a farmer while ploughing his field.
And according to a more detailed description presented alongside it at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen where the mermaid of Haraldskaer was first displayed, in 2012, it was about 18 years old, with long thick hair and long sharp canines, and also had a purse that contained a shark’s tooth, a snake’s tail, a mussel shell, and a flower (just like any self-respecting mermaid would be expected to keep inside her purse).
Its species is claimed to be Hydronymphus pesci, believed extinct since the end of the 17th Century, and apart from a missing left hand the skeleton is complete, much more so than the only other known H. pesci skeleton, apparently held at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, which lacks a tail.
Moreover, this species is believed to belong to the Asian lineage of merfolk, thereby making the finding of specimens in Europe especially rare.
But Danish zoologist and cryptozoological researcher Lars Thomas has kindly informed me, the Haraldskaer mermaid skeleton, complete with shark-inspired tail, was manufactured by Mille Rude, a Danish artist, for a special exhibition staged at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, during 2012.
Rude took her inspiration from the very famous real discovery in 1835 of Haraldskaer Woman – the naturally-preserved body of a young woman found in Haraldskaer Bog, and dating back to approximately 490 BC (pre-Roman Iron Age).
How the myths about mermaids appeared
The mermaid is one of the most famous and ancient mythical characters. It is believed that the first legend of a woman with a fish tail appeared more than four thousand years ago in ancient Assyria.
There, from generation to generation, the story of the moon goddess Atargatis was passed down, who turned into a mermaid, throwing herself into the water due to the death of her lover.
Later, such myths became popular among different peoples of the world. In Scandinavia, sea maidens were called undines. Sirens in Ancient Greece.
Moreover, initially the ancient Greek sirens were depicted in the form of birds with female heads. But later poets began to describe them as girls with fish tails, who are waiting for sailors on rocky cliffs.
Mermaid legends were also popular in the Middle Ages. The Europeans believed that the mythical sea maidens had no soul. To find it, the mermaid had to sacrifice the most precious thing in her life – the sea. And then – go to land.
“And one of the legends, also medieval, says that a mermaid came to a monk, and he prayed with her so that she would have a soul. She came to him several times, but in the end, the power of the sea turned out to be very strong, and she sailed away,” shared the culturologist Terenkova.
But where did the image of a girl with a fish tail come from in the folklore of different peoples? According to scientists, the mythical mermaids had real prototypes. These are manatees, dugongs and sea cows.
“Manatees could be mistaken for some kind of fantastic creatures, because their part of the body, which is closer to the tail, it is quite fishy. But such a rounded, serious head – it is, in general, something it resembles, of course, mammals that do not live in water at all,” said Kylasov, doctor of cultural studies.