Brief Exploration of Mermaids in South-East Asia

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(SEA Map from Aseanup)

Despite their elusiveness and strong possibility of not even existing in the first place, mermaids have continued to captivate us. Many of us had our first glimpse in Disney’s Little Mermaid or H2O: Just Add Water, leading some to believe that such fairy tales were only for children. Yet, when we grew up, mermaids still managed to catch a current into our lives. They re-appeared as the enchanting Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in Pirates of the Caribbean: Stranger Tides and the comical Jun Ji-Hyun in Legend of the Blue Sea. We can even pull in the intelligent Fishermen in Aquaman into the mix — to stray away from the stereotypical drop-dead gorgeous.

With such an abundance of these beautiful creatures re-imagined in modern entertainment, it is time for us to look back into the myths and legends where they have originated from. Specifically, Southeast Asia. With Hans Christian Andersen conducting the choo-choo train on the merhype, majority talk about the creatures swimming in Western waters. So let’s bring the attention over to the blessed lands of SEA: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.

This is, by no means, a thorough guide to all mermaids in SEA as I am not a qualified expert in this field, though I grew up with the Indonesian and Singaporean stories. The stories here will also be extremely condensed and do not contain all the brilliance of their original content. There will also be the addition of other water-based creatures because I tend to get distracted, and I apologise in advance if there are inaccuracies.

Brunei

Brunei occupies a small piece of land on the island of Borneo, with less than 500,000 civilians, and is one of the richest nations in the world. Sunni Islam is its main religion which they practice very rigorously, so make sure to read up on their social etiquette and laws before making a trip over (e.g. Unmarried couples are not allowed to share a hotel room together, although some places may make an exception). While this may sound rather off-putting, Brunei has strong cultural roots and beautiful Islamic architecture, such as the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which is an enough cause for visit. Also, fun fact, you can use Brunei money in Singapore, and vice versa!

Back to mermaids. Which, admittedly, I did not find a lot about.

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(Image from SarawakAlive! Artist Unknown)

However, I did learn about a story called The Crocodile’s Revenge. This legend contains mystical beings quite similar to the selkies of Scotland. Instead of donning seal skin, the boys here wore the skins of crocodiles. Both stories share a common tragedy, where a skin was stolen and its wearer was unable to return home. But while the selkie somewhat found happiness through a new family, crocodile boy was struck by misery over the separation from his family and was killed by his own broken heart. Not to worry, the thieves of his skin were shortly hunted down and eaten in revenge by croc boy’s siblings.

Another water-dwelling creature from Brunei is the Tambuakar which is like Borneo’s very own Nessie, but let’s save that for another article.

Sadly, it seems that there is a lack of mermaid-ness here so let us move on to the other SEA nations.

Cambodia

Cambodia is the home of the Angkor Wat and Tonlé Sap — the largest freshwater lake in SEA — , and has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. The last time I went there, it was blisteringly hot but the food made up for the inconvenience. It is popularly known for its various historical and archaeological sites related to its main religion of Buddhism, which comes hand-in-hand with its wide range of legends and mythology. Now, this country lies right next to Thailand and they actually share a mermaid, who only appears in the SEA versions of Ramayana (Sanskirt Epic of Ancient India). The Thai people call her Suphannamatcha while in Khmer, she is known as Sovann Maccha.

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( A mural painting of Suvannamaccha and Hanuman at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok.)

This pretty mermaid, usually seen clothed in gold textiles, is the princess daughter of a demon, and the leader of her own pack of mer-warriors. The story goes that Hanuman — the monkey general of Prince Rama — was on a quest to find the prince’s wife, Sita, who had been kidnapped by Sovann Maccha’s demon dad. Upon orders from her dad, the mermaid attempted to stop the general and his crew from building a bridge across the ocean to get to Sri Lanka, where Sita is at. Hanuman and Sovann Maccha tried to battle it out, but during the fight, they fell in love with each other. After Hanuman persuaded Sovann Maccha to support Prince Rama’s reunion with his wife, the mermaid let the general and his men build the bridge without further disturbance. It all ends happily fortunately. Before Hanuman left, he gifted her a seed that would later on become their son.

This folktale is still popular in Cambodia today, as it is continuously retold through the dance Hanuman and Sovann Maccha.

Indonesia

Indonesia is the largest island country in the world, with more than 17,000 islands, and has an abundance of natural resources. You can find Komodo Dragons, the Rafflesia arnoldii, and endangered animals such as Orang Utan Tapanuli and Badak Jawa. Just like Brunei, Indonesia is majorly Sunni Islam although it is less strict with its rules and regulations. With its large number islands, it is no surprise that mermaid stories are popular here. And not only is she a mermaid, she is a goddess as well! Enter Nyai Roro Kidul.

