I’d like you to meet Jenny Haniver.
These have been produced by fishermen and dock merchants for centuries and sold to sailors, travelers, and tourists as dried mermaids, sea monsters, or sea devils. They were marketed as good luck charms and curios, respectively. And probably also at least occasionally as something with medicinal properties? Because Europe in the middle ages was fucking weird. Like, there was pretty much nothing that didn’t get ground up and tried out as medicine at some point or another. Human fucking mummies got turned into pills and sold as quack remedies, guys.
If you’re now asking what they were produced out of, well, here you go.
Below: Jenny Haniver in her natural state.
(“Nares” are nostrils, for those of you not hip to the lingo.)
Jenny Hanivers were constructed by cutting a dead ray’s wings into the desired shape, constricting the upper portion of the body with twine or string, posing the whole construction in an appropriate fashion, and drying it in the sun. The skin would shrink, desiccate, and harden, after which varnish or shellack would be applied to preserve it.
Above: Photo by James W. Atz, appearing in Richard Ellis’s Monsters of the Sea (pg. 84).
Most of the Jenny Hanivers made today are sold to particularly drunken tourists or made for display in museums, but they used to do a very brisk trade. In addition to the more logical mermaid/sea monster shape, people would also turn them into “baby dragons,” “sea monks,” various types of bird, angels, devils, and so forth.
The oldest definitive record we have of these things is from 1558, when a Swiss dude was already warning people that they were a hoax, so one presumes they were in pretty wide circulation by that time.
Above: Scan from Konrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium, which included a whole lot of other fun shit, too.
Given the multitude of shapes and figures they could be shaped into, the Jenny Haniver is almost more of a class than a specific type of monster.
Above: Ulysses Aldrovandi’s sea eagle from his work De Piscibus (1613).
Likely due to how completely weird they look once they’re cut, posed, and dried out, they’ve managed to linger around the periphery of the culture way longer than they shoulder have. Our cultural idea of “mermaid” has left these ugly little things behind, and we prefer our sea monsters much larger than pocket-sized.
Above: A monstrosity for the ages poses with a Jenny Haniver.
But they endure in the dusty corners. Probably because of all the varnish.