Of Water Spirits and Men: Mermaids in Native American Mythology

Published April 11, 2018


The sea is where life itself came from, according to scientists, and today most of our planet is filled with water. The importance of the oceans for humans and life on Earth is undisputable, so it is no wonder that since time immemorial people across the world have been telling tales of slender aquatic creatures that have human form and a fish tail instead of legs. In fact, mermaids are an integral part of Native American mythology and many legends are told of their encounters with humans.

The Ongoing Appeal of Mermaids

Magical female figures probably made their way into our imagination ever since we learned how to sail the seas or even just swim – and they first appeared in cave paintings some 30,000 years ago, during the Stone Age. In ancient times, people in the Far East believed they were the wives of sea dragons and helped them communicate with humans, while the Greeks described them in the Odyssey, and the Australian aboriginals called them yawkyawks as a reference to their enthralling songs. In modern times, the most famous rendition of the mermaid myths is probably Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid movie, featuring redhead Ariel, which also inspired the Under the Sea attraction in DisneyWorld’s Magic Kingdom.

Beyond Ariel, mermaids continue to fascinate us today, most notably in books, games and films like 1984’s Splash, starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. Merpeople make a crucial appearance in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, released in 2000, when Harry goes underwater as part of the Triwizard Tournament, while mermaids like Kokoro and Princess Shirahoshi frequently appear on acclaimed manga and anime series One Piece. Mermaids have also conquered the gaming world, from Martha in Nintendo’s 1993 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Betway Casino’s Mermaid Millions online slots game that features an aquatic theme as players hope to land the sunken treasure chest bonus symbol or the mermaid scatter symbol, all the way to the Primarina Pokémon that resembles a mermaid, the legendary creatures are everywhere in pop culture – even on the iconic Starbucks logo, which first appeared in 1971.

Mermaids’ Interactions with Humans

In Native American myths, mermaids are the protagonists of often bittersweet tales that focus on their interactions with humans. Often, individuals are turned into mermaids as a consequence of their actions or choices – highlighting both the impact of our own decisions and how defiance of rules works in isolating us from others. The Passamaquoddy, nowadays one of the most active tribes in Maine, have a tale called He Nwas, the Mermaid, about two women who do not heed the advice they’ve been given and go swimming in the sea where they are supposed not to go. As they repeatedly deceived their elders to feel the fun of swimming unattended, one day they find that after they left their clothes at the beach and swam towards a nearby island, they felt too heavy and unable to return to the shore. As their father searched for them, they realized they had transformed into beautiful mermaids and consoled their grieving family by promising that they would help them carry on the water in their canoe.

A Sekani myth recounts the story of a mermaid who is captured by a man when he ties her long hair to a tree. He marries her and keeps her with him for a whole winter, but during their second winter together, the man is unable to provide enough food for both of them, so he lets her go back into the sea. She returns regularly with food and they go on to live happily together and start a family. One day she decides to go back into the sea and rubs family members’ mouths with water so that they can follow her into the ocean. They dive in together and are never seen again.

Water Spirits and Spirits of the Flood: Mermaids as Embodiment of Nature

On a different note, we find a description of how the first mermen were created in the Potawatomi cosmogony. They tell the story of six men who were good friends and great adventurers, who one day set out to visit the Sun and talk to him. They ask him for eternal life and the ability to give back to their fellow men – and one of them, who wants to be associated with water, is turned into the first merman, taking the form of half man and half fish. Only the last of the six men wishes to remain as he was and return to the human race.

In another myth, the enchanted mermaid Menanna is taken in by an Ottawa warrior, but she will not be released from the spell that deprived her of her human form until she finds true love. Yet, she falls in love with Piskaret, of an enemy tribe called the Adirondacks, who persecute the young lovers. Menanna turns to the Spirits of the Flood for help and they respond: they overwhelm the Adirondacks and overthrow their canoes, killing most of the tribe – expect for Piskaret, who is saved by Menanna. In the Wabanaki mythology, we find the Lumpeguins, who are water sprites or mermaids, and the Mi’kmaq describe their water spirits, the Sabawaelnu or Halfway People, as half human and half fish. They can manipulate storms and respect humans, giving them hints through songs, which allow them to predict weather changes.

Whether it is about teaching us the consequences of our actions, underlining our unbreakable bonds with nature and the seas, or providing a vessel for expressing existential beliefs, mermen and mermaids have obtained a unique spot in Native American lore.

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