Some of the most intelligent people in early modern Europe were convinced of the existence of merpeople.
Cotton Mather penned a letter to the Royal Society in London dated 5 July 1716. Such an action was hardly out of the ordinary. The 53-year-old Boston naturalist often sent letters abroad detailing his scientific and philosophical findings. Yet the letter’s subject was somewhat curious. Titled ‘A Triton’, the seemingly simple note revealed a complicated admission: Cotton Mather’s sincere belief in the existence of merpeople.
A fellow of the Royal Society, which had been founded in 1660, Mather began his letter by explaining that, until recently, he considered mermaids and tritons no more real than ‘centaurs or sphynxes’. He had found many historical accounts of merpeople, ranging from the ancient Greek, Demostratus, who claimed to have witnessed a ‘Dried Triton … at ye Town of Tanagra’, to Pliny the Elder’s assertions of the existence of mermaids and tritons. Because ‘Plinyisums are of no great Reputation in our Dayes’, Mather deemed these ancient accounts to be false. Yet, as the Boston naturalist pored over documented sightings by respected early modern scientists, such as Monal (prefect of Mauritius), Pierre Belon and Pierre Gilles, Mather traced this phenomenon to his present, supposedly rational and modern, world.
Mather found that early modern accounts of merpeople proved varied as well as verified: a group of Englishmen caught a merman off the coast of Orford, Suffolk ‘in ye Reign of K[ing] John’; Dutch women dragged a mermaid ashore and took her to Haarlem in 1404; and the English captain Richard Whitbourne bore witness to a mermaid while exploring Newfoundland in 1610. Still, Mather was not entirely assured of merpeople’s legitimacy, at least until 22 February 1716, when ‘three honest and credible men, coming in a boat from Millford to Brainford [Connecticut]’ allegedly encountered a triton.
Mather’s comrades had rushed to his home in a frenzy, declaring that though they had attempted to bash the triton as it lay on a rock, one of the men accidentally scared the creature off. As the monster leapt into the water, ‘they had a full view of him and saw his head, and face, and neck, and shoulders, and arms, and elbows, and breast, and back all of a human shape … [the] lower parts were those of a fish, and colored like a mackerel’.
Having heard this news first-hand from men he trusted, Mather could only exclaim: ‘Now at last my credulity is entirely conquered, and I am compelled now to believe the existence of a triton; for such a one has just now been exhibited in my own country, and the attestations to it are such that it would be a fault in me at all to question it.’ Mather, in short, was totally convinced of merpeoples’ existence. Maintaining that the story was not ‘Grubstreet’ (i.e. false), the Bostonian promised the Royal Society that he would continue to relay ‘all New occurrences of Nature’.
Such an account seems credulous at best in our present world of supposed scientific prowess. Many of us like to think that we have figured out Earth’s flora and fauna (even though we have explored only around five per cent of the ocean). But place yourself in Mather’s shoes for a moment and reflect upon how such an ‘enlightened’ 18th-century thinker, dedicated to understanding humankind’s place in the natural world and all the wonder it entailed, might genuinely believe in the existence of creatures that we still obsess over (but now in more fantastical, playful ways).
Mather lived at a time when exciting, exotic and dangerous creatures seemed to reveal themselves with remarkable frequency. One can imagine the surprise of Europeans when they first stumbled upon the only North American marsupial, the opossum. Bearing a child in its pouch and a grimace on its face, the female was deemed by Englishmen as a New World amalgamation of other ‘monstrous’ creatures such as hydras, centaurs and gorgons. With reports of two-headed snakes and giants making their way to the Royal Society and a long-held belief in ocean monsters, the 18th century was as much a time of wonder as it was of rational science: the two, in fact, seemed to interweave by the day. Why, people like Mather wondered, might merpeople not exist in such an expanding and unpredictable world?
Mather was yet another link in a long chain of mermaid and triton investigations. Dating to ancient times, men and women both worshipped and claimed to have contacted merpeople. As early as 4,000 to 5,000 BC, the Babylonians revered Ea, a fish-tailed god in the form of a man. The Philistines, Syrians and Israelites, meanwhile, worshipped Atargatis (also known as Dercerto), a fish-tailed goddess. By the classical age, the Greeks venerated Triton and feared sirens, while similar gods (in the form of sea-creatures) characterised Chinese and Indian religious traditions.
