The Real History of Mermaids

Always be yourself. Unless you can be a mermaid. Then always be a mermaid.

Slogans like that one began cropping up on t-shirts, tote bags, and water bottles a few years ago as mermaids experienced a huge spike in popularity. But the history of these half-woman, half-fish creatures dates back much, much farther than the latest trend.

The Infamous FeeJee Mermaid

Portrait of P.T. Barnum
Public Domain

P.T. Barnum was the most infamous circus ringman–and conman–to ever live. And one of his best-known cons was the so-called FeeJee Mermaid. During the 1840s, Barnum toured New York, Boston, and London with his fake mermaid mummy. He claimed it was the real thing, but the mermaid was, in fact, the body of an ape grafted onto the tale of a fish.

Barnum himself described the gaff as, “an ugly dried-up, black-looking diminutive specimen, about 3 feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.”

Plenty of viewers were taken in by the hoax. They left his sideshow exhibit believing that they’d seen real, concrete proof mermaids existed. The FeeJee Mermaid disappeared sometime after 1859 and has never been seen again.

Mermaid or Manatee?

Mermaid myths span the globe, from the ancient Greek sirens who tempted Odysseus to the Babylonian god Oannes. But as Western explorers began to cross the oceans, sailors claimed that they’d seen mermaids along the coasts of the Americas and Southeast Asia.

In fact, Christopher Columbus wrote that he saw women with tails in the ocean near the modern-day Dominican Republic. Columbus said that they “rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented.”

Manatee and her calf swimming together
Shutterstock

What Columbus actually saw was a now-extinct type of manatee. No matter whether you call them dugongs, manatees, or sea cows, these creatures don’t look much like our contemporary idea of mermaids as slender, attractive women with tails.

Florida Mermaid Shows

A decades-old tradition of mermaid shows in Florida is still alive and well. Mermaid shows began popping up around the coastal South in the 40s and 50s. Although the original shows did not include elaborate tails, as you can see below, the modern-day performers look more like the mermaids of legends.

At Weeiki Wachee Springs State Park, you can still see mermaids performing underwater routines for crowds of delighted kids. You can watch a video of a real-life professional mermaid below and see what a day in her life looks like!

The Little Mermaid

Those of us in our mid-thirties grew up on Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” If you check it out on Disney+, the film holds up. Who doesn’t love Ariel and her iconic purple seashells?

Copenhagen, Denmark, statue of little mermaid
Atlas Obscura

But although the animated movie had its dark moments, it’s nothing compared to the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In his history, published in 1837, the little mermaid falls in love with a prince… but ends up having to sacrifice herself to save his life. A statue honoring Andersen’s tale is a popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Are Mermaids Real?

With so much folklore about mermaids from around the world, you have to at least wonder if there’s some truth to it. Are mermaids real? No one can say for certain. And considering that we still know less about the depths of the ocean than we do about the surface of the moon, it’s possible that we simply haven’t discovered mermaids yet.