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The Beautiful Girl and The Fish

Mermaid image Copyright © 2002 Chloe Hedden. It may not be reproduced in any way without permission of
Yoruba tale

In the far-off days when there was great magic everywhere, there lived a beautiful girl. Many young man of her town wished to marry her, but she had refused all offers, saying that her husband must be the most handsome man in all the land. One day, as she was busy in the marketplace, she saw a very handsome man and immediately fell in love with him. Going up to him, she told him how attracted she was by his looks, and that she wished to become his wife.

“I should very much like to have you as my wife, but unfortunately I am not a man, and am not of your people, for I come from the river at Idunmaibo. You see, I am a fish, and when I am not living in the water, the gods have given me the power to turn myself into a young man, but my home is the river and to the river I must return,” replied the stranger.

“It matters not,” replied the girl. “You may be fish or man, but I still love you. If you promise to come forth from the water from time to time, and see me as you are now, I will gladly marry you.”

“So be it then,” replied the fish-man, and he led the girl to Idunmaibo and they went to a certain place on the riverbank. “Here is my home,” said the fish-man. “Whenever you want me, come to this place and sing the magic song I will teach you.” Then the young fish-man sang:

O beautiful fish of the river,

May I look through the flowing waters?

Through the surface of the river I will see you.

O Lovely River that looks like silver and gems

With palace beneath, more lovely

Than the palace of kings of men.

Then the fish-man plunged into the water and was lost from sight. Every day the girl prepared some sweetmeats for her lover and taking them to Idunmaibo, she sang the magic song and the fish came to the surface. He changed into a man, climbed the bank and spent some time with his wife. He used to bring with him coral and many gems from the river and supply her with all she needed. They were very happy together and loved each other very much.

One day, the girl’s parents asked her if there was anybody she wished to marry. She replied that she had a husband, but that she could not disclose his identity at present. They were very puzzled with this answer and watched her as she prepared her husband’s food and carried it away. Her small brother had asked her several times if he could accompany her and carry the food, but she told him she must go alone and nobody must follow her. This answer only aroused the boy’s curiosity, and he made up his mind to follow her and see where she went and what she did with the food. By means of magic, he turned himself into a fly and followed his sister to Idunmaibo and the banks of the river.

Here he heard her sing the magic song and sow the fish come out of the river and turn into a man. And so he learned the words of the magic song. When they had eaten their food, the fish-man said good-bye to his wife and jumped back into the water. The little boy then flew home, and changing into a boy, he went straight to his parents and told them what he had witnessed, and that his sister had married a fish.

The girl’s father and mother were very angry when they heard the boy’s story. But they decided not to say anything about the matter to their daughter on her return. Instead it was arranged that she should be sent to her father’s people for a couple of days while they decided what to do. So the girl was sent away, much to her grief, for her father’s people dwelled far away and she would not be able to visit her husband during her absence.

When the girl had departed, her father told the boy to lead him to Idunmaibo and sing the magic song on the riverbank. When they reached the spot, the boy, imitating his sister’s voice, sang the song and the fish came out of the water. The father was waiting close by and as the fish man climbed the bank the father killed him with his hatchet and threw him into the water. As the fish- man died he turned back slowly into a fish.

“I will punish my daughter for this wicked deed,” shouted the father and he ordered his son to pull out the dead fish and carry it home. The fish was then dried and kept for the girl’s return. Two days later she returned, happy to be back close to the river and her husband again. She was anxious to leave her father’s compound and visit the river, only her father ordered her to sit down and eat some food before she left.

“Your mother has prepared some fish for you,” ha said.

“I am not hungry, Father, and I do not wish to eat fish,” the girl replied.

“You will do as I order you, girl. Sit down and eat,” said her father.

So the girl sat down with a sigh and ate the fish. As she ate, she was started to hear her small brother singing softly to himself. Before he had finished the words of his song, the bowl of food had dropped from the girl’s hands and she sat quietly staring in front of her. The boy repeated his song:

How wretched it is for women to eat their husband’s flesh,

When they have taken their husbands as their most beloved,

For during their absence their husbands have been taken out

As a fine fish from the river for the family’s food.

The girl, on hearing this terrible song, ran out of her father’s compound and going quickly to the riverbank, she sang the magic song, but her husband did not come.

Then the girl sang:

Oluweri, Oluweri, Goddess of the River,

I have now returned with eyes of silver and hair like stairs.

Oh, if it be that my husband is dead,

Let the face of the river run blood red,

Or if my husband yet lives, let him come to the surface,

There he will behold his loved one they sent cruelly away.

At this instant, the surface of the water turned blood red and the girl knew then that her parents had killed her husband. She jumped into the river, and instead of being drowned, she sank down into the river waters and became an onijegi. And people say that even today an onijegi can sometimes be heard singing softly at Idunmaibo.


Fuja A. Fourteen Hundred Cowries, and Other African Tales, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company, New York 1971, Oxford 1962

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