‘Few eyes have escaped the Picture of Mermaids; that is, according to Horace his Monster, with woman’s head above, and fishy extremity below: and these are conceived to answer the shape of the ancient Syrens that attempted upon Ulysses.’
Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (London, 1658), chapter XIX.
Image of a mermaid on the Typus Cosmographicus Universalis by Sebastian Münster in Simon Grynäus, Novvs orbis regionvm ac insvlarum veteribvs incognitarvm (Basel, 1555), foldout plate.
Worth’s copy of Simon Grynäus’ Novvs orbis regionvm ac insvlarum veteribvs incognitarvm (Basel, 1555), includes a map of the world made by the famous German cartographer, Sebastian Münster (1488-1552), and the artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543). The section depicting the Indian Ocean shows what looks like a mermaid, but was in fact meant to represent a siren. We can be relatively sure that the icon was meant to be understood as a siren since according to lore, sirens were to be found off the coast of Asia and both Münster and Holbein the Younger would have been familiar with their depiction in earlier maps.
The similarity between sirens and mermaids and confusion between the two may be seen in a number of sources and goes back at least to the medieval period. Pedersen notes that by the Renaissance, ‘the term ‘siren’ was arguably interchangeable with the term ‘mermaid’. Sirens had a long classical pedigree – their song had proved fatal to many who heard them and, in the Odyssey Odysseus had only escaped their clutches by following the advice of Circe and having himself tied to the mast of his ship. Mermaids, on the other hand, have had a much more favourable press: the best known story is probably that of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’.
As Berman notes, though the concept of water spirits was an ancient one, the legend of the mermaid originated much later, in medieval Europe. One of the first references was in the mid 1360s in The Romaunt of the Rose, a Middle English translation of the medieval Le Roman de la Rose which noted that mermaids and sirens were often confused with each other. Exactly how and when the siren of classical myth (which was half woman/half bird), became associated with the relatively more benign mermaid (half woman/half fish), is unknown, but since both were half-human and both were associated with luring men to their death in the sea, it is not surprising that they became fused in the imagination. The image of the mermaid quickly became popular and elements of it may be seen in the medieval legend of the fairy Melusine whose depictions in the Worth Library show her combing her long flowing hair and looking into a mirror – typical elements in mermaid iconography.
Image of a mermaid from Francesco Redi, Opusculorum pars prior; sive, Experimenta circa generationem insectorum (Amsterdam, 1686), ii, plate between D2 and D3.
A very different type of mermaid may be in Redi’s image of a ‘pece muger’ (fish woman). She is just one of a number of mermaid or mermaid types that may be found in books in the Worth Library. As the image on the Sea Creatures webpage demonstrates, mermaids were the ultimate hybrid: they could have one tail or two, legs or no legs, hair or no hair. Redi stated that the ‘pece muger’ was said to exist off the coast of Brazil, but also quotes Fr Philip of the Blessed Trinity (1603-1671), a discalced Carmelite friar, who noted that these ‘sirens’ lived near the island of St Laurence in the western part of Africa and were called ‘fish women’ by the Portuguese. Given that Worth was collecting an essential European collection of books ranging between 1475 and 1733 it is unsurprising that his library mainly reflects European mermaid tradition and holds no references to African water spirits such as Mami Wata, the Lasirèn of the Caribbean, the Sedna of the Inuit people, or the Yawkyawk of the Aboriginal people.
Image of mermaids in Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneis Virgiliana (Lyon, 1529), p. 484.
This image, from Worth copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, includes a depiction of more familiar mermaids swimming around a galleon. The Aeneid refers to these as nymphs of the sea, sacred to the goddess Cybele. This woodcut was clearly copied from (or a reuse of) the Gruninger Master’s woodcuts for Sebastian Brandt’s 1502 edition of the work. The mermaids in Worth’s 1529 edition of the Aeneid are similar to those depicted by Holbein the Younger in his later map of the world in that they have two tails, but more usually mermaids were shown with only one tail. We see an example of the latter on the engraved title page of Worth’s copy of Joannes Herbinius’ Dissertationes de admirandis mundi cataractis (Amsterdam, 1678), where a one-tailed mermaid is shown to the left of the image, holding up a banner which declares ‘Come and see the works of the Lord who descended into the Abyss’. Herbinius’ text is primarily concerned with waterfalls and tides and says nothing about any mermaids, but they were an attractive device to draw attention to a work on a watery theme. For that reason, mermaids and merman may be found lurking on frontispieces throughout the Worth collection.
