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Jenny Haniver: Harmless Skate or Sea Devil?

We recently posted a skate dissection (which you can check out here), where we discussed the anatomy and physiology of these fascinating cartilaginous fish. Although the skate you see in our video may look harmless, did you know that skates were often mistaken for basilisks, dragons, mermaids, and even demons hundreds of years ago?

(A Jenny Haniver Specimen)

If you were a tourist traveling a Dutch port city in 1550, you might come across a sailor selling specimens of mermaids, dragons, basilisks, and demons. Intrigued, you might be tempted to pay ten, or even a hundred euros for one of these fascinating mythical creatures. However, little do you know that this "mermaid" you just bought is merely a clear nose skate that the sailor dried and cut to resemble a fantastical creature.

These grotesque looking dried skates that had a scary resemblance to many mythical creatures were collectively referred to as ‘Jenny Haniver.’ Why the weird name? Historians predict that the name Jenny Haniver comes from the French phrase ‘jeune d’Anvers,’ which translates to ‘the young girl from Antwerp.’ These dried skates were most often mistaken as mermaids (young girl) and were mostly rumored to have been caught near Antwerp, hence the name.

Now, how exactly did sailors make these Jenny Hanivers? Clear nose skates were abundant in the Atlantic ocean at the time, so sailors would catch a whole bunch of these fish, cut the fish, add wood or plaster to the fish for additional features (absolutely critical for creating the wings of the “dragons”), maybe stuff the fish, secure all the designs, leave the fish out to dry and take on its grotesque appearance, then finally lacquer it to preserve the specimen.

Now, if you want to criticize all the tourists and customers that purchased these Jenny Hanivers for tens or even hundreds of euros (equivalent to approximately the same amounts in dollars), well you’ve got to consider that people in the 16th century knew much less about marine biology, or science in general, than we do now. In fact, the majority of the population have never seen a skate before, and people widely believed that basilisks were real, and that basilisk skin could be used to make antidotes against potions (hence the high demand for Jenny Hanivers resembling a basilisk). Similarly, if you want to criticize the sailors for scamming people, well you’ve got to cut them slack too. Many sailors at the time were under immense pressure to bring back home something fascinating after their years of voyage, and many more sailors needed those few extra bucks due to their financial situation.

Although no one believes in Jenny Hanivers anymore, the legacy of these fascinating objects live on. Jenny Hanivers were the inspiration for countless stories about mermaids and monsters throughout the decades, and the creation of the infamous Fiji mermaids also drew heavily upon Jenny Hanivers. If you want to see a Jenny Haniver for yourself, they are in display in countless museums around the world, or alternatively you could purchase one online (here). However, if neither of those options are available to you, here’s a gallery of the most fascinating Jenny Haniver specimens I came across in my research.

(A Jenny Haniver Resembling a Dragon)

(A Jenny Haniver Resembling a Flying Monkey Demon)

(A Classic Jenny Haniver)

(A Jenny Haniver Resembling a Basilisk)


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