Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.
Why do so many water spirits look like mermaids?
Many people around the world tell of water creatures that are half-fish and half-human. These creatures are all different. But sometimes, they have odd details in common. Why do mermaids in Europe, Africa and the Americas all carry combs and mirrors? These details were passed from Europe to Africa to the Americas as merchants and slaves spread mermaid stories and art around the world. And in many cases, water spirits that weren't originally mermaids took on that form only after images of mermaids were introduced by outsiders.
Mami Wata is one of the most popular--and powerful--African water spirits. She is most often portrayed as a mermaid, though she has other forms. Mami Wata heals the sick and brings good luck to her followers. But she also has a temper and will drown people who don't obey her, and she will cause confusion, sickness and visions in those she calls to serve her as mediums. Many followers seek her help by dancing until they enter a trance. Her name comes from the English words "Mommy Water," and it is fitting that she has a foreign name, since followers believe she comes from another world, the world of the sea.
Visitors from the Sea
Hundreds of years ago, numerous water spirits were said to live in West Africa. In stories told by the Igbo people and others, some water spirits were half-fish, half-human, but many looked like snakes or crocodiles. In the 1500s, ships with statues of mermaids on their prows began arriving from Europe. These strangers came from the sea, like the Africans' water spirits. Could the mermaids on these ships be carvings of water spirits?
Over time, the European mermaid legend blended with local stories, and more and more Africans came to portray their water spirits as half-woman, half-fish. Many of these stories merged into one, so the most powerful water spirit in many African countries is now known as Mami Wata.
At a Glance: Mami Wata
Mami Wata has followers in over 20 countries in West, Central and Southern Africa.
- Long, straight hair suggests she's from elsewhere, as most Africans have curly hair.
- Often shown with a mirror and comb, symbols for beauty and vanity.
- Dresses in modern, foreign clothes, and often wears a watch.
- Holds a snake; many African water spirits were snakes before the mermaid image became popular.
- Mami Wata sometimes lures people underwater to their death--though some come back as her mediums with special powers.
- People often paint pictures of Mami Wata on the walls of lottery parlors in hopes that she will help them win money.
A Picture of Mami Wata
Most pictures of Mami Wata today are based on a version of this European print. The original was a German print of a Samoan snake charmer made in the 1880s. But when it first appeared in Africa, many thought it was a picture of Mami Wata because snakes were already linked with water spirits and the green background looked like water. Also, since most African art shows the whole body, she seemed to be hiding her tail.
Like many representations of African water spirits, this painting shows a mermaid with clothing and hairstyle clearly influenced by cultures outside of Africa, perhaps even by pin-up calendars. Paintings like these are often found in betting parlors as appeals for good luck.
Mermaid with Snake
The African mermaid water spirit Mami Wata, sometimes known as Mamba Muntu, is typically shown holding a snake, which is often associated with water spirits in West Africa. Her appearance, wristwatch, and jewelry represent foreign wealth.
The mermaid Lasirn is a powerful water spirit popular in the Caribbean Islands and parts of the Americas. Like European mermaids, and the African mermaid water spirit Mami Wata, Lasirn holds a mirror to admire herself and a comb for her long, straight hair. Lasirn's underwater world is known as "the back of the mirror," and her mirror is a symbol of the boundary between the two worlds. Followers of Lasirn say she takes them below the water to her world, and they return with new powers. Some women become Vodou priestesses this way.
A Well-Traveled Mermaid
The story of Lasirn blends African and European mermaid stories with Caribbean culture. When African slaves were brought to the Caribbean, they took their stories with them. In Haiti, Lasirn is part of the Vodou tradition, and her followers appeal to her for help in Vodou ceremonies, where the mermaid's spirit may enter the body of a female follower and bring good luck with work, health, money, and love.
Dangerous and Alluring
The name Lasirn comes from the French word sirne, meaning "mermaid." In Greek myths, the sirens were bird-women who called out to sailors, luring them to smash their ships on the rocks. In Homer's Odyssey, a Greek epic dating to at least 800 BC, the hero Ulysses ties himself to the mast of his ship so he can resist the sirens. In the last thousand years the siren story became mixed with the European mermaid story, and mermaids are now sometimes called sirens.
Hot, Cold and In-Between
In Haiti, the mermaid Lasirn is one of three powerful female water spirits, sometimes considered sisters, who are honored in shrines. One sister is cool, calm and seductive. The other is hot, passionate, angry, and strong. Lasirn's personality is a blend of these opposites. Together, they validate a wide range of temperaments for women.
So They Say
The mermaid, the whale,
My hat falls into the sea.
I caress the mermaid,
My hat falls into the sea.
I lie down with the mermaid,
My hat falls into the sea.
--Haitian Vodou chant sung to Lasirn
In many pictures of Lasirn, a Vodou banner in the exhibition shows her with a mirror and comb, as well as another common mermaid symbol, a trumpet. Lasirn wears modern, imported clothing, such as the cowboy hat shown here.
