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'Merpeople: A Human History' -- book review

Books

‘Merpeople: A Human History’ — book review

Folklore or missing link?

In May of 2012, 3.4 million Americans tuned into the Animal Planet cable channel to watch a new “documentary” called Mermaids: The Body Found. This 90-minute program was actually a fictional film – albeit one designed to look like a documentary – which alleged that merpeople were real and that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was conspiring to conceal the evidence. Despite multiple onscreen messages stating the program was a work of fiction, many viewers who saw Mermaids: The Body Found ended their evening convinced of the reality of merpeople.

A sequel, Mermaids: The New Evidence, aired the following year and drew in 200,000 more viewers, prompting scores of unsolicited phone calls to NOAA from citizens demanding they end the cover up and reveal the truth about mermaids. For many, the furor surrounding Animal Planet’s Mermaid documentaries represented an all-time low in the annals of critical thinking. How could any reasonably intelligent person believe in mermaids?

As historian Vaughn Scribner demonstrates in his amazing new book, Merpeople: A Human History (2020), the literal belief in mermaids and mermen long predates Animal Planet, and was at one time endorsed by some of the smartest men in the western world.

merpeople in the New World

Scribner begins his historical overview in ancient Babylon, with the worship of the piscine deity Oannes, but quickly moves into Christian medieval Europe, where he argues the story of merhumanity truly begins. Merpeople had been mentioned in the work of the celebrated Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, and it was on his authority that learned ecclesiastics took their existence as fact, dutifully placing their images in bestiaries and even in churches, represented by some surprisingly erotic sculptures.

The advent of the Renaissance did little to shake folks’ faith in the existence of merpeople, as evidenced by their presence in Conrad Gessner’s zoological encyclopedias. Gessner not only included generic merpeople, but even mermonks and merbishops (as well as all kinds of marine variations of terrestrial animals), on the conviction that everything which God had made on land had an aquatic counterpart.

Europeans began crisscrossing the world’s oceans in the 15th century’s Age of Exploration and, sure enough, they found merpeople. Or, at least claimed they did. These fishy creatures seemed to be especially bountiful around the Americas, as everyone from Christopher Columbus to Henry Hudson reported glimpsing them. One of the most dramatic sightings came from English sailor Richard Whitbourne but, as Scribner shows, it somehow got credited to John Smith, of Pocahontas fame.

Belief in the reality of merpeople wasn’t limited to merely the assertions of sailors. Reports occasionally came out that one of these rare and intelligent creatures had been caught and killed. The rib and skeletal hand of just such a siren were even sent back to the famed Dutch physician Thomas Bartholin, who failed to identify them and so conceded that they must be from a mermaid, as reported.

As Scribner demonstrates through his meticulous and copious accumulation of data, neither the Age of Enlightenment nor the scientific revolutions of the 19th century did anything to dampen the belief in the reality of mermaids. In fact, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution only seemed to embolden the speculation surrounding the biology of merpeople, with some leading scientists arguing that if Darwin was right, they should exist, and they might even be the missing link between man and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Scribner observes that as merpeople became more acceptable to science, they also became increasingly less attractive, physically. That helps to explain how hucksters like P.T. Barnum were eventually able to pass off a taxidermied monkey-fish from Japan as a mermaid, to a public eager and willing to pay good money for a bad hoax.

Although following the exposure of Barnum’s infamous Fiji Mermaid, belief in the reality of the mythical creatures apparently cooled. Mermaids, Scribner maintains, came to be seen as the only representatives of the species, and were relegated to the role of the idealized and perpetually virginal maidens of fairy tales and sappy romantic movies. Here Scribner uncharacteristically seems to have completely overlooked the continued existence of the merman in the form of monstrous amphibious humanoids, like H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones and Universal Studio’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But amid the vast amounts of information Merpeople provides, this is something of a minor quibble.

'Merpeople: A Human History' -- book review

If you’re not already feeling the need to come up for air, bear in mind this only represents a fraction of the content within Merpeople: A Human History. Besides being stuffed to the gills with amazing information, the book is a beautifully designed hardcover with a bright blue dust jacket. All 318 pages are printed on slick, bright, white paper, and the text is accompanied by 117 artfully inserted and captioned images showcasing various historical depictions of merpeople, 79 of which are in color. The publisher, Reaktion Books, should be commended for producing such a visually striking volume, especially one that’s so reasonably priced. Merpeople: A Human History retails for $27.50, a true bargain in the world of academic publishing.

Taken together, Merpeople: A Human History is a tremendous achievement, and is particularly recommended for those who found themselves baffled by the reception of Mermaids: The Body Found and its sequel. Far from an aberrant occurrence, Scribner’s new book demonstrates that the belief in the existence of mermaids is forever buoyant, and unlikely to sink to the bottom of humanity’s imagination anytime soon.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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