What mythologies show mermaids

The real mermaids: how manatees fueled ancient myths and legends

Manatees usually begin their migration south into warmer waters in November. Often, however, they also swim towards the danger. In Florida, many of the lazy animals die from boat crashes each year.

This is one of the reasons why the US state decided last year to officially declare November “Manatee Awareness Month”.

The World Conservation Union lists the Caribbean manatee Trichechus manatus - the manatee species found in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Caribbean and on the northeast coast of South America - as endangered. According to their website, there aren't even 10,000 of them left in the wild. The population on the Florida coast is estimated at around 4,830, according to the Save the Manatee organization. The Caribbean manatee belongs to the order of the manatees (Sirenia). The largest herbivores in the sea are also those creatures who have breathed life into the myths and legends about mermaids over and over again.

We looked at a few of these incidents.


On his first trip to America, Christopher Columbus caught a glimpse of three “mermaids” on the bow of his ship. In the records you can read:

"On yesterday [8. January 1493], when the admiral was going to Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said that he clearly saw three mermaids emerging from the sea. But they are not as beautiful as they are said to be, because their faces had a few masculine features. "

In fact, manatees are known for the fact that they emerge from the water like the Greek sirens - mythical creatures that sometimes appear as a hybrid of fish and woman or bird and woman - and sometimes seem to "stand" vertically in shallow water. (Worth reading: Manatee baby boom in the Great Barrier Reef)

On their front flippers you can see the ends of five finger-like bones, and thanks to their cervical vertebrae, they can turn their heads. So you can understand how these animals could be mistaken for human-like mermaids in the past, at least from a distance.

After Columbus ‘expeditions to America one could often admire" recently discovered "mermaids from the New World in curiosity cabinets - usually deceased manatees:

“Not so long ago the skeleton of a mermaid, as it was called, was brought to Portsmouth. Allegedly, she was shot near the island of Mombass. The [skeleton] was given to members of the Philosophical Society, who identified it as a fork-tailed sea cow [...] If I remember correctly, it was about six feet long. His vertebrae with the wide tail extremity suggested a strong, fish-like body end. The front legs, on the other hand, from the shoulder blade to the extremities of the finger bones, showed to the untrained eye a very great resemblance to the bones of a small, female arm.


Thousands of kilometers away from the waters that Columbus sailed, the fork-tailed sea cow populated various legends in the Pacific for centuries.

In 1959, 3,000-year-old pictures of manatees carved into the rock were discovered in the Malaysian Tambun Cave. The name Dugong, with which the animals are also referred to, goes back to a Malaysian word that means "lady of the sea".

In the Pacific island state of Palau, which consists of 356 islands, the fork-tailed manatee or the dugong plays a central role in the traditional ceremonies and folklore of the islanders. The stories of young women transformed into such gentle manatees are still told, and wooden carvings tell stories of fishermen who got lost at sea and received help from manatees.

Olympia E. Morei, director of the Belau National Museum, says that “The people of Palau respect their environment and all living things in it - trees, plants, all the animals and birds. We believe that according to legend, the dugong was once a human. "

The World Conservation Union lists the Dugong as critically endangered.

It is not known how many animals there are in the entire range, but up to 15 dugongs are killed annually in Palau for food purposes, according to the Etpison Museum's Dugong Awareness Project.

"If the dugong [in Palau] went extinct, we as a people would lose our connection to our environment and our traditions," said Morei.

Without better protective measures, the gentle animals that once inspired fantastic myths about mermaids could soon be part of the realm of legend themselves.

Follow Lang Kanai on Twitter.