THE existence of an animal, half a man and half a fish, has long been talked of, believed, disbelieved, and doubted. Homer is the first who speaks of such beings, which he styles Sirens; but we do not find that he gives any description of their shape; however, it was soon asserted, that the Sirens were as delineated above, and Horace in his “Art Poetic,” paints the monster in one line:-
Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne;
Above a lovely maid, a fish below.
The Sirens were three sisters, whose voice was so delightfully harmonious, so enticing, that no resistance could be made against its powerful charms; but “‘twas death to hear,” for they led the navigators and their ships to certain destruction among the rocks which bordered the dangerous coasts which they inhabited, near the shores of Italy.
At different times the public credulity has been imposed upon by relations of Mermen and Mermaids; but those facts are generally involved in circumstances so incredible, that they become doubtful. We are told that the king of Portugal, and the Grand Master of the Order of St. James, had a suit at law to determine which class of animals these monsters belong to, either man or fish! – This is a sort of inductive proof, that such animals had been then seen and closely examined; unless we suppose that, as in the case of the child, said to have been born with a golden tooth, the discussion took place before the fact was ascertained. In the year 1560, on the western coasts of the island of Ceylon, some fishermen have brought up at one draught of a net seven Mermen and Maids, of which several Jesuits, and among them F. H. Henriquez, and Dimas Bosquez physician to the Viceroy of Goa, are reported to have been witnesses; and it is added, that the physician who examined them, and made dissections of them with a great deal of care, asserted, that all the parts both internal and external, were found perfectly conformable to those of men. We have read of late in newspapers, and other periodical publications, accounts of Mermaids which can hardly be doubted; and the following, which is one of the most recent, carries with it an appearance of authenticity:
“A young man, named John McIsaac, of Corphine, in Kintyre, Scotland, made oath, on examination at Campeltown, before the Sheriff-substitute of Kintyre, that he saw on the afternoon of the 13th of October, 1811, on a black rock on the sea coast, an animal of which he gives a long and curious detail, answering in general to the description given of the supposed amphibious animal, called a Mermaid. He stated that the upper half of it was white, and of the shape of a human body – the other half, towards the tail, of a brindled or reddish grey colour, apparently covered with scales; but the extremity of the tail itself was of a greenish colour; that the head was covered with long hair – sometimes it would put back the hair on both sides of its head; it would also spread its tail like a fan, and while so extended, the tail continued in a tremulous motion, and when drawn to gether again, it remained motionless, and appeared to be 12 or 13 inches broad – that the hair was brown and long; that the animal was four or five feet in length; that it had a head, hair, arms, and body, down to the middle, like a human being; that the arms were short in proportion to the body, which appeared to be of the thickness of that of a young lad, and tapering down gradually to the point of the tail; that when stroking its head, the fingers were kept close together, so that he could not say whether they were webbed or not; that he saw it for near two hours, the rock on which it lay being dry – that after the sea had so far retired as to leave the rock dry to the height of five feet above the water, it tumbled clumsily into the sea. A minute after he saw the animal above water, he observed every feature of its face, having all the appearance of a human being, with very hollow eyes. The cheeks were of the same colour with the rest of the face; the neck short, and it seemed to be constantly stroking and washing its breast with both hands; as the bosom was immersed in the waves, he could not determine whether it was formed like a woman’s or not. He saw no other fins nor feet upon it but as above-described. It continued above water a few minutes and then disappeared. He was informed, that some boys, in a neighbouring farm, saw a similar creature in the sea, close to the shores on the same day. The Minister of Campbeltown, and the Chamberlain of Mull, attest his examination, and declare that they know no reason why his veracity should be questioned.”
Although we have strong reasons to believe, that the sea contains, amongst its numerous inhabitants, some individuals which link, in the admirable chain of nature, the animal species with the fish; yet we were obliged, out of respect to truth, to place the Mermaid among fabulous and fancy-born creatures.