El día passado, quando el almirante yva al río del oro dixo que vido tres serenas, que salieron bien alto de la mar; pero no eran tan hermosas como las pintan, que en alguna manera tenían forma de hombre en la cara. dixo que otras vezes vido algunas en Guinea en la costa de la Manegueta.
The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said that he saw three mermaids, who came quite high out of the sea; but they were not as beautiful as they are depicted, for in some way they have the appearance of men in the face. He said that other times he saw some in Guinea on the coast of Manegueta. (my translation)
It’s interesting that Columbus (via Las Casas) uses the word “serenas”—from the Sirens—to represent the mermaids. Sirens, of course, were bird-women in Greek myth, while mermaids were fish-women most fully developed in medieval lore. But since the sirens were associated with the sea, they became confused with mermaids.
Columbus also recorded an interesting legend of the native peoples of Cuba, about one-eyed men who lived somewhere to the southeast, in a land called Bohio, which Las Casas and later writers have suggested was meant to represent Hispaniola. From standard translations:
He also understood [from the Indians] that, far away, there were men with one eye [hombres de un ojo], and others with dogs’ noses who were cannibals, and that when they captured an enemy, they beheaded him and drank his blood, and cut off his private parts. (Nov. 4, 1492)
Beyond the cape which they saw before them, extended out another headland toward the East, which the Indians on board called Bohio, and said it was very large, and contained inhabitants with one eye in their foreheads and others which they called Canibales, and spoke of them with many marks of fear; as soon as they saw the ships were taking that course they were struck with terror, and signified that the people went armed, and would devour them. The Admiral declares that he believes there is some truth in their representations, but thinks that these people described as possessing arms, must be a race of some sagacity, and that having made prisoners of some of the other Indians, their friends not finding them to return, concluded they had eaten them. This, in fact, was the opinion entertained of the Spaniards by some of the natives at their first arrival. (Nov. 23, 1492)
Well, the obvious is that she’s pulled together unrelated ideas. The Greek myths have the Cyclopes, and these carry over to the Arabs, who borrowed the Polyphemus incident from the Odyssey wholesale for the voyages of Sinbad. That accounts for the Arabs. The Norse didn’t fear the one-eyed man, they worshiped him—the chief god, Odin, who gave one eye for wisdom. I will confess to being ignorant of what South African group had Cyclops myths.
But there is plenty of doubt whether the story Columbus reported the Taino people as relating to him is actually true. Columbus did not speak the language, nor did the Taino speak Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, or Aramaic, the languages of Columbus’s interpreter—who at any rate wasn’t there when the old man supposedly told Columbus about Cyclopes and dog-men.
Remember, Columbus thought that he was sailing to India, and he would have read up on what he should have been finding in India. Among the ancient testimonies would have been that of Ctesias whose account of India was preserved in Pliny’s Natural History (7.2) and more fully in Photius’ Library and described dog-headed men called cynocephali. Pliny: “On many of the mountains again, there is a tribe of men who have the heads of dogs, and clothe themselves with the skins of wild beasts. Instead of speaking, they bark; and, furnished with claws, they live by hunting and catching birds.” Photius’ version adds that they eat only raw meat. It’s probably worth mentioning that the same chapter of Pliny also discusses cannibalism and Cyclopes, though not in connection with India, as well as one-legged men and men with eyes in their shoulders, this time placed in India itself.
Columbus owned an Italian translation of Pliny published in Venice in 1489, and he quoted from Pliny in his writings. But we need not necessarily posit Pliny as the direct origin for the dog-nosed men of the Columbus account. The story continued through the Middle Ages, become ensconced as a staple of travel writing. Marco Polo cited them as well, placing them specifically on islands near India:
Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.' They live on flesh and rice and milk, and have fruits different from any of ours. (Travels 3.13, trans. Henry Yule)
Surely this is no coincidence that the two accounts align point for point, from spices to dog faces to cannibalism. Columbus, remembering the passage from Marco Polo, has applied Polo’s geography of India to the Caribbean and imported with it the dog-faced men. (Different scholars suggest an origin in Ctesias/Pliny or naturally-occurring upturned noses and curly hair for Polo’s description.) Most modern scholars believe Columbus was applying European ideas of some type to half-understood Taino efforts at communication; several scholars have also linked this claim specifically to Polo’s passage, though so far as I know without linking in the coincidence of spices. (Someone must have noticed this, but I am unaware of who might have done so.)
For nearly a century, the Spanish still tried to apply Pliny’s India to the Indies, until slowly but surely the old Classical stories faded before facts.