A mermaid model of a sprite: The Horniman Museum's 19th century monkey-fish

| 03 May 2015

This style of Mermaid has had a long tradition in Shinto shrines in Japan, with reports of examples that are reputed to be more than 1,000 years old

A photo of a puppet-style figure which looks like a cross between a goblin and a fish
Specimen of Ningyo mermaid, Feejee mermaid or merman, Japan. With papier-mâché body and fish-tail, originally from Wellcome Collection© Horniman Museum and Gardens / Heini Schneebeli
Japanese seclusion in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries meant that these Mermaids were relatively unknown in the West, except perhaps to the Dutch, who had a special trading relationship with Japan.

Fake mermaids were a popular attraction of travelling shows in Europe in the 1800s. Some model mermaids may have originally been made for shrines in Japan, before being used by showmen to attract people who would pay to see what they were told was a real mermaid.

In the 1840s, master showman PT Barnum displayed a famous example called the 'Feejee Mermaid' in America and England. This led to Mermaids of this kind becoming increasingly collectable curiosities in the West, particularly after trade links to Japan were established in the later part of the 19th Century.

The Horniman Merman came from the Wellcome Collection in 1982. The specimen had been purchased by (or on behalf of) Henry Wellcome on Tuesday September 2 1919 at an auction held by Stevens London auctioneers.

In the catalogue from the auction, it was part of a batch of 65 lots described as ‘A Collection of Native Weapons, Carvings etc. Property of an Officer’. It was listed as ‘Japan, Mermaid, paper-mache body, with fish-tail 20 in. long x 9 in. high’.

Between the auction and entry into the Horniman collections the Merman gained the name 'Japanese monkey-fish', presumably because the head was considered to be that of a monkey - a common assumption made about this kind of specimen.

This style of mermaid is actually a model of a ningyo or water sprite – a traditional feature found in some religious Shinto shrines in Japan.

People used to think they were made by sewing a monkey to a fish, but when scientists examined the teeth and scanned the body of this model, they found it was made from fish, wood, wire and papier mâché.

DNA testing is currently underway in an attempt to identify the fish species used. This may help confirm whether the specimen was made in Japan.

  • You can see the Merman in the exhibition Myths and Monsters, at the Natural History Museum Tring from May 8 – September 6 2015. The newly redeveloped gallery, the Rothschild Room, is open at the museum now.

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