Aquatic fig­ures also ap­pear in Asian leg­ends and mytholo­gies, some­times rep­re­sented sim­i­larly to the West­ern mer­maids, but at other times, as mon­strous be­ings with phys­i­cal fea­tures un­like what we’ve seen so far.

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Ja­pan speaks of a hy­brid, half-hu­man-half-fish called the ningyo, and the most well-known sto­ries are those of Ama­bie and Yao Bikuni. Th­ese are crea­tures that pos­sess aquatic and hu­man char­ac­ter­is­tics, al­though they are quite dif­fer­ent from the West­ern mer­maids: They pos­sess long fin­gers, sharp claws, shin­ing golden scales, de­formed heads, horns and salient teeth. They usu­ally have a semi-de­monic ap­pear­ance – not at all se­ductive. Their tears turn into pearls and their flesh, when con­sumed, brings eter­nal youth to those who have done so. One fea­ture they have in com­mon with West­ern mer­maids: a beau­ti­ful voice. With time, es­pe­cially af­ter the late 19th cen­tury, the word ningyou ac­quired con­no­ta­tions sim­i­lar to those as­so­ci­ated with the word “mermaid” in the West: beau­ti­ful and se­ductive. This was in part owed to the mermaid sto­ries told in Ja­pan by the West­ern sailors that had sailed there.

In the 19th cen­tury, thou­sands of peo­ple, mainly in the US and Eng­land, vis­ited freak shows to see skele­tons and mum­mi­fied crea­tures that were be­lieved to be the re­mains of ac­tual mer­maids. Some of them were known as “Ja­panese mer­maids”, since it was said the crea­tures were caught in Ja­pan by sailors who brought them to the West. Af­ter the 1837 pub­li­ca­tion of The Lit­tle Mermaid, by Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen, the idea of mermaid brides was par­tic­u­larly in vogue, and those who ex­pected a beau­ti­ful mermaid found them­selves look­ing at a crea­ture with the lower body of a fish and a head and torso of a mon­key. Th­ese “hand­made mer­maids” were so well done that it was im­pos­si­ble to de­tect where the joints were. The Ja­panese be­came fa­mous for be­ing master crafts­men of fake mer­maids. The most fa­mous one is known as “The Fiji Mermaid”, which was claimed to have been caught near the Fi­jian is­lands, in the South Pa­cific, but was prob­a­bly made by Ja­panese fish­er­man around 1810.


In In­dian cul­ture, we can find the Mat­sya, the fish avatar of Vishnu in Hindu mythol­ogy. Some­times it is de­picted as having the up­per body of a man and the lower body of a fish. But, most of the time, we can see Vishnu emerg­ing from the fish’s mouth. It’s not ex­actly an am­phib­ian crea­ture, as the Naga, an an­thro­po­mor­phic half-man­half-ser­pent, is pre­sented in In­dian and other south­east Asian leg­ends and myths as wa­ter spir­its. In some cases, the ser­pents are re­placed by dragons. The Na­gas are ser­pents who in­hab­ited rivers and pools and could change their form at will. Some­times they were de­picted as de­mons, but the fe­male Naga, the Nagini, can be rep­re­sented as a sen­sual wo­man, as­so­ci­ated with bod­ies of wa­ter, fer­til­ity, and pro­tec­tion, play­ing sim­i­lar roles to mer­maids in West­ern cul­ture.


Mer­maids are men­tioned in some Chi­nese works, such as the

Shan Hai Jing, a com­pi­la­tion of Chi­nese ge­og­ra­phy and mythol­ogy from the fourth cen­tury BC that refers to mer­maids as ling yu or ren yu. The book also men­tions other types of mermaid, such as

chi ru, di ren and hu ren. In­ter­est­ingly, some of them had four feet and could emit a sound sim­i­lar to that of a cry­ing baby; oth­ers could even res­ur­rect af­ter death.

A book writ­ten in the Ming Di­nasty (1368–1644), Sou Shen Ji, refers to mer­maids liv­ing in the South China Sea: They were called

jiao ren and were ex­cel­lent craftswomen who would weave cloth that could never get wet. Hermaphrodite mer­maids with black skin, yel­low hair, hu­man eyes, webbed hands and feet, and red wings are men­tioned in Hai Cuo Tu, a book writ­ten by the bi­ol­o­gist Nie Huang from the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911).

Sim­i­lar to the Ja­panese ningyo, the Chi­nese mer­maids were fa­mous for their tears that turned into pearls. Be­cause of this, mer­maids were largely de­picted in lit­er­ary sto­ries as lonely, tragic fig­ures who sac­ri­ficed them­selves for love.