Medieval European churches were loaded with mermaid symbolism. As the historian Robert Hunt noted: ‘The decoration of the early cathedral arches was taken from the sea and its creatures. Fish, dolphins, mermen and mermaids appear in the early types, transferred to wood and stone.’ Though scholars still debate the exact purpose of the mermaid and triton in church decoration, merpeople’s recurring existence – usually found sculpted on the roof boss or corbel, or carved on the misericord or bench end – surely influenced medieval worshippers’ belief in these mysterious beings. The church’s ‘acceptance’ of mermaids, in the historian Alfred Waugh’s contention, convinced a flock ‘who were scarcely likely to question her existence when the church itself had “accepted” her’. English worshippers living through the Protestant Reformation, furthermore, no doubt noticed that, while anxious ministers chiselled Catholic imagery from churches, representations of merpeople remained intact.
By the Middle Ages, sculptors and artists generally represented mermaids in the same way: a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair, naked from the waist up and holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other. Mermaids originated with Homer’s sirens: though Homer’s beasts were harpies who attacked seafarers from the sky, subsequent authors transformed these bird-like creatures, for reasons unknown, into a woman whose lower portion resembled a fish tail. While mermaids’ physical appearance had arguably improved, their intentions had not.
An overtly sexual being, the mermaid’s ultimate goal was to lure sailors with her siren song, thereby dragging them to an erotic death in the icy depths. As the Belgian author Andrew Laurence warned his readers in the early 16th century: ‘The mermayde is a dedely beste that bringeth a man gladly to death.’ Although ‘frome the naval up she is like a woman’, Laurence continued, her ‘tayl is scaled like a fishe, and she singeth a maner of swete song and therwith decevueth many a gode mariner’. Another author similarly exclaimed: ‘Eyes look not on the Mermaids face, and Ears forbear her Song; Her Face hath an alluring Grace, more charming is her Tongue.’ For medieval Europeans, the mermaid was a mysterious reminder of the hazard of the sea, as well as of women’s charms. Her manifestation in churches was probably a reminder to Christians of the dangers of the lust for flesh, while her repeated presence in sea folklore was probably an attempt to explain myriad deaths and mysteries that the ocean presented.
While the mermaid held a prominent position in the symbolism of medieval European cathedrals, heraldry, coinage and folklore – so much so that the 17th-century English polymath Thomas Browne somewhat disgustedly exclaimed: ‘Few eyes have escaped the Picture of the Mermaids’ – the triton embodied a more obscure, if equally dangerous, representation of the sea. One would not find many tritons staring down from the ceiling of a church, nor did mermen often decorate coins and heraldry. Nevertheless, tritons held real sway in the mentality of medieval Europeans, who generally believed mermen to have descended from Triton, king of the sea. Mermen’s sea lairs – ‘secret corners and receptacles … not pervious to men’ – shielded them from the human world. According to the 16th-century French surgeon, Ambroise Paré, these creatures boasted a scaly fish tail on the lower half of their bodies and ‘from the middle upwards … have the shape of men’. Tritons were the natural mates for mermaids and both creatures symbolised for medieval (and many early modern) Europeans, both hesitance and curiosity towards the sea.
When combined with ancient mythology, the Church’s acceptance of mermaids lent credibility to sailors’ and travellers’ numerous mermaid and triton sightings. One of the most popular encounters (recounted by Mather) dates to 1197, when fishermen off the east coast of England netted a mysterious creature. Upon investigating it, the fishermen found that it resembled ‘in shape a wild or savage man’ and quickly imprisoned the creature in Orford Castle. Unable to speak and subsisting on a meagre diet of raw meat and fish, the creature endured a life of ‘miserable’ torment in the castle’s walls for six months. Not surprisingly, when the Englishmen allowed their captive to swim in the ocean, it escaped and never returned.
