Ocean Critters

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Mermaids are a part of myth and folklore in many cultures around the world. In Japan, legends from centuries ago tell stories of frightened fishermen encountering these mysterious creatures of the sea, and unlike the modern images we have of beautiful mermaids, most of the Japanese creatures were downright scary, evil, and ugly, as if straight out of a horror movie.

Because of its geography, Japan has always had a very close relationship with the waters that surround the islands. For this reason, stories about ningyo, or human-fish, abound from centuries ago. These stories, which are tales told by seamen and fishermen, are not of the romantic or mystical kind, but ones of absolute horror and fear. The Japanese mermaids are described mostly as being beast-like and grotesque, more of a cross between a fish with a monkey, not a beautiful woman like the mermaids of Europe and elsewhere. They would be deformed, usually lacking a torso at all, with the lower body of a fish and human-like head attached to it, sometimes with horns or fangs. Some of them were known to shape-shift, able to turn into a beautiful woman. The woman would seduce a fisherman to go swimming with her, then turn into a giant jellyfish and kill the poor guy in the dark ocean waters.

But of course, these mermaids did have their qualities. Legend has it that some cried tears of pearl, and anybody who consumed the flesh of a mermaid was said to attain eternal youth. However, no written records exist on how they tasted or how they were prepared.

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Iara Mermaid in Mythology

As the human civilizations mastered the art of naval travel, stories from distant lands circulated across the Earth, merging with the old religious and folklore tales of old and forming new legendary creatures. One of such famous creatures is the South American myth of mermaid Iara (or sometimes called Uira and Yara) that has managed to gain great hold in the minds of the Brazilian people.

Created by combining ancient local myths about water snake spirits and possibly African goddesses of a Mami Wata and Yemaya, the Iara was mermaid like creature that was often called the “Mother of the Waters”. She is described as a beautiful woman with green eyes, shinning hair and mesmerizing voice. As many mermaid myths across the world, Iara also had a dual nature. In one of her aspects, she often appeared sitting on the shores of the rivers and lakes (most famously in the Amazon regions) singing her enchanting songs. When he managed to attract unsuspecting males to her, she took them to the water where she agreed to spend their life with them. As she was immortal, she could not remain with their loved ones for long and generally spend the majority of their immortal existence in sadness, recollecting old and happy days.

However, she also had a darker nature which results in death of many people. Pretty much any misfortune of death in the vicinity of the water or deep woods is attributed to the Iara’s influence, and natives of Amazonia (Brazil and Columbia) even today fear her and avoid water traveling or coming near a lake or river during the night. According to their beliefs, she is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people (pretty much everyone who got lost in the deep tropical woods is believed to have been enchanted by her song) and hundreds of destroyed ships.

The modern day view of Iara (very popular girl’s name) has been established by Brazilian poet Gonçalves Diaz who named her by combining the two words from native Tupi language – “ig” meaning water and “iara” which means lord of lady. In addition to her female mermaid form, Brazilian natives also preserved mythos about her original snake spirit called Mboiaçu who is believed to be personification of “trouble makers” and misfortune.

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