Lasirn Vodou Banner
Flags or banners with pictures of spirits are an important part of Vodou ceremonies in Haiti. They are hung in temples or carried in processions to salute the spirits. A single banner may have more than 10,000 sequins.
Throughout history, many Europeans have testified to the existence of mermaids, and some even claimed to have seen them personally.
According to Experts
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder was a scientific authority whose 37-volume Natural History written in AD 77 was consulted for over a thousand years. Yet Pliny wrote that mermaids were "no fabulous tale, ...look how painters draw them, so they are indeed."
Mermaid or Manatee?
In the ocean near Haiti in 1493, Christopher Columbus--probably glimpsing a manatee--reported seeing three mermaids but said they were "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men."
John Smith, famous for his legendary encounter with his Powhaten rescuer, Pocahontas, claimed in 1614 that he saw a fish-tailed mermaid with round eyes, a finely shaped nose, well-formed ears and long green hair. The creature, he said, was "by no means unattractive."
In 1608, while sailing near Norway, the English explorer Henry Hudson wrote in his logbook:
"This morning one of our companie looking over the boord saw a Mermaid,... from the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman's, her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behind, of color black; in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse and speckled like a Macrell."
Mermaid sightings were reported in Ireland as recently as 1910, when one was seen in County Clare. One local said that mermaids were a bad omen, as the last sighting in 1849 was followed by the great potato famine.
Surviving the Flood
A picture from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483 shows a mermaid, merman and mer-dog swimming near Noah's Ark. According to this illustration of the Biblical story of the Flood, when land animals were rescued in the ark, the merfolk stayed nearby to weather the storm.
The Little Mermaid
In 1836, the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen adapted the mermaid story into one of its most memorable forms, The Little Mermaid, a tragic tale of a young mermaid who gives up her voice to walk on land. The story is memorialized with a statue in Copenhagen, Denmark, erected in 1913.
In European stories, mermaids were thought to be beautiful, seductive and dangerous--like the sea itself. They could bring good luck or bad. Ship figureheads were sometimes carved in the shape of mermaids. Some sailors also carved mermaids from walrus ivory and whale teeth, but many avoided carving mermaids, fearing they would bring bad luck.
This painted wood weathervane was carved by Warren Gould Roby, an American coppersmith, around 1825 to 1850. Originally made for use on the roof of his own home in Massachusetts, it is now considered a classic American expression of the supple feminine beauty of the mermaid.
The story of Sedna is one of the most dramatic tales of the Inuit people, who live in the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. In a deadly tale of betrayal on the stormy sea, a young woman is tossed overboard by her own father, yet she survives to create the whales, seals and walruses on which the Inuit depend for food and materials. Today, Sedna is often depicted as a mermaid. But this was not always the case. Before whalers came to the Arctic, most stories said she looked like a human, or they didn't describe her appearance at all. Stories of creatures who were half-woman, half-fish--the mermaid form that could be seen on many of the arriving ships--became associated with Sedna in Inuit art.
Gift From the Sea
The story of Sedna is violent and sad--yet it tells of the greatest gift the Inuit ever received. Like any story told and retold for hundreds of years, there are many versions. The one told below is based on a version published in 1885 by Franz Boas, an anthropologist from the American Museum of Natural History. Boas traveled around lower Baffin Island to study the Inuit, who were then called "Eskimo."
The Story of Sedna
An Inuit man lived alone with his daughter, Sedna, who refused to marry. At last a bird promised her a life of comfort in a land over the sea, and they married. But the bird lied; Sedna's new life was filled with cold and hunger. When her father visited, a year later, she begged him to take her home. So he killed the bird and they set out to sea.
The bird's friends whipped up a giant storm with their wings. Fearing they would drown, Sedna's father threw her overboard to save himself. Sedna clung to the boat. So her father cut off the tips of her fingers, which became whales. Still Sedna hung on, so her father cut her fingers off at the knuckles. These pieces became seals. Finally he cut off the stumps of her fingers, and she sank into the sea.
Amazingly, she did not drown. When the sea calmed, her father let her back into the boat. But Sedna swore revenge, and when home, she made her dogs chew off her father's hands and feet. Her father put a curse on them all, and the Earth opened and swallowed them. Since then, they have lived in the underworld. Sedna is now honored as the mother of all the sea mammals and the guardian spirit of the Inuit.
The World of the Inuit
The Inuit live in a harsh Arctic environment and depend on animals from the sea for food and materials. These animals are said to have been provided by Sedna.
In this carving, titled Pushing Iqalunappaa, the stranded half-fish, off the rocks, a man rescues a half-human, half-fish creature by pushing it back into the water. The next day the creature returns to reward the man with a gramophone, a gun, and a sewing machine.
