If you've ever wondered about mermaids, this is the article for you. Takeshi Yamada's "On the Art of Mermaids" is available online. And Yamada knows his stuff: he wins awards for his mermaids. Here he is with his 6 foot long Fiji Mermaid at the opening reception of the 9th Annual Mermaid Show at the Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn.
Hairy Men and Mermaids
Hairy men have occupied a special place in the human imagination. Renaissance encyclopeadists were always sure to include such classic furry human-like creatures as satyrs. In his Historia Animalium published in Zurich in the mid-sixteenth century, Conrad Gesner - one of the most prominent naturalists of his age - didn't shy away from detailing the physiological particularly of satyrs and even provides a rather grotesque image of the creature complete with pendulous breasts.
From the skins of Gorgades to Yeti sculps to nondescript creatures, whenever possible, taxidermists have been at the ready with thread and pillow fluff to preserve hairy wonders for all to see.
As for mermaids, well ... read on
When travelling in distant lands, it is always advisable to bring back some part of a hairy man-like creature to prove that a) you did travel beyond the horizon into strange lands teeming with strange creatures and b) that you did indeed see the hairy evidence that man and animal are only ever separated by a razor. The first written document of the tradition is the 18 lines scratched in stone temple to the chief god of Carthage, Ba’al Hammon.
In the 5th century, Hanno was ordered to sail west from Carthage with 30,000 men and women in 60 boats each with 50 oars to establish colonies beyond the Pillars of Heracles as the Straights of Gibraltar were known. Having accomplished his task, Hanno then turned his boats south and sailed down along the western coastline of African.
On an island of the coast of present day Gabon lived a hairy tribe of savages, which his interpreters called “Gorillae.” Hanno and his men were unable to ensnare any of the “men” savages, but succeeded in capturing three fierce and furious females, who bit and scratched and refused to come on board. “So we killed and flayed them,” Hanno relates, “and brought their skins to Carthage. For we did not voyage further, provisions failing us.” So ends Hanno’s narrative. [read more on Hanno's voyage +]
The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder writing five centuries later noted the gorilla furs had been exhibited in the temple of the goddess Juno "to prove his story and as a curious exhibit." They remained on show until Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in146 B.C. Pliny refers to the creatures as Gorgons and the group of islands they came from as called the Gorgades.
During Charles Waterton’s fourth and final journey through the jungles of Guyana to collect strange and rare specimens, Waterton stumbled upon and procured a great hairy monkey-like animal with a long tail. Being too large to carry whole, Waterton cut off the head and shoulders, preserved them with his superior taxidermy techniques, and brought his “Nondescript” back to England for public display. With his affably affected public schoolboy humour, Waterton proclaim his monkey-thing to be a new species – quite without precedent – and yet, something about “his face and head cause the inspector to pause for a moment, before he ventures to pronounce his opinion of the classification.” That something is its likeness to a human face:
“The features of this animal are quite of the Grecian cast; and he has a placidity of countenance which shows that things went well with him when in life. Some gentlemen of great skill and talent, on inspecting his head, were convinced that the whole series of its features has been changed. Others again have hesitated, and betrayed doubts, not being able to make up their minds, whether it be possible, that the brute features of the monkey can be changed into the noble countenance of man.”
Waterton’s ruse, however, was not to earn praise for his “discovery” a new species, but to laud his prowess at preparing specimens. The confusion and uncertainty that Waterton claims his Nondescript provoked was a sign of his complete mastery of taxidermic preparation so as “to hit the character of an animal to a very great nicety, even to the preservation of the pouting lip, dimples, warts, and wrinkles on the face.”
Waterton offers the possibility that this bust of a monkey-man could indeed be a real creature, although should anyone succeed in bring home another specimen with "features as prefect" as Waterton's specimen, that adventurer would indeed be a modern day Hercules fully entitled to register a thirteenth labour. "Now if, on the other hand, we argue," Waterton continues, "that his head in question has had all its original features destroyed, and a set of new ones given to it, by what means has this hitherto unheard-of-charge been effected?"
Although Charles Waterton was one of the most skilful taxidermists of his age (his superb specimens of birds and animals have remained pristine to this day), his reputation as a serious naturalist has been tarnished by such disturbing ability to combine and mould parts of nature into hallucinations.
His creatures were satirical monstrosities crafted from bits and pieces of animals: his aim was not to fool the viewer into believing they were observing a work of nature but rather to make present his opinion on institutional corruption and religious perversion (Waterton was a Catholic living in a predominately Protestant country).
Among his fraudulent creatures is an orangutan adorned with donkey’s ears called “Martin Luther” and the more poetically titled “Noctifer, or the Spirit of the Dark Ages, unknown in England before the Reformation” was crafted from the head of an eagle owl, the legs of a bittern, and the wings of a partridge. Even more elaborate was his tableau labelled as “John Bull and the National Debt,” which included a porcupine with a human face and tortoise shell surrounded by menacing lizards and serpents.
Interestingly, Wanderings, Waterton’s spirited travel diary, with the Nondescript as a frontspiece was published just eight years after Mary Shelley’s notorious literary hallucination, Frankenstein. The process of taxidermy always borders on resurrection by breathing life into corpses and endowing them with a quasi-immortality. It is hard not to compare Waterton’s taxidermy Dr. Frankenstein’s own creative process. Both had a comprehensive knowledge of nature. Both attempted to usurp her generative powers in order to create new creatures and new life.
Before exhibiting his infamous Feejee Mermaid in 1842, P.T. Barnum created quite a media frenzy by distributing flyers and writing letters to newspapers that claimed a certain "Dr. Griffin, agent of the Lyceum of Natural History in London" will be traveling through New York with a "veritable mermaid taken among the Feejee Islands." In reality "Dr. Griffin" was Barnum's friend Levi Lyman and the "veritable mermaid" was nothing more outlandish than the upper torso of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish. The mermaid had been borrowed from Moses Kimball, the owner of the Boston Museum.
The Mermaid rapidly became one of Barnum's biggest attractions during his first year of business, helping him to treble his monthly profits. Merging the worlds of science and entertainment, Barnum challenged his audience to tell the fact from the fraud. His sideshow capitalised on the idea that there is as much pleasure in being deceived knowingly by a hoax as in spotting the fake and figuring out how it was made. The audience became the experts, testing their knowledge or trying their gullibility, but always enjoying the experience.