Yemanja flowed through the Ogun river, moving with the current into the Lagos Lagoon, and then surged into the Atlantic Ocean – travelling onwards with enslaved people on ships. This is why she is honoured among many in Africa and its diasporas. She is worshipped, in some forms, as a mermaid. So is Mami Wata, another spirit/deity who is also depicted as fish-tailed. Then, there are the Nommo – space mermaids who taught the Dogon people astronomy. There are many African mermaids, and many mermaids everywhere in the world.
Nyai Ratu Blorong is the goddess of the Sumatran waters, the one who causes tsunamis. Also from that region is Mathabu’l-Bahri, whom legend holds is the mother of Singapore’s founder; the merlion emblem of the island state is derived from this tale. In Gurindji country are the karunkayns, who can remove their tails like petticoats, and the yawkyawks, who can shapeshift into other reptilian, insectoid and marine forms. In Japanese waters are the ningyos, whose flesh curses those who consume them with the torment of immortality. La Pincoya of the Chiloé islands controls the fish-harvest. Sedna of the Arctic Circle has her tangled hair attended to by human shamans. Pania haunts the Aoteraroa shoreline, arms outstretched, seeking. Hwang-ok of Doengbaeksom scrys a yellow topaz orb in which she can see her loved ones left behind – some say, in India.
The plurality and universality of the mermaid is clear. So is her ancient provenance. Mermaid plaques from 2nd century BCE Chandraketugarh, Bengal have made the rounds on social media this year (believed to be in a private collection). They are predated by many others, including Atargatis of Aleppo, Syria.
The Tamilest mermaid I know is Thai: Suvarnamaccha of the Ramakien, daughter of Ravana. Actually, that’s not true: the Tamilest mermaid I know is the one I – conjured? was enraptured by? – let’s say she came to me. Or: she called to me, and I came. Her name is Ila, and she exists in my books Incantations Over Water and Mermaids In The Moonlight. I created her because I come from a place where mermaid motifs are everywhere, and the lagoons resonate with mysterious sounds beneath gravid moons, but lore about them is missing.
In 1837, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen published a sad story about a young mermaid who longed to have a soul, like humans do, and not transmogrify into sea foam at the end of the centuries of her lifespan. In 1989, The Walt Disney Company made a cherished animated film inspired by it, a happy love story. The red-haired, Caucasian daydreamer Ariel, its protagonist, has since heavily influenced the concept of mermaids in the international public consciousness.
The live action version of The Little Mermaid will be released next year, and stars Halle Bailey, an African-American actor. This has upset some people, and confused others. But that is only because they don’t know any other mermaids – and this is their loss. Take it from me, one who made up a mermaid because there can’t be too many of them: the waters contain depths far beyond the human capacity to fathom. There is more than enough ocean.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in September 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.