Taleelajuq and Child
Many related stories about Inuit sea-goddesses are told in different regions, using several names besides Sedna. In these stories she can be comforting, helpful or terrifying. Here, the Inuit sea-goddess Taleelajuq is shown as a gentle mother, holding her child.
A large Sedna, with her long braids flowing above her head, was carved in 1991. Notably, Sedna has webbed fingers in this carving. In the traditional telling of the story, Sedna's human fingers were chopped off. Falling into the sea, her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales.
A carving portrays the half-fish, half-human character Sedna. The artist elevated Sedna with a wooden stick to show that she is not a land animal, but swims like a bird over the floor of the sea.
A snuff box from about 1825 reportedly belonged to the captain of the Leander, a 50-gun British ship. The cover, carved in ivory—perhaps by a lonely sailor—shows a mermaid swimming near the ship. On sailing ships, mermaids were dangerous yet appealing female figures in a world of men, but the image took on different meanings for the Inuit.
A gilded carving of a man's head with a fish's body was made as an ornament for the door of a ship's cabin. A variety of similar artworks introduced the mermaid figure to many countries visited by European traders.
Want to make a mermaid? Take the head and torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish and sew them together. People have been making these fake mermaids for at least 400 years. Created first in the East Indies, hundreds were eventually made for sale to British and American sailors. The most spectacular mermaid hoax was pulled off by the famous showman P. T. Barnum. In 1842, Barnum tricked thousands of people in New York City into paying to see a fake mermaid supposedly caught near the Fiji Islands. The name "Feejee mermaid" is now used for all such manufactured mermaids.
Barnum's Great Hoax
In 1842, New York newspapers announced that a mermaid had been caught near the Fiji Islands, in the Pacific. In fact, circus founder P. T. Barnum had rented the fake mermaid from a fellow museum owner in Boston. To attract an audience for the dried, shriveled monstrosity, Barnum gave out 10,000 handbills with pictures of mermaids that looked like beautiful young girls. Horrified visitors instead found that "the Feejee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness," as one newspaper put it.
At a Glance: Feegee Mermaid
- Head of a monkey
- Tail of a fish
- Body may contain fish bones, jaws and spines, or papier-mch;
- Dutch traders brought handmade mermaids back from Asia in the 1500s.
The Hoax Lives On
In 2005, photographs of phony mermaids circulated widely on the Internet. The manufactured mermaids supposedly washed up on a beach in India in the wake of the devastating tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004.
The original "Feejee mermaid" made famous by P. T. Barnum is believed to have been destroyed in a fire--but some people think this one may be it. More than 100 years old, it was rediscovered in a museum collection in 1973. Some scholars connect it to Barnum but its exact origins are unknown.
In Australia, the First Nations people speak of ancient spirits that made the land, trees and animals and that still live in sacred water holes. Some of these spirit beings, called Yawkyawks, look like mermaids: young women with fish tails and long hair resembling strings of seaweed or green algae. Some say they grow legs at night to walk on land, or even fly around in the form of a dragonfly. Yawkyawks have the power to give life--just going near a Yawkyawk's water hole can make a woman pregnant. They provide drinking water and rain so plants can grow, but if angry, they may bring storms.
At a Glance: Yawkyawk
Yawkyawks live in water holes where the creative force that made the world is still strong; they use this power to bring rain and help people have babies.
- Yawkyawks take many forms besides mermaids; some have parts of crocodiles, swordfish or snakes.
- If you see strings of seaweed or green algae in the water, it may be a Yawkyawk's hair.
- Australian First Nations people in various regions use different names for the Yawkyawk, including Ngalberddjen, Ngalkunburruyaymi, Djmi and Jin-gubardabiya.
- Yawkyawks may marry humans, but such marriages can end suddenly when the Yawkyawk decides to return to the water.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
The Yawkyawk is an Australian First Nations water spirit that looks like a woman with a fish's tail. In other countries, water spirits took the form of mermaids only after that story arrived from Europe. But in Australia, the Yawkyawk already resembled a mermaid before Europeans arrived. Sometimes a story or image travels from one country to the next. But sometimes people just come up with similar stories on their own.
A Complicated Relationship
A creator spirit of the Australian First Nations people is a rainbow serpent named Ngalyod. He is linked to the Yawkyawk spirit, but their relationship varies among different groups of people in different regions. Some say the Yawkyawk is his daughter, some say they are a couple, and some say they are different forms of the same being.
A wooden Yawkyawk sculpture was carved in 1995 by Crusoe Kurddal, a Kunwinjku man who lives in Maningrida, a First Nations settlement in Australia's Northern Territory. He carves figures like these for ceremonies as well as for sale.
Lena Yarinkura was the first artist to make yawkyawks from fiber, which is not a traditional medium. Her yawkyawk figures represent spirits that live near the artist's home at Maningrida in Australia's Northern Territory.