I know her – by type, not by name – as môr-forwyn, sea-maiden, but she is far from typical: because Morveren, perhaps alone of all her kind, made a happy marriage with an earthly man.
Beautiful and richly dressed, with an unusually lovely voice and some trace of the sea about her still, she would come up from the shore and sit at the back of Zennor church to hear Matthew Trewella singing in the choir:
“Every night at evensong the mermaid would come to hear him, until one night, as Matthew sang a particularly lovely verse, Morveren let out a tiny sigh. Although it was as quiet as a whisper Matthew stopped and turned – Morveren’s eyes were shining, and the net had slipped from her head and her hair was wet and gleaming – It was love at first sight.”
[From The Mermaid of Zennor and other Cornish Mermaids]
Matthew followed Morveren to the sea and was never seen again in Zennor. But, in a lovely domestic touch, the townspeople learned of Matthew’s fate when a ship cast anchor off Pendower Cove one morning. While standing on the deck, the captain heard a voice calling from the waves below, asking “if he would be so kind as to raise his anchor as it was resting upon the doorway of her house”. The voice explained that her husband, Matthew, and their children, were waiting for her to return. Peering overboard, the captain discovered that the mysterious maiden with whom Matthew Trewella disappeared was none other than a daughter of Llŷr, the ocean: a mermaid.
In spite of the world he married into, Matthew never forgot his earthly origins. In a reversal of most mermaid tales, the Zennor legend tells how he would sing to warn the local sailors of the moods of his supernatural father-in-law: “soft and high if the day was to be fair, deep and low if Llŷr was going to make the seas rough.” It was supposedly because of this story that the townspeople of Zennor carved a figure of a mermaid into the church pew where Morveren used to sit; and in spite of Matthew’s happy ending, it was intended as a warning, to other young men, of the dangers of falling for these otherworldly maidens.
In all likelihood, the church carving in Zennor came before the local details of this particular tale. It might well be a depiction of the sin of vanity – the mermaid has a mirror, and is combing her long hair. But in the Cornish sailors’ love of their beguiling, treacherous shores, the currents of the story were already flowing. The carving was simply something onto which an older tale could snag, accreting into local legend.
Llŷr, like Oceanus, has many children: among his sons is Manawydan, the “ungrasping chieftan” of the Mabinogi, and his counterpart Manannan, the mythical-divine king of the Isle of Man. His daughters, sea-maidens, are ambiguous figures, alternately seducing, enchanting, helping and cursing the humans who stumble upon and blunder through their realm. They can be vengeful – a mermaid’s curse can destroy a harbour, or bring violent deaths on several generations of a family – and they can also bring luck to those who befriend them. But they work in the interests of their own world, not ours.
In the estuary of the river Severn, the local merfolk – known as sea-morgans – used to entice men out to the quicksands with their bewitching songs, so that the conger eels could have human flesh to eat. And why not? In this eternal struggle, the sea would sometimes claim its victims from the land, and the land would sometimes claim its victims from the sea: conger eels were, after all, a local delicacy. The morgans of the Severn were eventually defeated by a deaf fisherman who was able to pick his way safely across the quicksands with no distraction from the songs. When the conger eels came, summoned by the singing, he speared so many of them that the all the people of Stolford and Steart had conger pie to eat for days. The morgans left in sorrow, and were never seen again.
The two worlds are out of kilter now: we dredge and trawl the land beneath the waves and over-fish the waters, and we no longer hear the mermaids sing.
Closer to my own shore is the mermaid of Black Rock, who came on board the ship of one John Robinson from Liverpool, following a storm that killed all other members of the crew. There are several “Black Rocks” off the North Wirral coast – a testament to the treacherous waters leading to the Mersey narrows – but most local folklorists seem to agree that the Black Rock of the story is now the site of New Brighton lighthouse. The tale itself seems to have migrated south from the shipping lanes of Inverness, becoming part of Mersey folklore in the mid C19th, when the port town of Liverpool was gathering pace to become the second city of the British empire.
Beneath the surface, this tale is about power, perhaps even about the apparent ascendency of man over the realm of the sea: Britannia rules the waves. When the mermaid comes aboard, John Robinson speaks first and thus gains power over her; she gives him a compass that guides him back to shore, and in exchange asks for his promise to see her again. At that next meeting, she speaks first and thus gains power over him; she bewitches him with singing, takes back the compass and places a ring on his finger, saying she would soon see him again. Five days later, John Robinson dies in his bed, “the one place where he might have thought himself safe after a life of peril and adventure at sea.” In spite of all the advances of the C19th shipping, mermaids were still to be feared.
Who were they, really, these daughters of the sea? As many a myth-buster has suggested, mermaids might in fact be nothing more romantic than adult female manatees, their breasts glimpsed under the moonlight by a few lonely sailors with time to spin elaborate tales. But they might also be something much richer and stranger, and altogether less human. We struggle to conceive of a relationship with any entity that does not have a face, but many a man (and woman) has fallen for the lure of the sea.