Mermaid Migration

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.


When people from different cultures interact, their myths, legends, and artwork often blend, leading to new interpretations. This cultural interaction can explain why cultures in different regions sometimes have mythic creatures that appear similar and may mean similar things.

The borrowing of the mermaid image is a good example of cultural interaction. Stories about half-human/half-fish creatures exist in many countries and cultures. In Africa, many existing water spirits only took on the form of a mermaid after European ships with mermaids on their prows began arriving in the 1500’s. As slave ships brought Africans to the Caribbean, the people took the modified mermaid legends with them. These legends evolved further there.


Students will examine the migration of the mermaid image as an example of cultural interaction.


Prior Knowledge

Have students describe what a mermaid looks like. Are their descriptions consistent with mermaids commonly depicted in popular culture, such as Disney’s Little Mermaid? Are students familiar with other mermaid stories such as Mami Wata (Africa) or Lasirèn (Haiti)? Compare all descriptions and stories. What are the similarities? Differences?


  1. Download, print, and distribute copies of a world map.
  2. Have students visit the Mythic Creatures exhibition site and read the text on mermaids. This will help them trace the route of the mermaid image from Europe to Africa to the Caribbean. 
  3. Ask students to mark these three regions on the map. For each mermaid, have students record her name, attributes, and meaning to the local people. Compare and contrast the mermaid imagery and stories. 
  4. Extension: Have students research mermaid depictions from other parts of the world to compare and contrast.

Wrap Up

Ask students to share their map and research with the rest of the class.

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