The Myth of the Mermaid

This blog post is the first in an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

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Everyone knows the myth of the mermaid – the half woman, half fish, who is sometimes kind and at other times a source of evil who lures unassuming sailors to their deaths. But where did the legend come from?

The myth can be traced to cultures all over the world. One of the earliest versions of the tale speaks of the Sirens of Greek mythology, who show many similarities with the modern day mermaid. In Assyrian mythology, dating to c. 1000 BC, it is said that the goddess Atargatis took the form of the half woman, half fish creature during her life. Another legend speaks of Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, becoming a mermaid after her death.

In Irish mythology, there is the Merrow. In Scotland, the Ceasg or Selkie. In Western Europe, the Melusine, and in Slavic folklore, the Rusalka. Parts of Africa hold belief in Mami Wata, Cameroon calls their mermaid the Jengu, and in Maori culture, Pania of the reef. Chinese, Korean, and Thai cultures all have their own variations, and in many Western cultures, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid has immortalised the image of the mermaid that we know today.

In Papua New Guinea, there is a legend about the mythical Ri or Ilkai, sometimes known as a Pishmary (meaning fish woman): a human-like sea creature that resembles the European mermaid. The creature long thought to be this mythological being, with sightings stretching back several decades, has since been proven to be the Indo-Pacific dugong, ‘Dugong dugon’. Regardless of this, there are many locals who still believe that a mysterious being lives in the waters of Papua New Guinea, with the tail of a fish, and the features of a woman.

This sculpture was donated to the Museum of Tropical Queensland by Peter Watt. Mr Watt worked as an engineer on the Melanesian Discovery tourist-ship which travelled around the Trobriand Islands and Sepik River regions of Papua New Guinea in 1990, during which time he collected several items that would later become part of the Museum’s collection. The sculpture allows us to see how different people experience and visually interpret certain myths, like that of the mermaid.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland

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