Creatures, Myths & Legends
How did manatees inspire mermaid legends ?
By T.K. Randall
November 27, 2014 · 33 comments
Manatees are a vulnerable species in some parts of the world. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Chris Muenzer
Manatees and dugongs have long been connected with stories of sirens, mermaids and other myths.
With their walrus-like appearance, passive demeanor and large, slow-moving bodies, the manatee might seem like the last thing you would expect to have influenced tales of monstrous sea creatures or sirens whose beautiful songs lured unwary sailors to their doom.
Nonetheless, even Christopher Columbus himself once documented sighting 'mermaids' in 1493 when several manatees unexpectedly rose out of the sea off the prow of his ship.
It wouldn't be long before sideshows in Europe got in on the action by presenting dead manatees as evidence of mermaids and other mythological creatures to audiences far and wide.
Such stories however may have dated back far further than the time of Christopher Columbus.
In 1959 archaeologists uncovered 3,000 year-old cave drawings in Malaysia indicating that dugongs, a word which translates to 'lady of the sea' in the local language, had in fact been a subject of intrigue long before the early seafaring voyagers of the modern world.
Even today the manatee still plays an important role in some local traditions such as those of the Palau nation which spans 340 Pacific islands. Their folklore depicts tales of women being transformed in to manatees and stories of dugongs aiding sailors who have become lost at sea.
"We believed that dugong was once a human, according to the legend," said Olympia E. Morei of the Belau National Museum. "If the dugong were to be extinct, we would, as a people, lose our connection to our environment and to our tradition."
Source: National Geographic
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