From seductive sirens in ancient Greece to Disney’s Ariel, our fascination with mermaids has spanned centuries and cultures.
But lesser known are the ancient Indigenous mermaid stories from our own country, which still hold meaning today.
Burarra woman Jess Phillips grew up near the Blyth River near Maningrida in Arnhem Land.
She believes there are both saltwater and freshwater mermaids in Arnhem Land.
Unlike the freshwater Yawk Yawks, the saltwater mermaids, known as Ji-Merdiwa, are more sacred and can’t be represented in artworks.
“Every time my grandmother spoke of [the Ji-Merdiwa], she would roll her eyes and say ‘yes they are mean and ugly’. They could take different forms, they were tricky,” Ms Phillips says.
“The only time you would be able to have a glimpse of them would be down at the beach under moonlight and you might see them bobbing around. And you can hear them talking or crying.”
Protecting the sacred
Ms Phillips says the Ji-Merdiwa play an important role in looking after sacred sites, and if people don’t look after the land then the mermaids will bring sickness to them.
The Burarra woman is very concerned about threats to the river from overfishing and fracking.
“We need to look after our water so the mermaids can continue to look after our sacred sites and keep that spiritual connection with the Aboriginal people,” she says.
The role of mermaids as protectors is one of the common themes that run through mermaid folklore.
Sarah Peverley, an English professor at the University of Liverpool, is currently writing two books on mermaids.
Merfolk were first recorded in ancient Mesopotamia, she says.
The water creatures came out of the oceans to bring culture and art, and were also known as “protectors of people and places”.
“Little versions of them, sculptures of them… were carried, clay figures of them were built into foundations of building to protect them from falling down or from evil creeping in,” Professor Peverley says.
“They are interceders between the natural world and civilisation as we construct it.”
Sirens and selkies
Across the Mediterranean, Homer wrote about the sirens who lived on small islands.
The sirens sang a song that lured sailors to shipwreck, but they didn’t sing promising sex or safety — instead they promised knowledge.
“Mermaids are often linked with knowledge from a very early time, and they would promise knowledge that is beyond the normal human being, they would promise divine knowledge of past, present and future,” Professor Peverley says.
“That was the sirens’ original allure and later that gets transferred to beauty.”
Kate Forsyth has been reading and writing about fairy tales all her life. She has a particular connection to the Scottish iteration of the mermaid — known as Selkies.
Selkies were creatures that, when in the water, took the form of a seal. On land they shed their seal skin and took the form of a beautiful woman. They too had angelic singing voices.
The fable goes that a fisherman found a selkie skin and hid it. Unable to return to the water, the selkie married the fisherman and had children together. Eventually the selkie found her skin and returned to the sea.
It is believed that the first man to marry a Selkie was from the Macfee family — originally meaning son of the dark fairy.
Ms Forsyth, who is a descendent of the MacPhee family, says anthropologists believe the story was perhaps inspired by the sight of Inuits, indigenous people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska, paddling in their kayaks made from seal fur.
“In the ocean they looked like they had the body of a human from the waist up and the tail of a seal in their kayaks — but it is only conjecture no-one really knows for sure,” Ms Forsyth said.
A deep connection
Ms Forsyth believes our subconscious connection to water is why mermaids have appeared in so many different cultures.
“[Water] certainly has some deep mythic resonance,” she says.
“Water is seen as a symbol of the unconscious and also the feminine, the idea of the womb being the inner sea, children have gills before they are born. We are all connected by this sea of the subconscious.
“Perhaps it also has something to do with a longing to be freed from the shackles of our human body to be able to swim as swiftly and as gracefully as a dolphin.”
But perhaps the mermaid was created simply as a warning of the dangers that water posed.
Ms Phillips was told by her grandmother not to go out too deep in the water or the mermaids would get her.
“Mermaids would grab you using their hair. So when in the water, watch out for hair or they will take you under the water,” she says.
“One day I was out in a boat, and the engine got tangled. The driver told us not to look because he had seen what was tangled, but being a kid I looked.
“I saw something that I can’t really explain. It was very quick. There was a lot of hair, a lot of movement, and it wasn’t fish.”
While Ms Phillips believes mermaids in the Blyth River are real, Professor Peverley and Ms Forsyth don’t agree.
But we can still imagine that they are.
“It’s not impossible that there are still creatures, obviously not mermaids, still waiting to be discovered,” Ms Peverley says.
“Our oceans are like space, there is this appeal of the unknown, that desires to be explored but it’s not our native element.
“I would love mermaids to exist and in my imagination they do.”