Who knew mermaids could be Black?

I’m really looking forward to seeing the Disney live action of The Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey, this May. As someone who is sometimes voiceless I have always felt an affinity with Ariel, however, unlike her I didn’t become mute because I traded in my voice for the love of a Prince (or if you look at the original Hans Christian Andersen version no one cut my tongue off). Anyway, I digress!!! (If this isn’t a stream of consciousness, I don’t know what is πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚)

Ulysses 31

Despite not being able to swim, women who dwell under the sea (for ease I will refer to all of them as mermaids) have always fascinated me, whether they were the Sirens of Oddysseus fame who lured sailors to a watery death or Madison from Splash. Why do I like mermaids so much – Shout out to one of my favourite childhood cartoons was Ulysses 31 (which is set in the future) but was based on the ancient myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. Generally, these mythical beings (part women who live under the sea) have been depicted as being white.

When Bailey was announced as the new Ariel, there was of course backlash. The reasons for the criticism is based on the fact the animated version of Ariel was white with long red hair. The usual critique faced whenever there is blind casting of a Black or brown person, whether playing human beings or mythical characters is that the creatives aren’t sticking to the cannon and that it’s another example of political madness gone mad/ wokeism. Bailey made reference to this in a recent interview with The Face. You can also see this with regards to the response to Hermione Grainger being depicted as Black in a theatre production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or the reason Amazon Prime The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, where people took exception to Black elves. The loud dissent is often one sided and met with comments such as, can you imagine a white person playing Mandela or Ghandi. The whole discourse is very boring and uber predictable.

Truth be told, mermaids are present in the mythology of many cultures around the world. In Greek mythology, mermaids were known as Nereids. They were the daughters of the sea god Nereus and his wife Doris. They were depicted as beautiful maidens with fish tails and were often seen accompanying Poseidon, the god of the sea. Referring back to the sirens, a siren were typically depicted as a female figure with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a bird or fish. They were known for their enchanting songs and were said to lure sailors to their deaths by causing them to shipwreck on the rocky coastlines where they lived (refer back to Ullysees 31 ☝🏿). Their songs were said to be so beautiful that sailors could not resist them, leading to their demise. In later interpretations, sirens were sometimes depicted as having the tail of a fish instead of a bird, and their songs were said to be so alluring that even the gods themselves were powerless to resist them.

As with Greek mythology, in Scandinavia (the home of Hans Christian Andersen), mermaids were known as merrows or merfolk. They were often depicted as beautiful women with long hair and fish tails. They were believed to have magical powers and were known to lure sailors to their deaths. For me the Scandi tale is the one most famous, with numerous adaptations and interpretations. However, as someone of African descent, I also knew of our mermaid – the one known as Mami Wata.

Mami Wata is a water spirit or deity found in various African mythologies, particularly in West, Central, and Southern Africa. She is often depicted as a mermaid or a half-human, half-fish creature with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish or serpent. Her image is often associated with water, beauty, sensuality, wealth, and prosperity.

Mami Wata is believed to be a powerful and influential figure who can control the forces of nature, particularly water. She is often associated with bodies of water such as oceans, rivers, and streams, and is said to reside in the deep sea or in hidden underwater kingdoms. Her name, “Mami Wata”, is a combination of “mami” which means “mother” in many African languages, and “wata” which is a pidgin English word for “water.”

In African mythology, Mami Wata is often seen as a goddess of fertility, healing, and divination. She is believed to be able to grant blessings of wealth, good fortune, and success to those who honor and worship her. Many people offer her gifts and offerings such as fruits, flowers, perfumes, and other valuables in order to gain her favor and blessings. Mami Wata’s influence can be seen in various aspects of African culture, such as art, music, and fashion. She is often depicted in African art as a beautiful, seductive, and powerful figure, with elaborate hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing. Many African musicians and artists have also referenced her in their works, often as a symbol of African pride and spirituality.

Consequently, it was nice to read a book which depicted Mami Wata for the YA audience. The book in question was Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen.

The first thing that drew me to Skin of the Sea was the striking cover and I was captivated from the opening paragraphs right through to the end.

As a genre fantasy/ mythology is not one I often read as an adult (despite my love of Greek mythology from an early age), but it was nice to see gods from the Yoruba tradition referenced in the book. And together with this book as well as Halle Bailey it will be good to see litle Black girls aspiring to be mermaids at World Book Day with a character that looks more like them.

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