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The Original Mermaids
The Sirens of the Sea
The first recorded half-fish, half-human creature is Oannes, a Babylonian god from the 4th century BCE who would leave the sea every day and return at night. Though the ancient Greek sirens, who lured sailors to their deaths in Homer's Odyssey, were originally described as having bird bodies, they are often portrayed as fish-tailed mermaids—so frequently that variations on the word “siren” means mermaid in many languages.
Mermaids are fictitious but in a world full of mermaid mythology, people sometimes think they see them in real life. When Christopher Columbus set out to sea in 1492, he had a mermaid sighting of his own; his encounter was the first written record of manatees in North America. It seems odd to confuse a slow-moving, sea cow with a beautiful, fish-tailed maiden. Yet it has been a common enough mistake that the scientific name for manatees and dugongs is Sirenia.
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