Researchers in Japan are looking into the origins of a horrifying, 300-year-old mummified “mermaid” that has long been revered for its purported therapeutic benefits. The eerie remains most likely consist of a monkey’s torso stitched to a fish’s tail, possibly adorned with human hair and nails.
Hiroshi Kinoshita, board member of the Okayama Folklore Society, discovered the mermaid mummy, which is around 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) long, inside a box at a temple in Okayama Prefecture. He first became aware of the mummy after he found a picture of the bizarre specimen in an encyclopedia of mythical creatures. A fisherman supposedly caught the specimen sometime between 1736 and 1741, and he subsequently sold it to an affluent family, according to a note left inside the mummy’s box. Researchers still don’t know exactly how the mermaid ended up inside the temple, according to Japanese news site The Asahi Shimbun.
After Kinoshita persuaded the temple to let the scientists to examine the strange bones, Takafumi Kato, a paleontologist from the Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts, and colleagues started investigating into the mummy’s origins. The scientists used a CT scan to create an image of the mummy on February 2. Additionally, to determine which species have been mated to create the mermaid, scientists will collect DNA samples. Later in the year, according to the team, they will make their findings public.
The mermaid mummy somewhat resembles two mythical creatures from Japanese folklore: Amabies — mermaids with beaks instead of mouths and three distinct tail-fins — and Ningyos, which are fish-like creatures with human heads. Both of these types of creatures have been associated with stories of miraculous health cures and increased longevity. In one famous tale, Yao Bikuni, a woman, is said to have lived for 800 years after accidentally eating an entire Ningyo, according to U.K. news site Metro.
The mummy is seen by the temple’s priests as a sign of wellbeing. Kozen Kuida, the temple’s chief priest, told The Asahi Shimbun, “We have worshipped it in the hope that it may at least somewhat lessen the coronavirus outbreak.”
The mummy has spent the last 40 years in a fireproof safe inside the temple to save it from degrading. It was once placed on display in a glass exhibit at the temple for guests to pray to. The Asahi Shimbun claims that similar mermaid mummies have been venerated at two other Japanese temples.
These fake mermaids were likely created by local people to sell to curious Western tourists, Live Science previously reported. A similar hoax, known as the Feejee Mermaid, was sold to Dutch travelers in Japan in the 1810s and later resold to English merchants, before being shipped to the U.S., where it became part of the famous collection of P.T. Barnum (the real-life inspiration for the movie “The Greatest Showman”). This 3-foot-long (91 cm) mermaid is believed to have been made from the body of an orangutan and the tail of a salmon.
The priests at the temple in Okayama Prefecture say they hope that the new study will add to the mummified mermaid’s legacy and help it live on through future folklore. “I hope the research project can leave scientific records for future generations,” Kuida told The Asahi Shimbun.