Image of a mermaid on the engraved title page of Joannes Herbinius, Dissertationes de admirandis mundi cataractis (Amsterdam, 1678).
The lure of the mermaid legend is a strong one, and may well have influenced the interpretation of sightings of other mammals which were interpreted as ‘mermaids’ simply because people wanted to see a mermaid. Early modern scholars were no exception: the renowned Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), listed in his museum of anatomical specimens in the Anatomy House of Copenhagen ‘The hand and rib of a mermaid’ and elsewhere noted (rather equivocally), that:
So great is the discrepancy between the ancients and more recent witnesses as to the appearance of mermaids, that it is no wonder some people regard them as fictitious. I myself have keen-sighted hands, and I describe such mermaids as have actually been seen. Their hand and ribs cannot delude us, and I have supplied images fashioned according to the truth of nature.
Carrington suggested that many ‘mermaid’ sightings were actually sightings of manatees and dugongs which, though they didn’t much resemble the beautiful mermaids in Virgil’s text, might sound a little like them. Others saw the potential pecuniary benefits from exhibiting a ‘mermaid’ – perhaps the most famous being P.T. Barnum’s ‘Feejee mermaid’ of 1842. Mermaids continue to be an enduring iconographic theme in our own time (visible on the high street in the Starbuck’s version), which is very similar to the image of a mermaid included by Jean Jacques Manget (1652-1742), in his major alchemical compendium: Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa (Geneva, 1702).
Image of a mermaid in Jean Jacques Manget, Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa (Geneva, 1702), ii, fig 3. facing p. 216.
Berman, Ruth, ‘Mermaids’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York, 1987), pp 133-145.
Berman, Ruth. ‘Sirens’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York, 1987), pp 147-153.
Bruun, Niels W., (ed.), Thomas Bartholin: The Anatomy House in Copenhagen briefly described (Copenhagen, 2015).
Grynäus, Simon, Novvs orbis regionvm ac insvlarum veteribvs incognitarvm (Basel, 1555).
Herbinius, Joannes, Dissertationes de admirandis mundi cataractis (Amsterdam, 1678).
Kendall, Laurel, et al. (eds), Mythic Creatures and the Impossibly Real Animals who inspired them (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 2016).
Manget, Jean Jacques, Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa (Geneva, 1702).
Pedersen, Tara E., Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2015).
Redi, Francesco, Opusculorum pars prior; sive, Experimenta circa generationem insectorum (Amsterdam, 1686).
Scribner, Vaughan, ‘“Such monsters do exist in nature”: Mermaids, Tritons, and the Science of Wonder in Eighteenth-Century Europe’, Itinerario, 41: 3 (2017), 507-538.
Van Duzer, Chet, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2013).
Vergilius Maro, Publius, Aeneis Virgiliana (Lyon, 1529).
Vergilius Maro, Publius, The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles (London, 2006).
Vos, Lette, ‘Considering Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose: Principles and Processes of Medieval and Present Day translation’, (BA thesis, Utrecht University, 2013).
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
 This book is not in the Worth Library.
 Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2013), pp 80-81.
 Pliny the Elder (23-79AD), though he discounted the existence of sirens, reported in Chapter 70 of Book X of his Natural History that ‘Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces’.
 Chet van Duzer uses the term interchangeably throughout his book – see, for example, p. 102.
 Tara E. Pedersen, Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2015), p. 12.
 Ruth Berman, ‘Mermaids’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York, 1987), p. 133. See also Lette Vos, ‘Considering Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose: Principles and Processes of Medieval and Present-day translation’, (BA thesis, Utrecht university, 2013), p. 27. Romaunt of the Rose (677-684).
 Laurel Kendall, et al. (eds), Mythic Creatures and the Impossibly Real Animals who inspired them (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 2016), pp 38-45.
 Niels W. Brunn (ed.), Thomas Bartholin. The Anatomy House in Copenhagen briefly described (Copenhagen, 2015), pp 111 and 186.