Mermaids in a medical museum?

16 April 2014

It’s apt that this post should follow our recent one about unicorns. From an earthbound mythological creature to one which lived in the sea, this post is all about mermaids. But not as you might expect… Paolo Viscardi, co-author of

 John Tucker Photography.

On the surface, there may not seem to be many obvious overlaps between mermaids and medicine, but for some reason Henry Wellcome acquired several mermaid specimens for his collection. Unlike the mythology of the unicorn and its curative horn, mermaid stories have tended to focus on love, loss and otherworldly shenanigans – often involving storms, shipwrecks and singing.

However, once you dip beneath the surface and take a look at the specimens Henry acquired, it becomes clear that these fishy tales of European origin don’t really apply, since Wellcome’s mermaids were of a type originating in Japan. These ningyo(literally “man fish”) come from different cultural roots to Western mermaids, albeit with some similarities in terms of the otherworldly shenanigans they are associated with. (Further reading of themes explored here can be found at the foot of this post.)  

 The Horniman merman. Click on the image to read more about it. (photo by Heini Schneebeli)

The Horniman merman. Click on the image to read more about it. (photo by Heini Schneebeli)

One of the best known folk stories involving ningyo is that of Yao Bikuni (broadly meaning “the 800 year old nun”), which tells of a young girl who eats the flesh of a ningyo and who subsequently, upon reaching adulthood, ceases to age and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands and eventually chooses to be a travelling nun who, after 800 years, takes her own life following centuries of ennui. Not the most cheerful story, but a moral tale about accepting and even embracing mortality, possibly linking to the ningyo figures that have featured in Buddhist and Shinto shrines for centuries.

Perhaps more pertinent to Henry Wellcome’s acquisition of ningyo for what was ostensibly an anthropological medical collection, is a story reported by physician and naturalist Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold in the early 1820s. Siebold was one of the few Westerners granted access to mainland Japan during the 220 years of the sakoku(closed country) policy, that forbade access to foreigners without special permission, so his insights into Japanese culture were translated and widely read by those interested in anthropology – people like Henry Wellcome.

 A grotesque mermaid, amidst luxurious cushions and drapes, and framed by two shells, 1822.

A grotesque mermaid, amidst luxurious cushions and drapes, and framed by two shells, 1822.

The story was of a fisherman who showed a ningyo (which he claimed to have caught) at a misemonocarnival. With its dying breath the ningyo predicted a time of great prosperity, but also a fatal epidemic that could be averted by owning a likeness of itself.

A marketing ploy like that, especially during the superstitious Edo period in Japan, unsurprisingly sparked a demand for ningyo figures. In 1822 at least two specimens made their way to Europe through the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, where the Dutch were permitted to trade.

 Wellcome mermaid specimen (held at Science Museum).

Wellcome mermaid specimen (held at Science Museum).

One of these specimens went on to become P.T. Barnum’s infamous ‘Feejee Mermaid’ which sparked a second wave of demand in the West from 1842 when it was masterfully exhibited by Barnum. However, it wasn’t until Japan opened more fully to trade in 1854 that ningyo started to be exported in larger numbers for museums and sideshows in Europe and America, where they were displayed as mermaids.

Henry Wellcome acquired at least three of these specimens at auctions held at Stevens Auction Rooms of Covent Garden in 1919, 1928 and 1931. His real reason for acquiring them is still only speculation, but both the warding virtue of the ningyo as a charm against a fatal epidemic and the eating of the flesh of the ningyo as a route to immortality stand the mermaid in good stead for inclusion in a museum of medical anthropology.

Paolo Viscardi is Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London.

A note from the Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection

Once again Henry Wellcome’s collections turn out to be a treasure trove of exotic and potent artefacts. The fact that a number of historic mermaids still preserved today passed through his museum, coupled with their intriguing histories and enduring symbolic significance, has convinced us that mounting an exhibition about this mysterious species in the next couple of years would be both timely and popular. Watch this space.

Further Reading