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Creatures, Myths & Legends

How did manatees inspire mermaid legends ?

By T.K. Randall
November 27, 2014 · Comment icon 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 | Comments (33)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #24 Posted by Junior Chubb 10 years ago
Indubitably. *image snip* I wonder if she tried it...
Comment icon #25 Posted by Lumpino 10 years ago
I think mermaids are similar beings like fairies, elves....................... e.t.c.
Comment icon #26 Posted by Jacques Terreur 10 years ago
I think mermaids are similar beings like fairies, elves....................... e.t.c. ....characters in kids' books?
Comment icon #27 Posted by HVBovoidell 10 years ago
I don't really see much of a resemblance.
Comment icon #28 Posted by Jacques Terreur 10 years ago
go to the nearest zoo and add a wig and some lipstick to one! Then you'll see! (i would do it and take a picture, but they won't let me into that zoo anymore....)
Comment icon #29 Posted by Rafterman 10 years ago
Well hairless coyotes inspire legends of Chupacabra.
Comment icon #30 Posted by HerNibs 10 years ago
Skeleton is a bit humanish. Hands and all. Nibs
Comment icon #31 Posted by Atuke 10 years ago
We definitely need to save them. It's hard to look at a manatee and NOT feel happy. They're the solution to world peace! That is a great statement and the best I've read in a long time.
Comment icon #32 Posted by CocoOutsideCremeFilled 10 years ago
Excerpt from Even present-day observers have discerned human attributes in sea cows. In the 30 years that James Powell, a biologist with the Wildlife Trust in St. Petersburg, has worked with manatees, "there have been times when they come up out of the water and the light has been such that they did look like the head of a person." "If you were expecting to see a mermaid," he said, "you'd see this back and tail come up with no dorsal fin" -- as many mermaids are drawn. Piccolo said manatees would have appeared only more human, and enticing, to New World explorers. The Age of E... [More]
Comment icon #33 Posted by evancj 10 years ago
It's no mystery, sailors just have very low standards is all.

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