Mermaids, defined as having the upper body of a human woman and the tail of a fish, are perhaps best known through the Hans Christian Andersen story of the Little Mermaid. But mermaid stories are to be found all around the globe in more than a dozen cultures from the Near East, Europe, Africa, North America through to Asia. To that list, you can add Aboriginal Australia. In Western Arnhem Land there are two names that are used for these water spirit women — Yawkyawk and Ngalkunburriyaymi. There are mermaids in a general sense and there are particular mermaid spirits that may live at a particular sacred site or be the principal totem of creator being for certain clans. Yawkyawk spirits were a repeated theme for master painter Peter Marralwanga. The word Yawkyawk is also used to refer to the larval and nymph forms of insects like dragonflies and also to girls on the cusp of womanhood.
Europeans seem also to have drawn a similar semantic link with nymphs referring to insect larvae and young women. The linking concept here is metamorphosis — girls changing physically to become women, Yawkyawk larvae changing physically to emerge from the water as dragonflies, mayflies and other insects. There are linked mermaid metaphors — long water grasses or algal masses waving in a stream may be the hair of Yawkyawk. In some stories the Yawkyawk are daughters of the great female creator and rainbow serpent Yingarna. They are said to live in caves and under ledges beside pools of water and may come out on the bank at night. As in European stories, some clever men have been said to have taken Yawkyawk as wives, but as in stories from other cultures the Yawkyawk eventually returns to her family underwater. Wikipedia says the first mermaid stories originated in Assyria about 1000BC. Aboriginal Australians may indeed have been dreaming of mermaids for a lot longer.

I took this photo in 1980 when I was employed by the Aboriginal Community at Maningrida to market their art and craft and to take a mobile store to families who had chosen to leave the Government settlement and live on their traditional estates. Aboriginal master painter Peter Marralwanga, his eldest wife Nalmabama and three of his 35 children wait at their dry season camp at Kudjalrdordo to exchange their works for cash and then to shop from the back of a truck loaded with supplies. Peter’s painting, on a flattened sheet of stringybark, depicts Barrk, the black wallaroo, an endemic macropod of western Arnhem Land. The baskets are of the highest quality and made from split fronds of pandanus palm which are dyed with vegetable dyes sourced from the bush. Peter is smoking a Larrwa, or long pipe, a style adopted from the Indonesian trepang fishermen from Macassar who traded with north Australia until the Australian government shut them out in 1905. Peter smoked the strongest pipe tobacco around — Erinmore flake. His addiction was passionate, but eventually it killed him. He died of lung cancer in 1987.

As well as being regarded as one of the “old masters” of Arnhem Land art, Peter Marralwanga (1917-1987) was a big family man. He was big — well over 6ft and powerfully built — and his family included five wives and thirty five children. In the top photo he’s been gathering Haemodorum (windilk/bloodroot) buds for his wives to boil up to make beautiful dyes for their superbly finished pandanus fibre baskets. In the bottom photo he’s not painting up for ceremony — just painting up with joy at finding a new supply of a brilliant yellow clay (Karlba) to use in his artwork. His paintings are to be found in most state and national galleries in Australia. This painting depicts Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent and protector of land, dealing with people who have transgressed a law of ritual behaviour. Many of his paintings relate to particular places and are accompanied by cautionary tales of how to behave appropriately in sites of spiritual power.