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(Kanjeng Ratu Kidul by Gunawan Kartapranata)

Nyai Roro Kidul is the Goddess of the Indian Ocean in Javanese and Sudanese mythology. She is seen as the epitome of beauty by princesses within those parts, and has the power to steal any soul she wants, although she mostly prefers handsome men. She can control violent waves and there are actually many stories revolving around her origin. Let’s cover the Javanese and Sundanese versions for today.

In the Javanese tale, she was the spiritual consort of Panembahan Senopati and the rest of the Mataram Kings. This miracle only came to life in the 16th century because Panembahan Senopati happened to be meditating so much along the seaside that he created a powerful supernatural disturbance to the spiritual kingdom of the Indian Ocean. Irritated by the disturbance, Nyai Roro Kidul came to see what’s up and promptly fell in love with the handsome prince. She promised to support the prince in his political quest to create a kingdom and to stay by his and his descendants’ side.

In the Sundanese tale, Nyai Roro Kidul was formerly known as Dewi Kadita, the princess of the Pajajaran Kingdom, who was bewitched to have a skin disease by a jealous rival in the palace. As the disease made her look absolutely wretched, she was so distressed to the point that she threw herself into the violent Indian Ocean. But because her soul was as pure as her beauty, the waters instantly cleared her skin. Cherry on cake; she caught the attention of the spirits and demons who then crowned her as the Queen of the Indian Ocean.

Aside from this goddess, Indonesia has the myth of how mermaids came to be. Many have argued that the myth belongs to Malaysia, however, and while I am a proud Indonesian, I will bring this story to the latter because it is close to Ancient Assyria.

Nevertheless, Indonesia has strong ties to mermaids, as evident from the Mermaid Oil being marketed as love potions. What is Mermaid Oil actually? Do they contain Mermaid Tears? The answer is no. Instead, the oil is made with the tears of dugongs. Dugongs are mammals that look pretty similar to mermaids, if you look them up, and their tears are processed into oil through the blend of other essences and rituals. Even while there is no concrete proof that the oil works, it is still very popular.

I want to add in another story here that came from Indonesia’s share of Borneo: The Legend of Lake Toba. This is not about a mermaid, but about a golden fish that could magically turn into a full human at its whim.

In this legend, the fish was captured and kept as a pet by a fisherman who took pity on it. After some time, the fisherman realised that whenever he came back from fishing, the house would be clean and there would always be delicious food on the table. Finally, he decided to hide beneath his window to catch the intruder. To his amazement, he saw the fish transform into a beautiful lady! The fisherman ran into his house and promptly proposed to the lady, have fallen head over heels for her. The fish lady refused at first, as he was simply a human, but then she realised that this could be her chance to pay him back for not eating her. She had just one condition, that he would never reveal to anyone that she was actually a fish.

They got married and eventually had a child. This child had a ferocious appetite, and would sometimes not leave any food for his parents. After a day of hard work, the fisherman lost his temper at the child and called him the “Child of a fish”. The child was absolutely distressed and cried to his mum, who wept at the broken promise. The fish lady told him to climb up the top of the tallest tree of the tallest hill. He did so and she ran to the river where she first met the fisherman. When she touched the waters, her human body fell away to reveal the golden fish she once was. Calling upon her spiritual powers, she flooded the valley with rain and drowned the fisherman and the rest of his village. Her child turned into the Island of Samosir.

Laos

Laos is famous for the Mekong river and its beautiful Buddhist temples and monasteries. The mountainous terrains makes it a popular destination for young travelers who want to gaze upon its beautiful sunsets and sunrise. Yet this country, from what I know, has less tourism rates than many of its neighbouring nations, which is unfortunate because it is indeed a beauty. Interestingly, it also the only land-locked country in SEA which means no ocean-based mermaids.

Though they do have the Phaya Naga, which are mythical serpentine creatures that lurk the Mekong river. Additionally, some accounts link the Sovann Maccha to this land as well.

As I could not find any old mermaid myths firmly related to Laos, let’s take a look at a recent story. In 1974, Phou Vieng Insysiengma became a child soldier and fought for Americans for many years. His luck almost ran out after he was simultaneously caught in an explosion, that involved his hand grenade, and shot in his right leg. He had no choice but to dive into the Mekong River, in an attempt to swim to safety in Thailand. But being injured and carrying heavy weaponry did not do much to help him. He was sucked into a whirlpool and believed himself to be a goner until he saw something swimming up to him from the depths of the river. It looked like a big fish but he was certain that it had long hair covering its body and the face of a girl, just like a mermaid. To his astonishment, it pulled him up to the surface and pushed him onto Thailand’s riverbank with its tail.

