Skip navigation and go to main content
Shared Stories: Common themes in myths and legends across cultures

People of the Underwater World - a common theme in African, South American and Asian myths

Numerous cultures share a belief in an underwater world in which people live the same way, to a greater or lesser degree, as humans do on the surface world. One possible explanation for similar themes in the mythology of diverse cultures is that ideas are exchanged when two cultures come into direct or even indirect contact. Another explanation is 'independent invention'. Humans on different sides of the globe, even never having learnt about each other, are not that different after all, and our imaginations tend to take common routes.
The Underwater Kingdoms of the Mermaid Goddesses (Cameroon)

The legends of the Duala and other coastal ethnic groups Cameroon tell of kingdoms under the seas and rivers. These underwater worlds are not unlike the human world - with people, houses and all the trappings of human life. Water deities of both genders rule these magical realms. The female deities are called miengu, and have the form of mermaids. These mermaids are said to sometimes take the form of human women to walk in the surface world. Human males who answer their call and go the underwater world are never seen again.

It is said that during the Ngondo Festival in Douala, worshippers would dive to the subaquatic realm, stay underwater for up to hours, and return to the surface appearing completely dry! This religious ceremony is off-limits to children and non-Duala.1

Encante, the Sub-Aquatic Realm of the River Dolphins (Brazil/Peru)

In the indigenous lore of the people of the Amazon, pink river dolphins can take human form to lure mortals away to their underwater realm, the Encante. Though this belief bears some passing resemblance to Sawa traditions of shapeshifting mermaids luring mortal men to the subaquatic realm, the shapeshifting seducers of the Amazon could be dolphins of either sex. Both human men and women have been taken by their dolphin lovers to the Encante.

For human visitors, the Encante does not appear too different from surface world, except that everything is much better there. Modern believers describe the Encante as a place with cities, churches, cars, and hospitals.2

The Underwater Realms of the Dragon Kings (China/Japan)

The underwater realm of the Dragon Kings is a recurring theme in East Asian folklore. These realms are inhabited by aquatic animals that can shapeshift to anthropomorphic representations e.g. fish attendents, shrimp soldiers and crab commanders of the Dragon Kings' armies. Aquatic dragons, such as sea, lake and river royalty, can take human form if they wish. They are said to live in palaces just like kings in the surface world. In one version of the Japanese tale of Urashima Taro, a young fisherman rescued a turtle from the torment of children. In gratitude, the turtle carried him to the beautiful undersea palace of the Dragon King. There he met Otohime, the Dragon King's daughter, who appeared in the form of a woman. The palace staff of fishes entertained him lavishly, but Taro eventually asked to return to the surface world, with unhappy results.3

In the Chinese folktale of the Dragon Woman of Dongting Lake, a young scholar Liu Yi met an unhappy shepherdess. She claimed to be a daughter of the Dragon King of Dongting Lake. She had married the dragon prince of a river, only to be ill-used by her husband and in-laws. The dragon princess asked the young man to take a message to her parents. The scholar went to Dongting Lake, gave a secret signal and was conducted to a splendid crystal palace by shrimp soldiers and their crab officers. The dragon king of the lake appeared in the form of an old man to receive his daughter's letter from Liu Yi's hand. The scholar did not see the true form of his hosts until a fearsome dragon rushed out of the palace and flew off raging. It was the king's younger brother, uncle of the abused she-dragon, on his way to rescue his niece and and kill her husband.4

Some published versions of the traditional legends:

The Underwater Kingdom of Dika (Indonesia/Malaysia/Singapore)

The lore of Indonesia/Singapore/Malaysia tells of a world under the sea, inhabited by people and ruled by royalty, much like the surface world. Raja Chulan (or Suran) of Kalinga, India, descended into the sea and married Princess Mathabu'l-Bhari of the subaquatic realm of Dika. They had three sons, but Raja Chulan returned to his terrestrial kingdom, leaving his wife and sons behind. The three princes grew up and came to the surface world, establishing themselves as kings in Indonesia. The eldest became Raja of Minangkabau, the second became Raja of Tanjungpura, and the youngest became Raja of Palembang. This third prince, better known by his title Sang Nila Utama, would later found Singapura (now Singapore).5

  1. Interview with M, a coastal Cameroonian
  2. Sy Montgomery, Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest
  3. Liu Yi and the Dragon Woman
  4. James J. Fox, Installing the Outsider Inside: the Exploration of an Epistemic Austronesian Cultural Theme and its Social Significance
  5. Legendary Tales of Singapore (Asiapac Books)