• Jen

Mermaids and MythMonsters

Updated: May 13, 2020

#The100DayProject is in full-swing! And it overlaps entirely with one of my favorite drawing challenge months, MerMay 🧜‍♀️

(Left to right/ top to bottom: Rainbow Serpent with mermaid; Shen the giant clam and Lara; Näkki with Nguruvilu)

Being born in the 80's and a self-styled Disney Devotee, I've been obsessed with mermaids my whole life. To this day, I can 100% legitimately sing all the songs in The Little Mermaid. This is no lie; and if you want to test me, you do so at your own peril as I will stop anything I may be doing to put all my heart, soul, and decibels into screeching out "Part of your World" complete with dramatic action.

And for sure I'm not the only one with a mermaid obsession on the slippery scale of appropriateness. Through the entire #100MythMonsters project, I've been keen to look at many different cultural traditions and folklore for inspiration. Picsine figures are represented all the world over, so there's been plenty of source material for every illustration.

There are a few distinct tropes with mermaid-lore --and "mermaid" as a term being applied here liberally to mean any half-human half-fish creature.

Cautionary Tails

Folklore all over the world commonly has origins as cautionary tales for children. Of course, these would be horrifying, violent and gory stories that loving parents would share with their small children to teach them about dangers and warn them against unsafe or unhealthy chioices. Näkki, from Finnish mythology, would hang out around bridges and when little kids would lean over their edges, she'd playfully knock them over and drown them!

There were cautions for dubious adult behavior too, particularly for pervy men who would spy on women when bathing, which is totally rude. Melusine, from western European mythology, has a long and fascinating story, woven into medieval Eurpoean political history. Part of her story is allegory for distrust in female leadership and between husband and wife. When her husband becomes suspicious of Melusine and spies on her when she specifically asks him not to, she discovers his horrible boundary violation, sprouts wings and leaves him in the dust. This is a really fantastic, well-informed synopsis of the Melusine story by Jeremy Jenkins at the British Library.


The fantasy around mermaids is rich with romance and longing. Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid is the classic fable of hopeless infatuation --and itself a cautionary tale for the dangers of thinking you can change yourself to make someone love you (moral: it's a bad idea). These stories depict the tragedy of longing for what is enchanting but also unreliable, usually an allusion to the sea itself.

The legend of Ne Hwas comes from the Passamaquoddy people of North America, telling the story of sisters defying their mother and going for a swim and then transforming into mermaids. After being turned into mermaids (or more like serpent-ladies, because their bottom half was more like snakes than fish...), they were pursued by men who grabbed at their hair (again, rude!). The maidens threatened to upturn their canoe if they weren't freed. This is a retelling of the story, which also draws interesting paralells with Nordic mythology for some reason I can't really tell why...

Guardians/ Protectors

Water-based creatures and characters are often depicted as guardians and protectors in legend, and commonly are important spiritual figures. The Rainbow Serpent from Aboriginal Australia Dreaming is a creator deity, who represents the immense significance of water for all life, as well as fertility. It's cyclical nature, too, points to the possible danger and chaotic nature of water if it is not respected. See artwork from Aboriginal artists in Australia and read more about Rainbow Serpent here.

Mami Wata is a water spirit venerated throughout much of Africa and among the African Diaspora in the Americas. Like the Rainbow Serpent, she is powerful, life-giving, and also dangerous. She's a fascinating character of historical visual culture, encompassing a devastating history of slavery with incredible cultural resilience, and combining within herself folklore of African water spirits, European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses and Abrahamic saints. She endows affluence and as easily can take it away, just like the ebb and flow of the ocean in turn depositing blessings and hardships.

I've been taking advantage of the challenge and the time to focus on drawing everyday to hone skills in character design and story-telling through illustration. Each of my Monster/ Mermaid illustrations are vignettes that just give a hint of something, and my goal is to show relationship between the figures as much as to design characteristics and individuality.

I'm quite proud of the work I've created so far, and excited to offer several stickers and prints

in my new Etsy shop: StickyInklings!

At the time of this writing, we are still very much in the hold of COVID-19 and the world is in quarantine. So, this is a very quiet soft-opening of StickyInklings, which might be clear since I'm literally burying it below a big paragraph describing both my age-inappropriate obsession with The Little Mermaid and my horrible singing skills. But, when the folks who do my printing and shipping are back up to full capacity, there will surely be a bigger spectacle for my new shop.... including things shiny and sparkly..... stay tuned!