Today in 1493 Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, saw three mermaids, and said they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Of course they weren’t mermaids, but manatees, also known as sea cows.
Mermaids, mythical creatures that are half-female, half-fish, have been known in seafaring cultures since the time of the Greeks. They are normally described as having a woman’s head and torso, and a fishtail instead of legs. Mermaids live in the ocean and can put on a human shape and human mortal men. They are also related to sirens, another creature known to sea farers who was part-woman, part-bird, who lived on islands and sang songs to lure sailors to their deaths. If this sounds familiar, Disney’s The Little Mermaid combines these two creatures into Ariel.
Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees. Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. Mermaids were one of the many sea creatures that both frightened and entranced sailors at this time period.
That’s your Tudor Minute for today. Remember you can dive deeper into life in 16th century England through the Renaissance English History Podcast at englandcast.com.