Mermaids Can Be Black And International Folklore Proves It
By Danielle Dorsey
The internet has been divided over the announcement of Halle Bailey of Chloe x Halle’s casting in Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action remake. Half are ecstatic that the brand is making strides to represent diversity in their princesses, and the other half are incensed that Disney would dare to depart from Ariel’s origins as a red-haired, pale-skinned mermaid. Some even argued that it’s “unrealistic” for this mythical being to be played by a Black actor.
What Disney’s detractors don’t know is that mermaid lore had a long and rich history before Hans Christian Andersen penned The Little Mermaid fairy tale.
Here are five examples of ancient mermaid folklore that prove these fabled sirens can be Black (or any other ethnicity):
Yemaya is a powerful Yoruba Orisha (or goddess) who rules over the oceans and is the mother to all living beings. It is believed that she gave birth to the sun, moon, stars, as well as many orishas. She is known for her protective and nurturing qualities and represents both change and consistency. She was synchronized with the Mother Mary by enslaved West Africans who were brought to the Caribbean and sought to protect their beliefs from Spanish colonizers. Often pictured with dark brown skin, cowrie shells around her neck, and a flowing blue dress that morphs into ocean water, Yemaya is still worshipped in West African Yoruba religions as well as Brazilian Candomble, Cuban Lucumi, and Haitian Vodou.
La Sirene is a lwa, or powerful, spiritual being, from Haitian Vodou, which draws upon African traditions, but was highly influenced by the traumas of the transatlantic slave trade. La Sirene rules over wealth and is thought to bring love, romance, and success to her faithful worshippers. However, this lwa shouldn’t be approached casually and is known for luring those who offend her into the depths of her oceans, never to be seen again. She is considered one of the most important lwa and translates the secret wisdoms of the sea into songs that she sings for her children.
Mami Wata, or Mother Water, is a pantheon of water spirits that belong to the old, matriarchal religious systems that dominated Africa for thousands of years. They are often depicted as mermaids, snake charmers, or both and thought to bring wealth and healing to those who follow them. These water spirits are highly respected and feared, representing mystery, sacred knowledge, and protection. They are worshipped throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas.
Translating to “Lady of the Lake,” Iara is a Brazilian water nymph that draws from ancient Tupi and Guaraní mythology. She is often depicted as a beautiful young woman with green hair, light brown or copper-colored skin, and brown eyes with the body of a freshwater dolphin, manatee, or fish. She spends her time lounging on river rocks and waiting for men to seduce with her songs. Legend has it that no man can resist her charms and that they would gladly abandon their lives to live in her underwater lair for eternity.
Marakihau is a guardian, or taniwha, from New Zealand’s Maori folklore. Pictured with human heads, long fish bodies, and tube-like tongues capable of slurping down schools of fish or toppling wayward canoes, marakihau are more like sea monsters than a siren, but their ancient origins likely influenced how mermaid folklore developed. These protective beings were believed to harass and prey upon sailors and those who live upon their shores.