Browsing through the Live Science website the other day, I happened upon an article discussing mermaid legends. Live Science also asked if mermaids were real in an article about three years earlier. In my book Water Monsters South of the Border, (the book is currently free at Smashwords and a free Kindle edition is available on Amazon) I examined mermaid legends from South America. The following is an excerpt:
Far away from the southern Chilean coast, there are legends of a mermaid, called the Yara, said to inhabit the waters of Columbia and Brazil. Physically, the creature is described as the typical mermaid; a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish. The mermaid is said to sing an enchanting song—a song which entices men and draws them to her. The Yara is has been seen sitting on a rock, brushing her long, sometimes greenish hair, waiting for a man to come near. When he does, she lures him in with her song.
According to legend, the Yara has what could be described as a dual-nature. On one hand, she falls in love with men and takes care of them for life. Being immortal, though, these relationships are doomed from the beginning—she is destined to be alone.
Though the Yara seems to be looking for love on the other hand, on the other, she has a very dark side. The Yara is often blamed for missing persons, destroyed boats, and all manner bad luck and unfortunate occurrences.
This legend may be a replacement for an earlier local legend involving mermen. The indigenous people of Amazonia told of a malevolent, male being that preyed upon women, sexually assaulting them. Naturalist Herbert H. Smith (1851–1919) said this about the Yaya (also called the Uauyara):
“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…”
Could it be that the Portuguese brought their legends and their folklore with them, which then replaced or at least blended with the native tales? The European legends, or at least maritime tales told by those of European descent, describe merfolk as beautiful females.
The Méné Mamma is another therianthropic creature, best described as a mermaid. The name, Méné Mamma, is thought to be a Creole or Quechua word which means “mother of waters.” Reports of the creature come from Argentina and the Caribbean, but the best accounts are from the rivers of Guyana.
There are tales of canoes being dragged underwater by strange mermaid-like creatures in Berbice, formerly a Dutch colony located within present-day Guyana. The former governor of the colony, A.I. van Imbyse van Battenberg, spoke candidly of the creatures to British physician, Colin Chisholm in 1797. Chisholm recorded the following in his work Essay on Malignant Fever in the West Indies:
“The upper portion resembles the human figure, the head smaller in proportion, sometimes bare, but oftener covered with a copious quantity of long black hair. The shoulders are broad, and the breasts large and well formed. The lower portion resembles the tail-portion of a fish, is of immense dimension, the tail forked, and not unlike that of the dolphin, as it is usually represented. The colour of the skin is either black or tawny. The animal is held in veneration and dread by the Indians, who imagine that the killing it would be attended with the most calamitous consequences. It is from this circumstance that none of these animals have been shot, and, consequently, not examined but at, a distance. They have been generally observed in a sitting posture in the water, none of the lower extremity being discovered until they are disturbed; when, by plunging, the tail appears, and agitates the water to a considerable distance round. They have been always seen employed in smoothing their hair, or stroking their faces and breasts with their hands, or something resembling hands. In this posture, and thus employed, they have been frequently taken for Indian women bathing.”
According to a man referred to as Dr. Pinckard, who is said to have been present during similar conversations in the Dutch settlements, he had heard of other plantation owners who were able to corroborate what Battenberg said to Chisholm. Some of the Dutch had even claimed to have eaten flesh from the mermaids. Pinckard also noted that the creatures were held in very high regard by the Indians, who were very superstitious regarding them, and refused to do harm to the strange creatures.
Belief in mermaids persists to the present day in parts of Guyana. Many locals believe in a “body snatching” mermaid that lures men into the water never to be seen again.
In an episode of Animal Planet’s River Monsters, Jeremey Wade traveled to Guyana to investigate mysterious disappearances blamed on the Water Mama.
After his investigation, Wade concluded that the arapaima, a powerful fish, was responsible for the Water Mama stories. He found that the arapaima there were extremely large and unusually aggressive. The powerful fish has a “torpedo-shaped” body that is capable of inflicting a lethal blow as it lunges out of the water. Wade believed that when the fish surfaces, its long body with a white underbelly—when seen in a brief instant—could imitate the light-skinned mermaid feared by many locals. Moreover, the disappearances were really a classic case of being at the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Wade surmised that the victims happened to be hit by an arapaima as it surfaced and their bodies were being finished off by schools of piranhas—effectively leaving no trace of the unfortunate victim.
Wade’s theory makes sense on many levels, and it is as good of an explanation as any for the mermaid phenomenon in the rivers of Guyana. Personally, I’m not sure what to think.
I honestly do not know what to make of mermaids and their legends. Listening to people explain mermaid sightings in South America and the Caribbean, it seems as if it is a foregone conclusion that these reports are cases of manatees being misidentified. It is almost stated as fact that mermaids are actually manatees. In the case of the Méné Mamma, this is possible, especially considering that Dutch colonists claimed to have eaten the flesh of the Méné Mamma. Surely, an animal of some sort was killed and eaten rather than a creature that is equal parts human and animal. Still, I cannot get past the fact that manatees, and the therianthropic description of mermaids—a fish-like tail and human face, arms, and torso—look nothing alike. That is not to say that I believe in mermaids as they are described, but I wonder: what other explanations could there be? Also, how did these myths get their start?