The Amazon Rainforest: Iara the river mermaid
Iara, so the legend goes, was a beloved princess of an Amazon-dwelling tribe. She was a kick-arse warrior and all round good at everything – a quintessential ‘it’ girl.
Her two brothers, jealous of her popularity and skill, attempted to murder her in her sleep. Despite being ambushed and outnumbered, Iara fought them off and accidentally killed them both. Despite the fact it was self-defence, her father condemned her and Iara fled. The tribe pursued, eventually catching up with her ad tossing her into a nearby river, where she drowned.
After death, Iara was transformed into mermaid, with the lower body of a fish and the torso of a woman. She haunted the rivers and streams of the Amazon. When she was chanced upon by men, they would be so overwhelmed by her beauty and singing voice they would either drown or go insane. Some of the legends suggest that those who drowned were cannibalised by Iara. The Tupi-Guarani tribes’ people, from whom the legends arise, were said to cannibalise the greatest of defeated enemy warriors in order to absorb their strength and courage. In a way, being cannibalised was an honour as it meant you were worthy of being revered for your strength and skill. This aspect of the legend may also suggest that Iara was growing in power.
According to other legends, the drowned men would actually become part of Iara’s extensive harem. (Side note – how awesome is Iara? A brave warrior, a mermaid and now she has a harem of men. A total gender role-reversal as far as we Western women are concerned. Very impressive!)
Some of the elements of Iara’s story follow typical European mermaid patterns. And some are unique to the people and culture to which she belongs. There are some theories that the tale of Iara are a combination of ancient goddess/river worship and European folklore. Unfortunately, very little is known about the tribes who honoured Iara (the Tupi-Guarani people), as a result of their conversion by force by European invaders in medieval times, and the resulting loss of their sacred knowledge and culture.
As an eco-tourist, I spent time in the Amazon Rainforest in Peru, as well as at Iguazu/Iguacu falls in Argentina and Brazil. Eco-tourism allowed me to stay in comfort, interact with the amazing local tribes and leave nothing but footprints to preserve the natural beauty of the area.
At Puerto Maldonado, we slept in open cabins, covered by mosquito nets, blurring the lines between inside and outside, nature and human habitation. We spent time on the many rivers, seeing an abundance of strange and unusual creatures in the wild. Giant guinea-pig families wandered the river shore, seeking to slake their thirst. Clouds of colourful butterflies swirled above the river surface, gently alighting on the mud of the river banks. Piranha and giant otters swam beneath our feet and hordes of capuchin monkeys frolicked in the treetops above our heads. We even met a local shaman who taught us about Amazonian medicine and the incredible biodiversity of the rainforest that he called home.
At Iguazu Falls, we were incredibly lucky to see the falls in three different ways - from the Argentinian side, from the Brazilian side and by helicopter. We ventured beneath the falls, deafened by their roar and soaked through by the spray. We climbed above them, marvelling at their beauty. No matter the angle, they were always awe-inspiring; a testament to the phenomenal power of nature.
The Amazon is an incredible natural wonder. It covers 40% of South America and is home to a range of different ecosystems. The Amazon rainforest is considered the lungs of the world. Time spent with the local tribespeople really opened my eyes to conservation. They didn’t see themselves as “landowners”; rather, they were caretakers of the environment. They viewed every interaction between human and nature as being in delicate balance and utterly interconnected. They weren’t disconnected from nature, as I was at home. Rather, they coexisted, somehow finding a way to thrive with minimal environmental cost.
Iara in particular, is intimately connected to her environment. In death, she transformed into a mermaid. If the theory that her origin is that of a river goddess is correct, then her mermaid form would suggest that she is connected both to people (human torso) and the river (mermaid tail). It’s not too much of a leap to suggest she may have been seen as one with the river, as has occurred in other myths around the world.
As a mermaid at heart, I began to think of my responsibility to conserve the ocean. Oceans are dying at an alarming rate. They are being overfished. They have become the dumping grounds of millions of tonnes of plastic that is fast becoming a part of the food chain at even the most microscopic level. (Plastic doesn’t break down). Coral bleaching and reef death are destroying entire ecosystems. Our oceans are dying and they need our help.
At an individual level, I am making many choices to try to conserve the environment, from eating a (local, in-season) plant-based diet, to composting kitchen scraps, to using eco-friendly makeup and cleaning products, to avoiding chemical-based sunscreens that poison our reef (and opting for physical/zinc-based sunscreens instead). I walk to work rather than drive, no longer use single-use plastics (e.g. plastic bags and straws) and have made a decision to not reproduce and contribute to overpopulation.
I’m not perfect. But I have made a vow to take action anyway I can.
Before her own death, Iara was a princess and warrior. As a princess, she had an important caretaking responsibility towards her people, as tribe and family, and her forest home. And, as a warrior, she knew how to fight for what was important to her. After death, she became a mermaid, which is symbolic of being one with the river. Protecting the river is a sacred duty.
The Amazon is dying. Amazing people are doing amazing work to conserve what and where they can. But the Amazon (like many parts of wilderness worldwide), is being cleared (in many cases, illegally), by agriculture and industry. This is not just devastating for locals or the plants and animals that call it home. As the lungs of the world, destruction of the Amazon rainforest hurts everyone and greatly contributes to climate change. Trees are one of our most important weapons in reducing global warming.
Iara’s tale would be best told by her people – the Tupi-Guarani. Like many myths, it is possible that the original version was a complex, multifaceted piece of cultural wisdom that would be intimately understood by those within the tribe/s from which the story springs. As Westerners, we often dismiss myths as “stories” or “tales”. The importance of these myths should not be underestimated or dismissed. We are not savvy to the deeper wisdoms and mysteries in these stories, and nor should we be. But there is wisdom there all the same.
I don’t want to put these tribes on a pedestal and perpetuate the noble savage myth (as this is divisive, racist and ultimately unhelpful for everyone). Nor do I want this to be simply inspirational. (As a side note, the interpretations I have made in this article are entirely my own and may not represent the traditional meaning of the story.)
Like so many species of plant and animal in the sixth great extinction event that is happening all around us, the Tupi-Guarani and many ancient cultures are being destroyed. Capitalism and consumerism are destroying everything in its path. Nothing is immune – not culture, not the environment and not people by extension. By 2020, WWF projects that 67% of wildlife could disappear. The world won’t just be the poorer for it; the literal future of the world hangs in the balance.
Iara was a warrior. I don’t imagine she would take the destruction of her home lying down, and neither should we! This is a call to action. It can be easy to feel stuck or like it’s hopeless. But as Gandhi said “whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it’s very important that you do it.”
Together, we can make a difference.
Support eco-tourism; this helps protect the environment and supports local people. To learn more:
Donate to Sea Shepherd or Ocean Cleanup to help protect our oceans. Our oceans actually directly influence worldwide weather events. Ocean destruction is a catalyst for climate-change caused catastrophic weather events, in case you needed more incentive to donate! If you can’t donate, please share. Another idea is to ask family or friends to donate rather than exchange gifts for birthdays/special occasions (if possible).
Also see Blue the Film for more information and guidance around simple things you can do to reduce your impact on our oceans.
Climate Change Action
Individual actions are great and help, but the reality is big corporations are responsible for the majority of climate change. In fact, the Carbon Major’s Report found that just 100 companies are responsible for approximately 71% of global carbon emissions.
The best way to take action on climate change is to see what you can do in your country to pressure governments to change laws to protect the environment. To find out more about how you can act locally to make a global difference, checkout Greenpeace International and Extinction Rebellion for social and political activism ideas.