Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mermaids from South America

Even if you're not headed to the beach this summer, all things nautical start popping up in advertisements at this time of year and we're told that the ideal summer includes time at the shore. For me, this means that I tend to consider mermaids as an especially "summery" interest, so recently I've turned to Surlalune's Mermaid and Water Spirit Tales from Around the World.

This book is one of the thickest volumes in the series, which means there's so much to explore. I've posted on Historical Mermaid Accounts, Mermaid Hoaxes, and Danish Mermaid Tales, all courtesy of this volume, and have only scratched the surface. This time around I was interested in some of the tales from areas around the world that were least influenced by Western culture, such as those from South America (although, once a tale has been told and translated into English, there's no guarantee it wasn't also influenced by Western tales).
Howard Pyle

In Charles Daniel Dance's essay on mermaid folklore in Guyana, he states that "the attachment of the Water Spirit to human beings is mostly sexual." And while you can find stories of mermaids who threaten the lives of children, it's true that the vast majority of mermaid tales across the globe seem to be explorations of tragic romances and fatal attractions. The well known beautiful and dangerous sirens of mythology have their counterparts around the world, but there are also mermen who prey on females. In Herbert H. Smith's words about the Brazilian mermaids, called Oiara, Uauyara, or Yara, he says "The Uauyara is a great lover of our Indian women; many of them attribute their first child to this deity, who sometimes surprises them when they are bathing, sometimes transforms himself into the figure of a mortal to seduce them, sometimes drags them under the water, where they are forced to submit to him. On moonlight nights the lakes are often illuminated, and one hears the songs and the measured tread of the dances with which the Uauyara amuses himself."
H. J. Ford

As I read the tales from Brazil, I was struck by how powerful the force of these siren/sea maids were, and how no man was able to resist them, even to the point of altering his personality. Elizabeth Brown Chase recounts that the Brazilian Yara, this time also called a water-witch, "lured young men by her marvelous singing. After seeing her the youth would become melancholy and would haunt the river day and night where he had first beheld her. His friends and people would remonstrate with and warn him of the enchantress "whose smile is death", but the youth, be he chief or simple Indian would not listen; he would go to the river. There the beautiful being would appear and as he rushed to embrace her the waters would divide, and the two would disappear."

There is a beautiful Brazilian tale found in Andrew Lang's Brown Fairy Book, titled "The Story of the Yara," in which the young lover Alonzo struggles to heed the warnings of his beloved fiancee Julia and stay away from the river where he encountered the Yara. (The Yara have no qualms enticing men who are committed, in fact it almost seems they delight in destroying romances and marriages.) The fact that he has seen the Yara causes him to act differently, to even laugh differently, and despite his intentions to listen to Julia, to go back to the river. (Read the rest online to see how true love conquers all in this rare happy ending).

These stories, and the power attributed to the sirens and mermen who destroy as they entice, could simply be literal warnings (belief in such creatures was pretty universal until relatively recently in human history), or warnings against sexual temptations. But the obsession and altered character of the victim of the Sea Maid sounds a lot to me like someone who has developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

I'm not sure if this interpretation even works historically-I know that in the past, alcohol was more diluted and drugs were not as strong, although drunkenness is certainly not a new problem. But considering that physical abuse is one of the primary themes of folklore, and the strong connection between substance abuse and domestic violence, it's a theme that seems like it's begging to be explored through stories.
Johannes Christiaan Schotel, "Storm on the Sea"

But it's also interesting to note that mermaid beliefs and legends are really quite similar around the globe. We are fascinated by them, but have always attributed a sense of danger and the threat of death with them. This is likely a reflection of how dangerous water and sea travels could be, such as is revealed in a series of North American children's ballads, with a chorus like this one: "The raging sea goes roar, roar, roar, and the stormy winds they do blow, while we poor sailors are drowning in the deep, and the pretty girls are standing on the shore." Although most of the tales seem to warn of the dangers of seduction more so than sailing, every culture seems to agree that great caution should be heeded around water spirits.


  1. Love the idea that mermaids are a metaphor for how dangerous the sea can be. I think mermaids are so fascinating because they're so 'other' - they live in a place we cannot go nor imagine what it's like to live in. Other mythical creatures live above ground as part of our environment, but underwater is such a secretive world.

    Some of the things you've discussed in this post remind me of a couple of Schönwerth's stories: Drunk With Love and In the Jaws of the Merman. They both feature the mermaids as beautiful/seductive women stereotype, but they have some intriguing twists. In the first, the mermaid becomes marries a human and becomes a mother, and then one of their sons marries a mermaid and becomes a father. It's interesting to see the dynamics of the families, and the rules the mermaids live by (for instance, once the son has had children, he can no longer return to the surface).

    In the Jaws of the Merman is about a village filled with beautiful girls, and they are beautiful because they swim in a lake. However, when they come to marry, they grow scales and then return to the lake and to the giant merman waiting for them. What I like about this tale is that it's not specified whether the girls where mermaids in the first place or if they were human and the lake turned them. Stories about mermaids becoming human are common, but not so much of the other way around. Schönwerth has some other mermaid tales, too. Worth a look, if you haven't already.

    Also, thank you for changing the link to my blog! :)

    1. Which Schonwerth collection do you have? I posted on some of his mermaid tales here: but these sound like possibly different tales. But it's true, a lot of them do deal with having children. That last one sounds very intriguing...sort of like Beauty and the Beast/Animal Bridegroom tales, which are also about the "Otherness" of a spouse

      And, you're welcome!

    2. Sorry for the late reply, moved house and had no internet!

      I have the new Penguin collection, this one:

      Looked at your other post, and there are a lot of common themes in mermaid stories - mostly love/family. Mermaids never seem to be depicted as 'good' characters, which is interesting. The story you mentioned about the seventh child is similar to Drunk With Love, in which it is the seventh son of the man and the mermaid who is in turn taken by a mermaid himself.

    3. Hope your move went well! Those are always stressful.

      I think I'll have to put that collection on my wishlist too. It's good to know that there's a lot of different tales in there, I wouldn't want to get a new book if most of them overlapped. Or, you know, if you're ever in Chicago, we can just borrow each other's books! (Totally not kidding btw...)

      I'm intrigued by the idea that mermaids are never really "good" in folklore (especially considering they're always "good," if not a bit pathetic, in literature).

    4. Thank you! All settled now, but going away today for a long weekend break so more packing haha!

      It is a lovely collection. The stories are so different to usual fairy tales. It's almost like they're what people expect from fairy tales - princesses, mermaids, fantasy etc. but with a brusque edge similar to the Grimms. Very readable and refreshing. Chicago book swap would be amazing too hehe! Funnily enough, I do actually want to go to Chicago. Ever heard of a band called Kill Hannah? They're from Chicago, and they do a weekend gig called New Heart every December for Christmas (well they used to, they're on hiatus at the moment. But if they ever do it again I want to make it one day!!) I also have a friend who lives there, too!

      Hadn't thought of that, but yes in literature they are definitely less malicious. I wonder why that is? Perhaps authors were looking to do a different take on them to folklore. Or they're working off of Ariel from Disney... and other similar mermaid-y films/animes I remember from when I was younger. For children, mermaids are marketed like princesses, as being girly and pretty. Marketing them as ugly, murderous sirens wouldn't have quite the same effect!

    5. Well if you do come out this way, you better let me know!! And, the trend to make literary mermaids more into love interests started before Andersen, with stories like Melusine, Undine, and Rusalka. I think it's no coincidence that all of those stories were written by men-in the hands of males, these once powerful and dangerous sirens are now lovesick creatures. And then of course you throw Disney in there and that enforces this image even more...

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