He tried to uncover the identity of his savior at once. The villagers living by the river told him that she must have been an underwater folk. Those who are kind to nature will only be blessed with aid at times in need. Filled with gratitude, Phou Vieng Insysiengma left his soldier days behind and became a monk.

Malaysia

Malaysia is a hotpot of ethnicities and culture — Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European — , and is famous for its Twin Towers, Langkawi beaches, and Batu Cave Temples. You’d find that many foodies flock over to this country for its delicious street food and exciting city life. Similarly to Indonesia, Malaysia mainly follows Sunni Islam and also similarly, they share the same tale of the Duyung which is their name for mermaids.

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( A Nabataean depiction of the goddess Atargatis)

Duyung means “Lady of the Sea” which sounds fairly close to Dugong, a mammal that many have argued is the real identity of the mermaids that sailors have been seeing. However in the Malaysian mythology, the Mother of all Duyungs is actually the Goddess of Fertility, Atargatis. Amazingly, she was also the Chief Goddess of nothern Syria. Atargatis is described to having the lower body of a fish and the upper body of a beautiful lady. The story goes that upon a tragic heartbreak due to accidentally causing the death of Hadad, a mortal shepherd and her lover, she threw herself into the ocean and swam all the way to Malaysia. There, she used her leadership and fertility skills to start a mermaid civilisation.

Another Malaysian water spirit story, though not a mermaid, is the story of Hantu Belangkas which means “The Spirit of the Horseshoe Crab”. This is a myth that originated from the Mah Meri, who are an ethnic group native to western part of Peninsular Malaysia. In this story, there were two children that always played together every day. One day, they decided to swim to a distant island even though they were told not to do so, as the waters were the deep and the currents were rough. And before they could even reach the mid-way point, the children drowned. Miraculously, the spirits took pity on them and the children’s bodies became connected at the waist to form the body of the horseshoe crab. From then on, they were inseparable.

There is actually another brief description/version of this Hantu Belangkas that I found, which was that this was the King of Crabs who, when not by his wife’s side, will become peckish for human flesh. I am, truthfully, not very sure which story is more accurate.

In tune of this distracted departure from mermaids, Malaysia is also fond of the Naga such as Nek Sepit Bentala Naga and Naga Tasik Chini. You will soon realise that the mythology of dragons, or great serpents, are not only very popular in the countries in SEA, but in all of Asia. In fact, researching on the different species of Naga in SEA would have probably given me more comprehensive results. Oh wells.

Myanmar

Myanmar is well-known for its colourful markets and floating villages, with Buddhist relics and temples that date back to the 6th century. Just like Laos and Cambodia, there is a very rustic feel that makes for a calm and enlightening get-away. Unfortunately, I could not find any mermaid that is specific to Myanmar. Therefore, I’ll be bringing in the Matsyāṅganā.

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( Incarnation of Vishnu as a Fish, from a devotional text)

This mermaid supposedly exists within India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore and Thailand, basically any country with a strong Hindu following. I use the word ‘supposedly’ because in many of these countries, such as Laos, I could not find any other sources that backed up the existence of this myth within their lands.

The Matsya from Matsyāṅganā means fish in Sanskrit, and is believed to be the first avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu. There are some variations that state that this avatar is fully fish, while others state the form to be similar to a mermaid. As for the stories surrounding Matsya, the content differs based off the genres of the texts.

One of the more popular editions is similar to the biblical story of Noah Ark. Here, Matsya was found in the form of a fish by a legislator, Manu, within the bucket of water the latter was using to ceremonially wash himself. Manu did not know the true identity of the fish, but he took pity on it and took care of it. In return, the fish warned him of a great flood and told him to build a boat that could be pulled along by the fish’s horn. Manu agreed and on the day of the great flood, the fish pulled his boat to the Northern mountains where he was able to revive life.

Philippines

The Philippines has to be one of the most popular holiday destinations among the people I know, especially with those still studying in university. Since almost the entire country is Catholic because of the Spanish colonisation, you can expect to see a lot of pretty churches and citadels, and definitely, it is on the same level of Indonesia with all of the gorgeous beaches and diving spots it has to offer. But all in all, I’m pretty happy with the Philippines because it has a lot of mermaid mythology to unpack. As this country has thousands of islands, there are different species of mermaids to be explored depending on the regions.