Even more famously (also referenced by Mather), in 1403 a group of Dutch women found a ‘naked and dumb’ mermaid floundering in flood waters just outside the town of Edam. Having taken the mermaid to nearby Haarlem, the townspeople taught her ‘to weare clothes, to spinne, to eate bread, and white meates’. One author contended that Haarlem’s residents ‘had given [the mermaid] some Notion of a Deity and … it made its Reverences very devoutly, whenever it passed by a Crucifix’. Here was the ultimate example of merpeople and humans living in harmony. Not only had Haarlem’s residents taught the mermaid to be a productive member of society through spinning – they had also converted her to Christianity.
The 16th and 17th centuries marked a significant increase in mermaid and triton sightings, as Europeans scoured the globe in their quest for commercial and imperial power. Wherever Europeans explored, it seemed they found merpeople. Upon arriving in the New World, Christopher Columbus claimed to have seen three mermaids rise out of the sea. Though Columbus found that mermaids were ‘not so beautiful as they are painted’, he nonetheless remarked: ‘To some extent they have the form of a human face.’ The explorer Henry Hudson similarly noted in his log for 15 June 1608 that two of his crew spied a mermaid in the North Atlantic Ocean. Like recorders before and after him, Hudson was sure to provide as much detail as possible of this sighting, noting that: ‘From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a womans (as they say that saw her) her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behind, of colour blacke.’ He also recorded the names of the men who claimed to have seen the creature. Early modern gentlemen would have looked to these explorers as authorities. When combined with the lingering culture of mermaids and tritons that had long defined Europe, the craze for exploration and all the surprises (and benefits) it promised fostered an enhanced willingness to believe that these creatures just might exist.
Taken together, this broad collection of recent sightings, religious representations and historical allusions surely helped to shape Mather’s 1716 outlook. He was hardly alone. In fact, Mather joined a growing group of 18th-century European naturalists in their international mission to track down, trap and scientifically analyse merpeople.
Although scientific investigations of merpeople became surprisingly common by the second half of the 18th century, the drawing of ‘The Syren Drawn from the Life’ (1759) is especially illuminating. This startling image was, after all, published in England’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a trusted periodical aimed at well-heeled, well-educated men. ‘Drawn from life’ by the French printer and member of the Dijon Academy, Jacques-Fabien Gautier, this ‘siren’ looked very different from the mermaids of classical lore. Rather than flaunting flowing hair, Gautier’s specimen was completely bald with large ears and ‘hideously ugly’ features. Gautier swore that, after catching the poor creature alive, he kept it in a small tank and fed it bread and fish. This creature was not some beautiful siren who hoped to lure Europeans into the depths of the sea; it was a natural specimen, which demanded further scientific investigation.
Despite certain thinkers’ insistence that merpeople were little more than flights of fancy, other early modern philosophers hurried to find their own piece of the mermaid puzzle. By the mid-18th century, mermaid appendages became such desired facets of European ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that Hans Sloane and his colleagues at the Royal Society eagerly investigated a merman’s arm. The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, urged the Swedish Academy of Science to track and capture a mermaid who allegedly lived off the coast of Nyköping, Sweden, while a well-respected French publisher, Louis Renard, decided to include a faithful drawing of a mermaid caught in the East Indies in a scientific volume on sea life.
Ultimately, these varied investigations represent European thinkers’ transition from sightings to science in their understanding of merpeople. By the close of the 18th century, some of the smartest men in the western world, including Carl Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin, Peter Collinson, Benoit de Maillett, Erik Pontoppidan and numerous members of the Royal Society had expended considerable time and money tracking, (allegedly) trapping and investigating these strange creatures. They did so without irony or sarcasm. For these and many others, such pursuits reflected a vision of a modern era defined more by natural science and enlightened discourse than ‘Grubstreet’.
While modern scientists are not chasing mermaids around the world like their early modern counterparts, they have hardly lost the urge to push research to the wondrous, even mythical, edge. Whether using space photography to uncover lost Egyptian cities or asserting the existence of parallel universes, today’s thinkers carry on that enterprising spirit which early modern philosophers such as Mather exhibited in their representations of merpeople. In this way, we are still looking for our own versions of mermaids and tritons: fantastical facets of the natural world which might help humankind to understand our ultimate purpose on this spinning rock in the infinite frontier of space and time.
Vaughn Scribner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas. This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue with the title ‘Diving Into Mysterious Waters’.