Mystery of a 300-year-old mummified ‘mermaid’ with ‘human face’ and tail has baffled scientists
A mummified “mermaid” said to grant immortality to whoever tastes its flesh will be probed by scientists in order to reveal its true nature. The mysterious 12-inch creature was allegedly caught in the Pacific Ocean, off the Japanese island of Shikoku, between 1736 and 1741, and is now kept in a temple in the city of Asakuchi.
With a grimacing face, pointed teeth, two hands, and hair on its head and brow, it has an eerily human appearance – except for its fish-like lower half. Now researchers from the Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts have taken the mummy for CT scanning in a bid to unravel its secrets.
Hiroshi Kinoshita of the Okayama Folklore Society, who came up with the project, said the bizarre creature could have religious significance.
“Japanese mermaids have a legend of immortality,” he said.
“It is said that if you eat the flesh of a mermaid, you will never die.”
“There is a legend in many parts of Japan that a woman accidentally ate the flesh of a mermaid and lived for 800 years.”
“This ‘Yao-Bikuni’ legend is also preserved near the temple where the mermaid mummy was found.”
“I heard that some people, believing in the legend, used to eat the scales of mermaid mummies.”
In the age of Covid-19, a mermaid could be an ominous portent too, folklore suggests.
“There is also a legend that a mermaid predicted an infectious disease,” said Hiroshi.
A historic letter dated 1903 – apparently penned by a former owner – was stored alongside the mummy and gives a story about its provenance.
“A mermaid was caught in a fish-catching net in the sea off Kochi Prefecture,” the letter states.
“The fishermen who caught it did not know it was a mermaid, but took it to Osaka and sold it as unusual fish. My ancestors bought it and kept it as a family treasure.”
It’s unclear how or when the mummy came to the Enjuin temple in Asakuchi. But chief priest, Kozen Kuida, said it was put on display in a glass case some 40 years ago and is now kept in a fireproof safe.
“We have worshipped it, hoping that it would help alleviate the coronavirus pandemic even if only slightly,” he told The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.
Kinoshita, however, takes a more pragmatic view of the creature.
He believes it was manufactured at some point during the Edo period – an era of Japanese history stretching from 1603 to 1867.
“Of course, I don’t think it’s a real mermaid,” he said.
“I think this was made for export to Europe during the Edo period, or for spectacles in Japan.”
“The legend of mermaids remains in Europe, China and Japan all over the world. Therefore, I can imagine that people at that time were also very interested in it.”
He continued: “I think it is made from living animals and we would like to identify them by CT scans or DNA testing.”
“It looks like a fish with scales on the lower body and a primate with hands and a face on the upper body.”
A similar specimen was exhibited by P.T. Barnum – whose life inspired the 2017 blockbuster The Greatest Showman – at his American Museum in New York before it burned down in 1865. This mummy, created from the torso and head of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish, was purportedly caught off the coast of Fiji and later purchased from Japanese sailors. In Japanese folklore, there exists a creature called the ningyo, which is described as having a monkey’s mouth with fish-like teeth and a body covered in golden scales.
The scientists examining the mummy will publish their findings later this year.