Barnum mermaid

Long ago, mermaids were starred in travelling shows. Curiosity shops featured marine mammals modified to look like mermaids. In 1842, the P.T. Barnum circus sparked popular curiosity by exhibiting a strange creature. But the trickery was soon discovered. In fact, Barnum’s mermaid was a young monkey attached to a fishtail and covered with paper-mâché.

Océanopolis

© 2011, Musée du Fjord. All Rights Reserved.


Dugongs fished in Yemen

This postcard shows two dugongs captured off Aden, in Yemen. Manatees and dugongs, of the sirenian family, may be the source of mermaid legends. Their thin, spindle-shaped bodies could have been mistaken for mermaid silhouettes. In 1403, Christopher Columbus reported having encountered mermaids. But the sailor did not find these creatures as beautiful as he had been led to believe, even if their faces had a few human-like features.

Nelson Cazeils private collection
1493
YEMEN
© 2011, Musée du Fjord. All Rights Reserved.


A walrus attacks two men in a boat.

Sailors are wary of walruses, which can become very aggressive when harassed or threatened. They can capsize a rowboat by leaning on one side of it. They are rumoured to have destroyed kayaks by striking it with their tusks! Although they are rather clumsy and oafish on land and pack ice, walruses are a dangerous foe in the water. That is why fishermen prefer to hunt them on land or ice.

Nelson Cazeils private collection

© 2011, Musée du Fjord. All Rights Reserved.


Ulysses and the mermaids illustrated on a Greek vase.

The mermaids that tried to lure Ulysses into the sea are no doubt the most famous of evil creatures. They are first represented as birds with women’s heads. They enchant sailors with their alluring songs so that they may devour them. Warned of the danger by Circe, goddess of magic, Ulysses told his fellow sailors to tie themselves to the mast and plug their ears with wax. The crew of Ulysses’s vesssel was thus saved from danger as they passed the coast of the island of mermaids.

Océanopolis

© 2011, Musée du Fjord. All Rights Reserved.


Sea lion

In the Middle Ages, popular belief had it that each land animal had its marine “counterpart”. Sea lions can be very aggressive at times. They usually live in very large colonies and fiercely defend their territories. But very few attacks on swimmers or boats have been reported on the Pacific Coast. The attacks are often the result of reckless people who try to get too close to these pinnipeds.

Nelson Cazeils private collection

© 2011, Musée du Fjord. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

Understand the difference between myth and reality.

Find out how imagination and lack of understanding lead us to create sea monsters.


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