Mythical creatures: merpeople

Explore the stories behind the Fantastic Beasts™: The Wonder of Nature exhibition. Discover the ocean's marvellous manatees, which may have inspired tales of mermaids.

The Natural History Museum

Merpeople

(also known as sirens, selkies or merrows)

'The oldest recorded merpeople were known as sirens (Greece) and it is in warmer waters that we find the beautiful mermaids so frequently depicted in Muggle literature and painting. The selkies of Scotland and the merrows of Ireland are less beautiful, but they share that love of music which is common to all merpeople.'
– Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them™

Myt Anim Inc MermaidsLIFE Photo Collection

The merpeople of Hogwarts

Harry Potter saw a beautiful stained-glass window featuring a mermaid in the prefects' bathroom at Hogwarts in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire™.

Stained-glass window featuring a mermaidThe Natural History Museum

When Harry later encountered merpeople in the black lake, he found that with their greyish skin, wild green hair and broken teeth, they looked nothing like the mermaid from the window.

'The merpeople had greyish skins and long, wild, dark green hair. Their eyes were yellow, as were their broken teeth, and they wore thick ropes of pebbles around their necks.'
– Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire™

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

MerpersonThe Natural History Museum

Mermaid hoaxes

This scarily convincing 'mummified mermaid' may once have held a mirror and a comb to brush her real human hair.

The Buxton MermaidThe Natural History Museum

In the 1800s fake merpeople, sometimes known as monkey-fish, were brought home by sailors who kept them as lucky charms or exhibited them as curiosities.

The Buxton MermaidThe Natural History Museum

X-rays and other scientific methods have revealed that this mermaid was made from a mixture of wood, bone, metal, dried fish and human hair.

The Buxton MermaidThe Natural History Museum

A mermaid from Indonesia

Alongside illustrations of colourful and strange fishes, this book, Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes (Fishes, Crayfish and Crabs) contains an account from the early 1700s of 'a monster resembling a siren' caught in Indonesia.

The author, Louis Renard, lists several other sightings and states that the existence of mermaids is 'quite definitely affirmed'.

Poissons, Ecrevisses et CrabesThe Natural History Museum

'A monster resembling a Siren, caught near the island of Borne [Borneo]... It lived on land, in a vat full of water, during four days seven hours. From time to time it uttered little cries like those of a mouse.'
– Louis Renard, 1718-1719

Poissons, Ecrevisses et CrabesThe Natural History Museum

Nature's merpeople

Glimpses of floating manatees out at sea, and eerie whale song heard from ships, may have inspired myths of merpeople.

West Indian manatee West Indian manateeThe Natural History Museum

Manatees, also known as sea cows, are marine mammals. They sometimes perform 'tail stands' as they float in shallow water. Their forward-facing eyes give them a human-like appearance.

Manatee by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Columbus meets a mermaid

In 1493 explorer Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids during his first journey to what we now call the Americas. He noted that they rose out of the sea and had human-like faces.

'[I] saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are painted.'
– Christopher Columbus, 1493

West Indian manateeThe Natural History Museum

Based on the location of his sighting – near modern-day Haiti in the Caribbean – it is possible that Columbus actually saw three American manatees.

Credits: Story

For more information and to book tickets to the exhibition, visit the Museum's website.

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WIZARDING WORLD and all related trademarks, characters, names, and indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Publishing Rights © JKR. (s21)

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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