In the Philippines, mermaids are referred to as Sirena, which is a term borrowed from the Spanish vocabulary. They are often accompanied with gentle sea creatures, such as the dugong and sea turtles. Do not mistake it with the Siren, which is a mythological half-bird, half-lady creature from the West, although both may use the same captivating voice to seduce men and cause their untimely deaths. While this may seem to be very mischievous and sadistic of them, there are folklore that speak for their kindness and good nature. One of these stories come from the Ilocos region, and it is a love story called The Mermaid Queen.

Maginoo Palasipas, the sovereign ruler of Binalatongan, was feeling absolutely upset and lost, despite his riches and the amount of respect he received from his people. He felt emptiness in his chest from the lack of a soul mate that he could rule with. All he wanted was the fairest maiden in the universe, who had a kind heart and a strong soul. There were many that attempted to capture his attention, but they all failed.

One fine morning, he was walking by the riverbank when he heard a voice most melodious. He followed the voice and was astonished to see the lady of his dreams, for she had the face of absolute beauty and was completely adorned with jewels of the sea. When he realised her to be the mermaid of Binalatongan, he knew that she had to be his wife. He had heard stories about her, about all her courageous acts of saving his fishermen and bringing fortune to those in need. The ruler proposed to her on the spot, and the mermaid, who too had heard of his benevolence and great leadership, accepted his love and became his queen.

The Sirena has been categorised to be a Bantay Tubig (Guardians of Water) which falls under Engkanto, which is a term for environmental spirits who are protective over their dwellings. The Engkanto can be either extremely malicious or benign to the humans who cross their paths. Within the category of Bantay Tubig, there are the species of Siyokoy, Kataw and Ugkoy.

To some, the Siyokoy looks a lot like the creature in The Shape of Water, but with greener skin. In other cases, instead of webbed limbs, the Siyokoy has tentacles. This beast is more predatory and animalistic than the Sirena, as it loves to feast on humans and will often be accompanied by the gangsters of the sea, such as eels and squids. It could also be said that the Siyokoy is the male counterpart of the Sirena, although some have reported this to be inaccurate.

The Kataw is ranked higher than all the other sea creatures in Bantay Tubig, and it has an appearance is similar to the Sirena in which it looks more human than the Siyokoy. It is often seen with gills and fins on its limbs, and may disguise itself as fishermen to trick humans into drowning. It also has the powers to control the ocean, by summoning typhoons and tsunamis, and it can even turn water into ice. To check out a story about the Kataw and learn more about the mythology in Philippines, you can look through The Spirits of the Philippine Archipelago.

Now, even though I promised myself that I would stop talking about the Naga, the Philippines’ version of this creature is very much different. Instead of a whole-ass dragon or serpent, Naga is a term for mermaids with the tail of an eel or a water snake, instead of a fish. I won’t go into depth into the story because I know I won’t be able to do it justice, so you can read it here.

Singapore

Singapore is known as the Lion City, and it is highly ranked in quality of education, urban living, and is one of the richest countries in the world. Just like Malaysia, it is multi-ethnic and prides itself in its diverse banquet of cuisines that you can find in both the traditional eateries of hawker centres or the modernity of malls. Fun fact: Singapore’s mascot is a mer-creature! A merlion, to be precise.

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(Taken from EveryPixel)

The merlion is a chimera with a fish body and a lion head. There is no mythology behind the creature itself. The design was created in 1964 by Alec Fraser-Brunner, who proposed the fish body to be a representation of Singapore’s beginnings as a fishing village, when it was once called Temasek. The lion head represents the ‘Singa’ (Lion) of Singapore.

But to delve deeper into this etymology, we can take a look into the story of Sang Nila Utama. This guy was the Srivijayan prince of Palembang, and in 1299, he founded the Kingdom of Singapura in Temasek (Old Singapore). The Kingdom of Singapura is a Malay Kingdom that was highly-established until its collapse in 1398 due to attacks from the Majapahit, which is another interesting story that will be saved for another time.

The discovery of Temasek by Sang Nila Utama is nothing short of legendary. He first caught sight of the island while hunting in Indonesia’s Bintan. The prince was chasing a stag and it led him up to a small hill. By the time he reached the peak, the stag vanished and all he saw was a very large rock. He decided to climb the rock and at the very top, he looked out upon the sea and saw a beautiful island with the whitest shores he had ever seen in his entire life. His chief minister told him that it was called Temasek. The prince was so enamored with the sight that he ordered out an expedition. While at sea, they were attacked by a terrible storm that threatened to overturn their ship. They threw all their cargo overboard in an attempt to lighten the load, but to no avail. With no other choice, the captain of the ship requested the prince to throw his crown. The prince heeded his words and at once, the skies cleared.

