Mermaids held a prominent position in England from 1100 to 1830 because increased sea travel played a large role in the development of England as an economic power. Images of mermaids made appearances in diaries, texts, housewares, an even churches.
~The Religious Mermaid
Similar to Ireland, mermaids embodied religious creatures, proving all living things to be subject to the Creator. In the chapel at Durham Castle, a pillar is adorned with the image of a mermaid (10). The 12th century was a time where sirens were depicted in a positive light, their songs mingling with those of heaven, “warning about the perils of seduction”, according to historian Jacqueline Leclercq-Marx (10). This is unusual because sirens later came to be seen as sexually charged creatures, using their songs to bring about moral destruction instead of worship. Making a pagan creature subject to the divine demonstrated God’s control over both the religious and worldly realms.
~Christ as Centaur
In 1480, St. Gregory published his work Moralia on the Job in which he portrayed Christ as a centaur, both powerful and mystical. Although published after the construction of the Durham Chapel, the fact that Christ was depicted as a magical creature holds great significance (10). Gregory’s image shows humanity’s uncertainty about the appearance of Christ. This same uncertainty about the ocean prompts illustrations of mermaids, the embodiment of confusion toward the sea.
Trying to make sense of the unknown, mermaids became a common theme in housewares. This ewer (an ornate pitcher) dated from 1610, was reserved for the elite because of its ornate detail and silver composition (1). Because mermaids represented mystical beauty, Europeans wanted to discover more about them, prompting the production of visual representations.
~The Verified Account: Richard Whitbourne
Whitbourne, an English explorer during 1615-1620, documented a mermaid sighting just off the coast of Newfoundland (9). He describes her as human-like, wanting attention and therefore swimming up to the boats (9). The crew however, was afraid and fled each time she approached (9). The crews reaction to the mermaid, a mysterious creature, demonstrated the fear associated with the ocean.
~The False Account: John Smith
John Smith’s alleged account of a mermaid sighting shows that real evidence of merfolk was lacking in magazines and historical documents in early modern England. Vaughn Schribner investigates the presence of merfolk in articles from Gentleman’s Magazine from 1750-1775 (6). The basis for these articles was John Smith’s documentation of a mermaid in the new world (6). However, upon investigation, Schribner could not find any part of Smith’s diary that contained mermaids. Even though this journal entry was accepted as historical information, and cited in many modern scholarly articles, it was never actually written. The fact that Smith’s mermaid account was accepted by so many people, even though it was historically false, shows information about mermaids was fashionable knowledge, attracting audiences despite the fictitious content.
~The Fake Mermaid
Fascination with the unknown also made mermaids a big money maker in England. In 1822, Captain Eades, a British seaman, brought back a preserved “mermaid” to London (2). Many people flocked to see the magical creature that had suddenly become a reality (2). The owner of the ship eventually sued Captain Eades for ownership, and money due him as a result of the mermaid’s popularity (2). The suit went on for months, until a group of scientists took a closer look and realized that the mermaid was carefully crafted out of a monkey and multiple fish parts (2). Soon the mermaid lost its mystery and, consequently, its profit earning ability. In contrast to the mermaid depicted on the ewer, the Eades mermaid was frightening. Nonetheless, the popularity of the mermaid shows man’s infatuation with the unknown, especially the sea (3). With global exploration on the rise, it was only natural that sailors and common folk would stand in awe of this sea and its nature endowed powers. The idea of mermaids engaged with people’s affinity for the dangerous. Just like watching a horror movie, covering your face yet peeking through your fingers, the mermaid sparked peoples’ interest in both the intriguing and the terrifying.
- “Artstor Library.” Artstor Library. N.p., n.d. Web.
- “The Business Of Mermaids.” Skeptic3 (2013): 68-69. Academic Search Complete. Web.
- “Mermaids.” UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology. Vol. 4. Detroit: UXL, 2009. 696-699. World History in Context. Web.
- Schribner, Vaugn. “Guest Post from Vaughn Scribner: “Fabricating History: The Curious Case of John Smith, a Green-Haired Mermaid, and Alexandre Dumas”” The Junto. N.p., 16 June 2015. Web.
- Whitbourne, Richard, Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland, 1622.
- Wood, Rita. “The Norman Chapel In Durham Castle.” Northern History1 (2010): 9-48. Academic Search Complete. Web.