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.