mermaids


mermaids
   To judge from parallel beliefs elsewhere in northern Europe, the sea-dwellers of English folklore were probably originally tailless, but the concept of the fish-tailed mermaid (and merman), long established in Mediterranean lands as a development from the classical siren, arrived here early in the Middle Ages. The mermaid was regarded as a natural if freakish creature, not a supernatural being; according to classical writers, she lulled sailors to sleep by her singing and then drowned them or ate them. She made an excellent moral symbol for preachers, who identified her with the fatal attractions of wealth, sex, drink, etc. For this reason, mermaids are common in minor church sculpture; it is presumably as symbols of vanity that they acquired their comb and mirror, not known in classical art. The belief that they really existed persisted for centuries, reinforced by travellers' tales of sightings and captures, and also by fakes made up from monkeys and fish, which were common from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
   Legends about mermaids are found in Cornwall and along the Welsh Border. At Zen-nor, a mermaid fell in love with a lad and lured him into the sea. Near the Lizard, a man named Lutey helped a stranded mermaid back into the water; she gave him her comb, and said he and his descendants would be able to break witches' spells and control demons, but nine years later she came for him and drew him under the waves. In the 1840s the folklor-ist Robert Hunt was told that several Cornish families claimed to have uncanny powers because of being descended from a mermaid or merman. On the other hand, a mermaid ruined Padstow harbour with sandbars, because someone there had shot at her.
   The mermaids of the Welsh Border area do not live in the sea but in lakes and rivers. At Marden (Herefordshire) a church bell once fell into a deep pool in the river, where a mermaid seized it (Leather, 1912: 168-9). At Child's
   Ercall (Shropshire) a mermaid from a pool was about to give some men 'a lump of gold, big as a man's head, very near', but one swore in amazement, and she shrieked and vanished (Burne, 1883: 78).
   ■ Benwell and Waugh, 1961: 140-50.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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