When they got to Temasek safely, they decided to hunt. While the prince was venturing out with his chief minister, he saw a strange beast with red fur, black mane, and a white chest. The chief minister told him that the animal was a lion, and Sang Nila Utama, who had never seen such a creature before, believed the sight to be an omen of good luck. He decided to stay on the island and build the foundations of the Kingdom of Singapura, naming the new city after the strange beast he saw.

Thailand

Thailand is filled with lavish royal palaces, numerous archaeological sites, and temples dedicated to Buddhism. Its cuisine serves a strong kick with all of its incorporated spices, and it’s another popular holiday spot that offers great places for snorkeling, scuba-diving, or simply relaxing on their beaches. There is a very famous mermaid story here, that is part of the epic poem: Phra Aphai Mani. If you go to Koh Samet, you can find the statue of Prince Phra Aphai Mani and his mermaid bride!

In the epic, the mermaid and her family helped Phra Aphai Mani and his son escape from a yakṣī (Thai term for female ogress, though in some cases, they may be environmental spirits, in relation to dwellings of water, forests, etc.). This yakṣī was the prince’s wife but she had disguised herself as a beautiful lady to win his heart. Upon realising that he was deceived, Aphai could not bear the thought of being a yakṣī’s partner and so he ran away with his son. Shortly after meeting the mermaid, they fell in love with each other and got married. She gave birth to a baby boy, but their happiness was short-lived as the yakṣī came chasing after Aphai again and he was forced to leave the sea.

There seems to be no continuation to the marriage, however their son named Sutsakhon continued on his adventures to face the yakṣī and find his father.

Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste lies next to Indonesia, and is one of the smaller South-East Asian countries with just a little over 1.5 million in population. It is filled with secluded beaches and monsoon forests, that contain many endangered animal species, such as the Timor Green Pigeon Treron psittacea. Just like Brunei, I couldn’t find any mermaid story but there was a crocodile story! And this crocodile story has all to do with the birth of Timor-Leste.

A long long time ago, there was a tiny crocodile living in a swamp who dreamed of growing bigger. But this dream soon became hopeless to it because there was very little to eat and the swamp was very small. It was also very lonely because all it had was itself for company. Years passed by and the croc became more and more desperate. Finally, it decided to leave its swamp in search of a better place. It lasted for only a short while. Exhausted and short-legged, it collapsed far from any swamp, lake, river and ocean.

But God must have been smiling down upon him for a young boy stumbled over his limp body. The boy instantly took pity on the animal and carried it with him in search of a river. When the croc woke up as it was being carried, its hunger almost took over its mind. But the boy was its first friend and it couldn’t bring itself to eat him. Once the boy dropped the croc in the river, the animal was so grateful that it promised to fulfill his any wish.

So the boy wished to travel around the world and after the croc grew big and strong, it took the boy to see all the sights he wanted to see. They traveled and traveled, until the croc felt too old and tired to go on. With both of their dreams having come true, the croc withered to the ground and became a massive piece of land that we now know as Timor-Leste.

Vietnam

Vietnam, the last of this list, is yet another beautiful country that has a blend of its own local heritage and influences from the French colonisation. There are many great places to explore, like the limestone islands and the Củ Chi tunnels, or you can just head over to their oceans or rivers for their water sports. By now, you’d get that SEA is basically full of amazing beaches.

Again, could not find anymore mermaids which is a very sad ending to this whole article. But whales are always good start, right?

If you ever go to the village of Vam Lang in Vietnam, you may encounter Lễ hội Cá Ông (Whale Festival). Here, you’ll see beautiful glowing lanterns and motorboats carrying altars with whales in them. Maybe even parades with nearly life-sized models of these animals, where people gather around to give respect to their kind souls. After all, the festival celebrates whales and their protection over fishermen. It is said that these whales will steady boats and carry the corpses of the men back to shore, because there’s a belief that ‘if the men’s souls can’t make it to land, they will forever wander the open ocean as ghosts, but once brought ashore they can attain eternal peace’.

And there you have it, a brief and at the same time, not-so-brief history of mermaids in SEA and the lack thereof. I will save my research for another time and add on to this next time, but for now, I’m going to have a lie down.

Written by

A broke university student.

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