Outside of the entertainment world, some bars in Florida and a few unexplained drownings in Zimbabwe folklorically linked to them, mermaids rarely pop up in the mainstream media anymore. It could be that most people have bought into the theory that many lonely sailors on foggy nights mistook manatees for a half woman-half fish (a good reason to save the manatees), or that they are linked to the Sirens of Greek mythology or other strange beings in the myths of China, Japan and other countries with islands or sailing traditions. However, a few manage to survive – the story of P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” is one. Another is the alleged 300-year-old mummified mermaid protected for years by the monks at the Enjuin Temple in Asakuchi, Japan. That mermaid’s purported magical powers came to the mainstream media during the coronavirus pandemic as the monks, as well as many believers, worshipped it in hopes it would help. Did it? The results of a year-long study, which includes DNA analysis, may help believers decide if the Enjuin mummified mermaid will be brought out for the next pandemic.
“On Feb. 2, Kozen Kuida, 60, chief priest at Enjuin temple in Asakuchi in the prefecture, removed the 30-centimeter-long treasured specimen from a paulownia box in the CT scanning room of the university’s veterinary hospital. Laying face up on an examination table, the mummy appeared to be locked in a scream while holding its hands to its mouth. In addition to nails and teeth, the mummy has hair on its head and scales on the lower body.”
The Asahi Shimbun reported in 2022 on the start of this extensive investigation into the alleged mummified mermaid stored at the time at the Enjuin temple in Asakuchi. (A video of the opening can be seen here.) A note in the box describes its alleged origin – that the creature was caught in a fishing net on the coast of Tosa Province (now Kochi Prefecture) between 1736 and 1741. Little is known about the actual history of the creature, other than it was purchased sometime after than by the Kojima family in Bingo-Fukuyama Province. It was then owned by multiple parties during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Sometime after that, it was obtained by the ancient Enjuin temple, built in southern Japan 838 CE. Measuring 30 cm (11.8 inches) in length, the mummy appears to have fuzz on its head, scales on its back, teeth in its mouth, and five fingers on each hand, which are positioned around the mouth as if it is screaming. (Photos here.) The mummy was kept in a box protected by glass and placed on display at the temple around 40 years ago for them monks and visitors to venerate.
"We have worshipped it, hoping that it would help alleviate the coronavirus pandemic even if only slightly."
The head priest of the temple, told Asahi Shimbun that the creature is believed to be a ningyo – the Japanese version of a mermaid. Most pictures of the ningyo show it with a human woman’s head but the rest of its body from the neck to the tail is all fish. It was believed that consuming the flesh of a ningyo added hundreds of years to the life of the eater. While the legends refer to ‘merfolk’, most stories, like those around the world, are about female mermaids. Since the one at the Enjuin temple is mummified, the flesh can’t be eaten, so the monks and worshipers hoped that praying to it would have a similar effect, or at least bring some healing relief during the pandemic and for other ailments.
“The investigation began on February 2nd, 2022, with surface observations, X-rays, and X-ray CT scans of the mermaid mummies. In addition, observations with an optical microscope and an electron microscope, fluorescent X-ray analysis, DNA analysis, and radiocarbon dating were carried out on the microbes that had fallen from the mermaid's mummy.”
After receiving unprecedented and unexpected permission from the head priest, scientists from the Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts in Okayama Prefecture were given full access to the mummified creature, including permission to remove it from the temple. The report released last week a year later (Google translated from Japanese) first gives a detailed description of the mummy and revealed some unusual features – there is hair on the head and eye sockets, the teeth are slightly curved and carnivorous, the lower half of the body has dorsal fins, anal fins, anal fins (shiri fins), and caudal fins, and the scaly skin is coated with glue-like substance mixed with charcoal powder and sand. (Photos can be seen here.) While that could sound like a mermaid, the X-rays, CT scans, DNA analysis and other invasive inspections revealed its true nature.
“It is highly likely that it was made in the late 1800s.”
The researchers quickly determined that the creature was an amalgamation of animal and non-animal parts. While the head and upper body looked like that of a monkey, it is actually sculpted – primarily of cotton shaped with plaster or a gypsum-like substance. The ‘skin’ is laminated paper, pufferfish scales and animal hair glued together. The nails were animal bones. The filler inside the body is primarily cloth, paper and cotton – there is no evidence of wood, but a few metal pins or needles were found. No chemicals used in taxidermy or mummification were used to preserve it, but it was in decent condition except for some worm and insect damage.
“A total of 12 mermaid mummies have been confirmed, with the Enju-in mermaid being the 13th and two more in Okayama Prefecture. Many of these are owned by temples and museums. There are two main types of mermaid mummy poses, one that looks like Munch's screaming, and the other that crawls.”
The Enjuin mummy is not a mermaid nor is it unique. The study notes the existence of other fake mermaid mummies in Japan and states that the folkloric investigation into this Enjuin fake will continue in hopes of correcting the description of its origin which has been stored with it. While the researchers thanked the chief priest of the religious corporation Enju-in Temple Hiroyoshi Kuda, remarking that the research would not have been possible without his cooperation, there was no mention of what the temple will do with their now fake mermaid. Will it lose tourism? Will attendance go down at services?
A real mummy has yet to be found. Perhaps the frustration felt by both researchers and sailors in the real mermaid’s curse.