Mermaids are ancient beings, known in one form or another the world over. The Greek Bronze Age exploits of Odysseus featured the deadly sirens whose song was so alluring that his sailors’ ears had to be stopped up with wax to stop them being lured overboard, the other forms of strange sea-folk can be found from Indonesia to Orkney. Cornwall has a particular concentration of merfolk traditions. The word “mermaid” isn’t derived from French mer, “sea”, but from Middle English mere, “lake”, and there are a number of British legends where such creatures inhabit inland lakes. The Cornish language contains two words for mermaid: morvoron, “sea-maiden” (including the archaic word moroin, “maiden”) occurs in the medieval Passion Play and, in the 18th century, Dr.William Borlase recorded moruerches (Revived Modern Cornish morvverthias), “sea-virgin”. The Passion Play reference is a unique one in which the mermaid – half-fish, half-human – is compared to the dual nature of Christ as half-man, half-god. Popularly, mermaids are seen as beautiful, alluring creatures with a penchant for handsome landsmen, especially if they have good singing voices, but the Cornish stories reveal deeper facets of their character: wily, dangerous and deadly. When they choose to do so, they are capable of limited shape-shifting to acquire legs for mobility on land. The famous, but unnamed. Zennor mermaid used this art for her frequent visits over many years to the churches of Morvah and Zennor (it is a common feature of mermaid legends that they are drawn to the sound of church bells) before latching onto Zennor chorister Matthew Trewhella and luring him away to her undersea home off Pendour Cove.
An interesting point in this legend is that, although her church visits took place over a period of years, she showed no signs of ageing, hinting a possible immortality or, at least, non-human longevity. One which showed no intent to change her form was the mermaid stranded in a rock pool by the tide for the Lizard man called Lutey to rescue (quoted by Robert Hunt as “The Old Man of Cury”, William Bottrell’s older and fuller version makes it clear that Lutey was under 30 years of age). Like others of her kind, this mermaid was able to grant Lutey three wishes for his kindness. These incidentally, were selfless choices involving the power to break evil spells, power over spirits for the good of others and to pass those gifts on to his descendants. This gave rise to the famous pellars” of Helston and the Lizard and it was claimed that the famous “pellar” Tamsin Blight (“Tammy Blee”) was a descendant of Lutey. This mermaid also gave Lutey her comb saying that, if he was ever in need of her, he should summon her by combing the water three times, calling her name each time. One of the few mer-maids to leave a name for posterity, this is variously quoted as Morvenna and Morcenna. The drawback to all this was that, after a period of nine years, she would come and claim him. And she
did. The nastier side of menfolk nature emerges in this mermaid’s insistence that, if she did not return to her Kynance home before her husband woke, he’d be likely to devour his own children. While this is the only mention of menfolk cannibalism, effective curses were certainly part of their armoury. The sandbanks of Padstow harbour were formed as a result of a dying curse of a mermaid shot by a fisherman using a crossbow (interestingly, it was once forbidden to use a crossbow against a Christian – but longbows were all right. – which hints that mermaids were not considered Christian), and a similar legend explains the end of Seaton near Looe as a working harbour.
The Lamorna mermaid was much more akin to the ancient Greek sirens. Holding the usual comb and mirror, she would appear on her rock prior to a storm, singing plaintively to lure unwary sailors. It was said that a number of young men, entranced by her beautiful voice, have swum out to her rock, never to return. Robert Hunt’s hauntingly Gothic tale The Mermaid’s Vengeance was heard by him at Perranporth, Sennen Cove and Coverack, Perranporth being his chosen location. This involves an earth-child, Selena Penaluna, being “adopted” by the local merfolk. She may even have been a changeling. When being crossed in love led to her early death, the children of the sea vowed revenge on the faithless lover and finally killed him in a horrific fashion. Held by the iron grip of a mermaid uncannily resembling the dead Selena, the doomed man was first sent mad, then drowned in the company of a host of sea-people. Planting an icy kiss on his forehead, the mermaid declared to him that land-people kiss only to deceive. but the kiss of a sea-maiden is the seal of constancy – and that could be more constant. she asks him, but death…. The northern Penwith coast has numerous mermaid traditions, especially at Zennor where there is not only the church-going mermaid but also the curious but incomplete story heard by J.T. Blight of Lady Sibella who would swim each day to the Carrack an Ethen rock off Trevail Cove. This area also contains legends of women from the sea to become “saints” – St. Eia, who sailed from Ireland on a leaf (a curragh?), and Azenor of Brittany, possibly the original name of Zennor, who had been nailed in a barrel and cast into the sea. Were these “saints” Christianised sea-goddesses, although it has to be said that Celtic mythology, while featuring sea-gods such as Mannanan Mac Lir and Barinthos, is peculiarly devoid of sea-goddesses?
The Rev. R.S. Hawker, whilst at Morwenstow, once fooled his parishioners by sitting on rock by the sea under the moonlight, clad in seaweed wig and oilskin tail with comb and mirror and only reveal-ing his prank by suddenly standing up and singing the national anthem. Now, whilst exploration of Piper’s Hole on Tresco might reveal the sea-people who use it as a home, the only places you’re likely to see Cornwall’s mermaids are in Breage and Poughill churches, where they appear on medieval frescoes, or on the famous Mermaid Chair in Zennor church. This wonderful carving, variously given 13th and 15th century dates, portrays the mermaid herself in her best-known form: the scaled fish-tail, voluptuous hour-glass body, long, flowing hair and the ever-present mirror and comb. Perhaps partly a product of lonely mariners’ wishful thinking, she seems to be saying “Look upon my form, ye mortals, and despair.”