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Analysing the history of humanity, it is possible to see that the figure of the fish-woman has been frequently used. In antiquity this myth was presented in the form of a bird’s body with the bust and the face of woman. It was always associated with the deities of death and the cult of the dead, which can be evidenced by mermaid statues in tombs. Over time, however, its shape was transformed, and the half bird was replaced by a fish tail. Currently, mermaids are also called Sereia in Brazil; Mermaid in Denmark; Sirena in Spain; Loreley in Germany; Nereids in Greece; as well as other denominations.
The fish-woman came to Brazil after the discovery, through settlers. Besides bringing their physical presence, language and habits, settlers also brought their values, myths, legends and superstitions. In this sense, the European cultural heritage mixed with indigenous and African cultures and knowledge and values were exchanged, producing a sui generis amalgam through syncretism. Particularly in the North, the permanent interaction with the rivers and streams by the caboclos [mixed race people] gave rise to several legends that show elements representative of life and death. Iara, one of the most beautiful water figures, is one of them.
For the Indians, Iara means ‘Lady of the Waters’ or ‘Nymph of the Waters’. It is also called Uyára and, in Tupi, Uauyára, representing a figure of double image, that can be both feminine as masculine. According to the people from the North, the mermaid dwells in the rivers and their tributaries, but only appears to single men or those who are about to get married. Being half fish and half woman, she can be seen combing her hair, singing or simply talking to a passer-by. And the alleged partner, as if under hypnotic effect, is taken to the deep waters, drowning soon afterwards.
According to scholars, Iara represents the enchanted symbiosis of a tempting woman: she has a beautiful European face – with blond hair and delicate features – a fish tail that is always submerged, with scales of various colours, and a wonderful voice. Through her singing, she exerts an irresistible attraction for men, managing to drag them to the bottom of the waters. This mythological figure was spread throughout the country after the 17th century.
Other researchers credit the legend of the Iara to the readings that the Portuguese settlers took from the classical authors, such as Virgil (The Aeneid), Herodotus (Epithets) and Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey). In their works, they all referred to the seductive and fatal figure of this myth, sometimes in the form of a woman, sometimes in the form of a bird or amphibian. In this way, the Portuguese absorbed the maritime legends and passed them onto the Brazilians. It is important to remember that the poet Luís de Camões, in the 16th century Os Lusíadas, mentioned several times the presence of mermaids along the navigation route. The treasures and palaces offered by the Iara are corroborated by the strong presence of an imported culture – European – since the natives (except those who absorbed and/or have absorbed many elements of the coloniser’s culture) do not have the same reference to wealth that the holders of power do. It is thus probable that there is a link between the Brazilian Iara and the mermaids that were written about by the classic authors.
According to Câmara Cascudo, there was a contribution by black slaves in relation to the Iara, with Kianda, the African mermaid; the powerful figure of Osum, the Orisha [God] of the rivers, lakes and lagoons in the black gods genealogy; and the worshiped Iemanja, whom Afro-descendants revere as the divine Mother-of-the-Water or Aiocá, goddess of the waters, mermaid of the sea, or female Orisha of the waters. According to Cascudo (1972), on the other hand, Iemanjá personifies salt water: her fetish is the seashell, and she protects those who live from the sea or depend on favours. Like Iara, she has many lovers, but she carries them to the bottom of the sea. She is also jealous, vindictive and cruel, like all primitive aegis. Great protector of sea voyages and fishermen, Iemanja went through the syncretic process of the marine goddesses. Now, thanks to the cultural syncretism that has happened in the country, she is either considered as Our Lady of the Rosary, or as Our Lady of the Candles.
In North Brazil, there are several legends about Iara. One of them points out that she is so beautiful and possesses such a beautiful voice that it bewitches all men, and her song represents the very perdition of the fishermen. Whoever looks at the surface of the rivers and see Iara will immediately be attracted to the beautiful mermaid, being dragged to her palace of green crystals, deep in the water, finding death through fatal nuptials.
Another version of this legend records the story of a mermaid that lived at the bottom of the rivers and streams, in the shadow of the virgin forests. One night, an Indian dreamed of this beautiful young woman with fair hair, blue eyes and very white skin who lived in a crystal castle covered in gold and sapphires, and from which came heavenly music. With so many attractions, he soon fell in love with her, especially after hearing her singing and her vows of eternal love. Sailing along the river, he noticed that a hut had formed on the water, and then smiling at him, Iara emerged. In love and bewitched as he was, he went to the hut with his canoe. At that moment, however, the mermaid grabbed him, and together the Indian and Mermaid dived to never return.
