The Warsaw Mermaid - An enduring symbol
The Warsaw mermaid is arguably the most recognizable symbol of any Polish city, and her status as the guardian of the capital reaches back the the 14th
century. One legend has it that the mermaid was entrapped by a rich merchant in a net on the banks of the Vistula River, where the Old Town now stands. A young fisherman heard the mermaid’s cry for help and released her from the merchant’s trap. In return for her rescue, the mermaid declared she would offer her help to the fishermen of the settlement whenever it would be needed. Thus, the mermaid, armed with sword and shield, became a symbol for the city’s defense. Over the centuries, the Warsaw mermaid grew to represent the city’s fighting spirit. This representation is evident in the multiple posters created after the 1950s. In a poster created soon after the war was over, the mermaid still stands draped in a red and white sash, albeit with a broken sword. For years after, she would make an appearance on almost every poster for “Varsovian September” the month commemorating the city’s fight against the Wehrmacht in 1939.
Since the war, the Warsaw mermaid has also represented more jovial events in the city. She often makes appearances on posters advertising art fairs, the theater, special events, and festivals, as shown in these images from a culture festival, and poster exhibition advertisement.
Symbols such as these are instrumental in creating identity in a given space. Though the Warsaw mermaid is a figment of the national imagination, her power as a political mobilizer, patriotic emblem, and event spokesperson is clear.