Mermen

Mermen

Image of a merman from Jean-Baptiste Denis, Recueil des memoires et conferences qui ont esté presentées a Monseigneur le Dauphin pendant l’année M.DC.LXXII par Jean Baptiste Denis, conseiller, & medecin ordinaire du Roy (Paris, 1672), Sig. Aa2v (p. 96).

This image is of a merman, reportedly seen off the coast of Martinque on 23 May 1671. By October 1671 the story had made its way around learned Europe, for on 12 October Henry Oldenburg (d. 1677), the Secretary of the Royal Society, wrote to the English naturalist and physician, Martin Lister (1639-1712), to tell him the news :

‘A merman has been seen in Martinique in the West Indies. Two Frenchmen and four Negroes studied him for a very long time. He was in the water eight paces away from them, half his body seemed to be out of the sea, which surprised them very much. He had the shape of a man from the head to the waist ; his stature small, like that of a fifteen-year-old boy ; his head in proportion to his body ; his eyes rather big, but without deformity ; his nose large and snub ; the face full ; hair grey mixed with white and black, stright and floating on his shoulders ; and his very large grey hair, as is common with old men’.[1]

Oldenburg expressed some incredulity, commenting that the story was only taken seriously by those who had actually seen the creature, but he did not completely discount it, suggesting rather that it should be the subject of further research.[2]

Worth became aware of it due to the inclusion of the original report in his copy of Jean-Baptist Denis’ Recueil des memoires et conferences qui ont esté presentées a Monseigneur le Dauphin (Paris, 1672). Here the correspondent, a ‘M. Chrestien’, was at pains to emphasise the veracity of the sighting : it would, he opined, be difficult to report a more throughly researched account, supported as it was by the testimonies of a Jesuit priest, a well known sea captain and various companions.[3]

Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620), iv, p. 441.

The above image, from Worth’s copy of Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium shows another variation of a mermen (this time with flipper-like legs as well as a fish tail), and a decidedly less human face. Gessner reports that it was seen at Rome on 3 November, 1523 and was about the size of a five-year-old boy. It reminds us that while mermaids were usually depicted as being very attractive, mermen were more often shown less positively. In general mermaids have had a far more popular press than mermen (due to stories like The Little Mermaid). Although the lore of mermen goes back to the myth of the Babylonian sea-god Ea (also called Oannes), there are far more stories about mermaids than their male counterparts.[4]

Images of mermen from Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis: De piscibus et cetis (Amsterdam, 1657), title page.

Sources

Berman, Ruth, ‘Mermaids’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York, 1987), pp 133-145.

Roos, Anna Marie (ed. and tr.), The Correspondence of Martin Lister (1639-1712). Volume I. 1662-1677 (Leiden, 2015).

Van Duzer, Chet, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2013).

http://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Tritones.html

Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

[1] Anna Marie Roos (ed. and tr.), The Correspondence of Martin Lister (1639-1712). Volume I. 1662-1677 (Leiden, 2015), pp 390-391.

[2] Ibid., p. 391.

[3] Jean-Baptiste Denis, Recueil des memoires et conferences qui ont esté presentées a Monseigneur le Dauphin (Paris, 1672), p. 94.

[4] Ruth Berman, ‘Mermaids’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York, 1987), p. 134.

 

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