In Malaysian mythol­ogy, mer­maids are known as duyung, mean­ing “Lady of the Sea”, which is where dugongs get their name from. Dugongs are ma­rine mam­mals from the Sire­nia or­der that live in the Indo-West Pa­cific re­gion. Draw­ings of the dugong, which are es­ti­mated to have been made be­tween 2,000 and 5,000 years ago, are etched in­side Malaysia’s Gua Tam­bum Cave in Ipoh. Some say they were the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind many sailor’s tales of sirens and mer­maids be­cause of their cul­tural im­por­tance and com­mon phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics: They share the same fluke and fusiform body, and don’t have dor­sal fins. It was easy to mis­take dugongs for mer­maids from afar.


In­done­sian mer­maids are called putri duyung – putri mean­ing princess. In­done­sians have a strong be­lief in the legend of the heal­ing power of mermaid tears, and have even cre­ated a mermaid oil that is sup­posed to help peo­ple fall in love. Since they can’t find real mermaid tears, they col­lect the tears of dugongs un­der spe­cial and rit­u­al­is­tic con­di­tions to make the fa­mous and mirac­u­lous oil.


We can find the “Golden Mermaid”, Su­van­na­mac­cha, in the Thai ver­sion of the Ra­mayana – a highly-revered piece of In­dian lit­er­a­ture. A mermaid princess and daugh­ter of Tosakanth, she falls in love with Hanu­man, one of the cen­tral char­ac­ters in the var­i­ous ver­sions of the epic. She tries to spoil Hanu­man’s plans to build a bridge from

In­dia to Sri Lanka to res­cue Sita, an­other cen­tral fig­ure of the story. Nev­er­the­less, she falls in love with Hanu­man. She is a very pop­u­lar fig­ure of Thai folk­lore, with her statue erected in many houses and shops in Thai­land for good luck. Her char­ac­ter most likely in­spired the Thai poet Sun­thorn Phu, who cre­ated an­other “Golden Mermaid” for his book Phra Aphai Mani, which has been very pop­u­lar in Thai­land since the 19th cen­tury. A golden mermaid statue in Laem Samila Beach, in Thai­land’s Songkhla province, is ded­i­cated to Su­van­na­mac­cha.


In Phillip­ine mythol­ogy, mer­maids are called sirena due to Span­ish in­flu­ence. They have noth­ing to do with the sirens from Greek mythol­ogy, who are por­trayed as wo­man-bird crea­tures. They are seen as an en­gkanto – en­vi­ron­men­tal spir­its that can ap­pear in hu­man form. Engkan­tos are one of the Ban­tay Tu­big, the myth­i­cal guardians of the wa­ter, and are very sim­i­lar to the beau­ti­ful West­ern mer­maids, though they are de­scribed to be vi­cious to­wards hu­mans to­gether with their male coun­ter­part, siyokoy. While the sirena are beau­ti­ful, the siyokoy can ap­pear quite fright­en­ing with their gill slits, scaly brown or green skin, and scaled legs with webbed feet, some­times ap­pear­ing as a fish­tail.

Nowa­days, Asia is teem­ing with films, pic­tures and books that tell sto­ries about mer­maids, more akin to the West­ern va­ri­ety. With the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of mer­maids, an in­flux of mermaid schools and shows have been ob­served all over the Asian con­ti­nent.

Both Malaysian and In­done­sian mytholo­gies claim that “their” mer­maids orig­i­nate from the Assyr­ian god­dess Atargatis, who left Syria, cry­ing, af­ter suf­fer­ing from love. In­done­sians claim she swam all the way to their coun­try, while Malaysians be­lieve she went to theirs.

Indis­cher Maler um 1640, The Yorck Project (2002)/Wi­ki­com­mons

TOP Kr­ishna dancing over the sub­dued ser­pent Kaliya Naag and his wives, who beg Kr­ishna for mercy. From a Bha­ga­vata Pu­rana man­u­script, circa 1640­cient-ori­

TOP This il­lus­tra­tion from 1805 (un­known artist) comes from WasedaUniver­sity The­atre Mu­seum and it shows a mermaid that was re­portly cap­tured in Toyama Bay


ABOVE The lower half of this “Ja­panese mermaid” was made of the skin and scales of a fish of the carp fam­ily fas­tened on a wooden body


ABOVE Mat­sya – an avatar of Vishnu

Photo Dharma, Sadao, Thai­land/Wi­ki­com­mons

ABOVE RIGHT De­tail from the Ra­makien mu­rals of Su­van­na­mac­cha and Hanu­man at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

Shan Hai Jing, a clas­sic Chi­nese text from the fourth cen­tury BC

ABOVE Di ren, a mermaid recorded in Shan Hai Jing, from the 4th cen­tury BC

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