According to another current legend, there was a beautiful Tapuio Indian, the son of a brave and daring Tuxaua, who was always sad, despite knowing how to handle a blowgun with skill, to brandish a club and to tighten a bow with more courage than all, to represent the pride of the tribe, to win the games that celebrate the holidays, and before him the elders themselves bowed down in a sign of respect. His mother then asked him why he was so sad, to which he explained that he had seen a beautiful young woman with a harmonious voice, beautiful green eyes and gold-blond hair, bound by murere flowers. This young woman had held out her arms, as if she wanted them to intertwine, and singing, had disappeared into the waters of the stream.
Hearing the Indian’s cries, the mother begged him, crying: “Please, my son, do not come back to the stream. The woman you saw there is Iara. Her smile is death. Do not give into her charms.” However, the Tapuio decided not to follow the maternal advice. At sunset, members of the tribe saw and heard from afar a woman singing, and at her side was the shape of a man. When a more courageous Indian dared to approach the place, the waters of the stream quickly opened, and into them plunged the mermaid and the Tapuio. Needless to say, the Indian never returned to his village.
Another version of the Iara legend relates that a man who was about to get married had fallen asleep near a river. It was a full moon night, there was light in the firmament, and the woods were brighter than the nights before. Suddenly, that man was awakened by a voice calling him by name. Without a second thought, he made his way to the banks of the river, leaning against the trunk of a tree. He looked at the waters, suspicious, and spotted a bright spot in the centre of them. This spot grew until it was very large. At the same time, the man felt a numbness in his whole body, which threatened to paralyse his limbs. He broke into a cold sweat and became terrified. Despite all this, an immense and powerful force forced him to concentrate on the illuminated part of the waters.
Then something extraordinary happened. The surface of the river opened in the centre of the illuminated area, and a dazzling young woman emerged slowly, while drops of water seemed to form pearl necklaces with the precious bath of light they received. The girl’s skin was the colour of lilies; her blond hair just like reflection of gold; her eyes transparent, like two emerald stones; and provocative lips. Promising delights and inexhaustible pleasures, she walked toward the man, with a devilishly seductive look. She was naked from the waist up, and her luscious contours, of limitless seduction and voluptuousness, could be seen. The two of them approached each other, the man’s defences dissipating, and he felt a kiss on his face. At that moment, he realised that her lips were moist and cold. But there was no time to react. In an instant, the man slipped and fell into the water. Before he sank, however, he passed out. Luckily, someone walking by the river rescued him from the water. Saved by a miracle, trembling and dejected, he told everyone: it was Iara, the beautiful young woman who possessed an irresistible magnetism and murderous arms.
Sometimes they say that Iara can also appear in the masculine form, as in the myth of Boto [pink river dolphin] – which at night turns into a very beautiful and educated man dressed in white, who attracts the caboclas to his enchanted palace at the bottom of the waters, and drowns them. People of the North, who use the Boto myth to calm the wrath of betrayed husbands and deceived fathers (when their wives or daughters get pregnant outside the household), still today credit the flight or disappearance of their loved ones to the power of Iara’s seduction. In other words, when someone disappears, it is always the fault of the beautiful mermaid. However, the most propagated symbolism of Iara is that of mortal seduction. In the North, this belief is so strong that at dusk many people do not dare to pass by rivers and streams. In order to avoid Iara’s seduction, the people say you should eat a lot of garlic, or rub it all over you.
All these legends, which are part of Brazilian folklore, have already been the source of inspiration for poets, writers and artists, such as Olavo Bilac, José de Alencar, Afonso Arinos, Melo Moraes Filho, Manuel Santiago and Coelho Neto, who included Iara (and other legends) in their poems, sonnets, short stories and paintings.
Finally, it is important to note that Brazilian Indians have representations and aquatic myths, but none of them incorporates the evil and fatal qualities of the Iara. Indeed, they always seek remedies to combat evil, sublimating even death itself. In their imagery, the rivers and streams represent a source of survival and not a path to death. Since they do not repress sexuality, they also do not feel the need to create sensual figures like Iara. When the natives cite the beauty of young caboclas, they are extolling this quality as an aesthetic reference and, not, as an object of libido. Their Mother-of-the-Water, unlike the Iara, is a kind and important figure: as the guardian of the rivers, she materialises in the plants and aquatic flowers that feed all freshwater living beings.
Recife, 5 February 2007.
Translated by Peter Leamy, November 2016.
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