How the ningyo, or mermaid, took Westerners by storm in the 1800s

How the ningyo, or mermaid, took Westerners by storm in the 1800s
Dried merman or ningyo, possibly Dutch or Japanese, possibly a Javanese ritual figure, possibly 1850-1900. Courtesy the Wellcome Trust via the Science Museum.
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The Little Mermaid more or less sums up today’s idea of what a mermaid might be. Half beautiful human, half shimmering fish, the myth of the mermaid is fascinating, even today, and while the aesthetic of the mermaid has changed throughout the years, the folklore of the mermaid has mesmerised for centuries. Walking through some museums today, though, you might find a curiosity that depicts a very different version of the mermaid, compared to what you or I might think of, known as ningyo.

Ningyo, which literally translates to “man fish,” are rooted in Japanese culture, and when their stories made their way to Europe and beyond in the 19th century, they utterly fascinated Westerners. Typically depicted as a fish-like creature with sharp, pointy teeth, sometimes bearing horns, the ningyo also differed from most Western ideas of the mermaid in the 1800s. Legends emanated from the mythical creature, and the ningyo became a novelty for collectors.

The West’s introduction to the ningyo is largely thanks to Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, a German physician and naturalist. During the 19th century, Japan was largely closed to outsiders during a period of sakoku (closed country) policy, but Siebold was one of very few Westerners who gained permission to enter the country. Siebold wrote of his travels through Japan in the 1820s and Europeans and Americans went wild for his anthropological writings on the Asian country that was shrouded with in mystery.

In his writings, Siebold told of an encounter with a fisherman who showed him a ningyo. According to the fisherman, owning a ningyo was thought to protect you against epidemics, a concept that might have seemed laughable to us only a few months ago, but as we persevere through a pandemic is more understandable. Siebold’s recollection of the story, though, sparked a deeper fascination with ningyo and Westerners began wanting their own.

The fisherman’s story to Siebold was one of many that featured the ningyo and their kin. According to one legend, a fisherman was turned into a mermaid for fishing protected waters. His transformation made him see the error of his ways and he asked the prince to display his bones after his death to warn others against repeating his mistakes. Today, a temple at Tenshou-Kyousha in Fujinomiya remains the shrine to this mummified mermaid, said to be over 1,400 years old. Another tale, and perhaps one of the best-known ones, is Yao Bikuni, which roughly translates to “the 800-year-old nun.” Told as a parable in accepting mortality, the story is of a young woman who ate the flesh of a ningyo in the hopes of gaining immortality. As the years passed, she did not age like those around her. During her long life, she had several husbands outliving one after the other, before she eventually became a nun. After 800 years, the nun grew listless and tired of living and she took her own life. 

With the rise of interest in the ningyo fueled by Siebold’s travels and the thought that it could protect its owner, the market for the mermaid-like creature grew in the West, and they were initially very difficult to get ahold of, but as is usual, knock-offs could be bought as well. In 1842, a ningyo figurine owned by P.T. Barnum was exhibited as the “Feejee Mermaid,” the object grew in infamy and a second wave of interest was sparked. Just a few years later, when Japan was opened to trading in the 1850s, ningyo were more widely available and made their way into collections across Europe and the US. Henry Wellcome, whose collection makes up the Wellcome Collection in London, came to own three ningyo in the early 1900s, and one of them can still be seen on display today at the Science Museum in London.

Still a startling object to come across, recent x-ray and forensic testing of surviving ningyo has led to a better understanding of the objects so pined after in the 19th century. By and large, ningyo figurines were made of a preserved monkey head and torso attached to the tail of a fish creating an otherworldly mermaid. The “Feejee Mermaid,” which now belongs to Harvard’s Peabody Museum, includes authentic animal teeth, claws, and a fish tail, as well as papier-mâché, fabric packing, wire, clay, and other materials.

Finding a ningyo in a museum is curiosity that continues to excite to this day. Although we know more about the curios and better understand their composition, they remain as a reminder dedicated to a long-lived fascination with mermaids, one that will certainly continue for centuries to come.