Japanese Merfolk and the Case of the Feejee Mermaid

The strangest and most hideous mermaids in the historical record are the fake mummified mermaids that were exhibited across the world in the nineteenth century and which can still be seen in temples, museums and private collections today. Originating in Japan, where they were frequently bound with the origin story of a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, the mummies were (and in some cases still are) revered as religious relics. Made from dried fish skins, papier-mâché and simian jaws, they were unsightly creatures made to imitate the unique merfolk of Japanese folklore, known as ningyō (‘human-fish’). Their initial function was to provide tangible evidence of the world’s unseen supernatural forces and generate revenue for the religious sites that cared for them. But when Dutch sailors encountered them in the early nineteenth century, the mummies were thought to be real, dried specimens and were quickly purchased and exhibited across Europe and America.

This talk charts the history of the mummified mermaid from the oldest (alleged) example surviving at the shrine of Tenshō Kyōsha on the slopes of Mount Fuji, to the infamous ‘Feejee Mermaid’ that cost a Boston sea captain his ship, became a Ward of Chancery, and made P. T. Barnum a small fortune. Join Sarah for an illustrated walk through the fascinating history of Japanese merfolk and an exploration of what happened when the cultures of the East and West collided in the body of the mermaid.


Professor Sarah Peverley is an academic, writer and broadcaster who divides her time between being immersed in the depths of mermaid history and lost in the medieval world. As professor of medieval literature and culture at the University of Liverpool she teaches across English and History and regularly speaks at festivals and heritage events. She has consulted for organisations like Guinness World Records, and has written, presented or appeared in over eighty TV, radio and press features. She is currently writing a cultural history of the mermaid. For more information see www.sarahpeverley.com.

Your curator and host for this event will be the writer Edward Parnell, author of Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), a work of narrative non-fiction, is a moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – as well as the author’s own haunted past; it was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley 2020 prize, an award given to a literary autobiography of excellence. Edward’s first novel The Listeners (2014), won the Rethink New Novels Prize. For further info see: https://edwardparnell.com

Don’t worry if you can’t make the live event on the night – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day.

[Image: the infamous Feejee Mermaid.]

Date: Tuesday 3rd December 2024. Time: 7.30pm – 9.00pm (London time)

£6 – £10, & by donation