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Historical mermaids

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mermaid history
Mermaids are marine beings commonly depicted as having human-like upper bodies and piscine lower bodies. Their existence has been reported for centuries by sea-faring folk, but has been dismissed as either mere superstition or the confusion of a drunken sailor. The public commonly assumes that the sailor has seen a semi-aquatic animal such as a seal or a manatee.

The word "mermaid" is a combination of "mer" ("sea") and "maid" ("woman"). Male mermaids are termed "mermen".

The traditional image of a mermaid has existed since antiquity and likely has its origins in part-fish sea Gods such as Atargis and Dagon. Mermaids are shown as having long hair and holding a comb and a mirror. Mermen are few and far between. While the single-tailed mermaid is popular nowadays, in earlier times mermaids were frequently drawn with twin tails. Such mermaids can be seen in the older European cathedrals. They bear a strong resemblance to their cousin the Sheila-na-Gig.

Mermaids around the world

Mermaid hoaxes

"Jenny Haniver" is a general term referring to composite creatures created for display in sideshows as a hoax. These creatures were usually billed as "Living Mermaids" but are usually made from the torso of a (very dead) monkey and the tail of a (very dead) fish. On occasion one might come across one with wings, claws, or other interesting additions.

The first of these Jenny Haniver hoaxes were created in the 1500s and 1600s. They were brought back to Europe as curiosities by travelers to Asia. Due to their popularity, a thriving market in these forgeries flourished until the late nineteenth century. The most famous of these is the Feejee Mermaid, which was owned by P.T. Barnum.

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