- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -
At the outset, let me disclaim all intention in the present paper of writing a dissertation on Mermaids, either historical or otherwise. My intention is simply to put on record a series of notes upon the subject, culled from various sources, and to connect them together in such manner as may seem most meet or convenient for future reference. So little has ever been done in the way of collecting together these various fragments, that the subject may almost be regarded as a new one—or, at all events, as one to which only passing attention has usually been paid; I may be pardoned, therefore, I trust, if I occupy a brief space with some of them, and endeavour to show, that what we are now apt to look upon simply as absurd evidences of the extent to which human credulity will go, had at one time deep allegorical and emblematical meanings, and were used as symbols by very ancient nations and peoples.
From the very earliest periods some gods and goddesses have been, from certain attributes and the peculiar powers attributed to them, represented in the form of fish, and the fish has also, been used as a Christian emblem from the early days of Christianity. We may surely, therefore, trace connecting links between the Mermaiden legends and sculptures of the middle ages, and their prototypes in the long-past generations of the ‘‘old world.”
Vishnu [Fish-nu!] the Indian god, is said to have become incarnate in the form of a fish, so that he might recover the Sacred Books lost in the Deluge; and the same legend—doubtless, it would seem, derived from this source—obtains in Ireland, where, in their primeval religion, Fin, or Finian (said to be identical with Bar-en-de, “The Son of the One God”), as recorded in the ancient annals of Ireland, was an antediluvian who escaped drowning in the Deluge by being transformed into a salmon, and afterwards lived, restored to his original human form, till the time of St. Patrick, who converted him to Christianity. He was said to be “one of the four men who lived before and after the Deluge, who afterwards divided and possessed themselves of the four quarters of the world.” The fish was thus a divine figure in ancient Ireland, and the gods who were transformed into its shape did many wonderful acts of recovery of treasures. It (the Divine-Fish) surrounded by men in act of adoration is carved on the famous Cross of Keils, and it also forms a part of the pattern of other of the richly-sculptured crosses so characteristic of that early seat of art.
A figure of the god Vishnu, as given in Maurice’s “India,” is here reproduced. He is shown rising from the sea as a joint god and fish, crowned, and holding the sacred book he had recovered from the waters, in his right hand.
In Hindoo legends, the god Brahma is said to have appeared to Noah, in the form of a fish, for the purpose of instructing him in the preparation of his ark, and informing him as to the approaching Deluge; and he (Brahma) is said, in that form “to have conducted the ark of Menu [Noah] through the waters of the Deluge to a place of safety at the summit of the Himalayas.”
Dagon, or Oannes, the god of the Philistines, was represented in the form of a fish, much the same as Vishnu, and Fin, or Fintan, or Finian, and all had evidently one common origin. Oannes and Dag-on (the fish On) says Baring-Gould are “identical. According to an ancient fable, preserved by Berosus, a creature half man and half fish came out of ‘that part of the Erythraen sea which borders upon Babylonia,’ where he taught men the arts of life, ‘to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and, in short, instructed them in all things that tend to soften manners and humanise their lives; “and he adds, that a representation of this animal Oannes was preserved in his day. A figure of him sporting in the waves, and apparently blessing a fleet of vessels, was discovered in a marine piece of sculpture by M. Botta, in the excavations at Khorsabad. At Nimroud, a gigantic image was found by Mr. Layard, representing him with the and the body of the fish depending over his shoulders, his legs those of a man; in his left hand holding a richly-decorated bag, and his right hand upraised as if in the act of presenting the mystic Assyrian fir-cone.
This Oannes (or Dagon) is the Mizraimite On, and the Hebrew Aon, with a Greek case-termination derived from the root signifying “to illumine.” Aon was the original name of the god reverenced in the temple of Heliopolis, which in Scripture is called Beth-Aon, the house of On, as well as by its translation Beth-Shemesh, the house of the Sun. Not only does his name indicate his solar origin, but his representation with horned head-dress testifies to his nature. Ammon, Apis, Dionysos, are sun-gods; Isis, lo, Artemis, are moon-goddesses, and are all horned. Indeed, in ancient iconography, horns invariably connect the gods represented with the two great sources of light. Apparent exceptions, such as the Fauns, are not so in reality when subjected to close scrutiny. Civilising gods, who diffuse intelligence and instruct barbarians, are also solar deities, as the Egyptian Osiris, the Nabathaen Tammuz, the Greek Apollo, and the Mexican Quetzal-coatl; besides these, Oannes [or Dagon] takes his place as the sun-god, giving knowledge and civilisation. According to the fable related by Berosus, he came on earth each morning, and at evening plunged into the sea; this is a mythical description of the rising and setting of the sun. His semi-piscine form was an expression of the idea that half his time was spent above ground, and half below the waves.
In precisely similar manner the Semitic moon goddess, who followed the course of the sun, at times manifesting herself to the eyes of men, at others seeking concealment in the western flood, was represented as half woman, half fish, with characteristics which make her lunar origin indisputable. Her name was Derceto, or Atergatis, and she was identical with Mylitta, the universal Mother, or source of life.
This goddess “was esteemed by her votaries the same as Venus or Cupris;” she “was worshipped by the Phigalians, in Arcadia, by the name of Eurunome Diana; her statue was of great antiquity, and represented a woman as far as the middle, but from thence had the figuro of a fish.” Macrobius makes her “the mother of the gods;” and Bryant wisely concludes that this mermaid figure was a hieroglyphic of the Ark.
On the coins of Ascalon, Semiramis is represented as half woman and half fish, and at Joppa she is also represented as a mermaiden; the story being that she fled from Typhon, plunged into the sea, took the form of a fish, and thus preserved her incognito! The goddess of moisture (the Syrian Tirgata, and the Derceto of Palestine), was also depicted as a mermaid.
The various references to the Syrian Mermaid Goddess, says Mr. Keane, in an able summary, “correspond in a remarkable manner with our Irish legends, sculptures, and hagiology.” Bryant informs us that the Ark was styled Cetus (κήτος) which, with the prefix Der (the Oak), makes the Goddess Dercetus identical with our Irish Saint Darerca—the Oak of the Ark. The figure of the Arcadian Mermaid,
Eurunome Diana, corresponds exactly with the Mermaid of Clonfert—”a woman as far as the middle, but from thence had the figure of a fish.”
MERMAID OF CLONFERT.
In the metamorphoses of Dercetus into a fish, and of her daughter Semiramis into a pigeon, we have the Arkite tradition corresponding with the stories of the Irish Saints Culm, Dagan, Fintan, Liban, and Shanauu (the ancient Ana, the mother of the gods)—the same heathen legends preserved, though in a different form. It seems very clear that the Cuthite hieroglyphics of ancient historical facts were made the foundation of a corrupt mythology; and, subsequently, all of the mythology which here survived the lapse of ages, was metamorphosed into what we now call Irish hagiology.
In summing up the foregoing, we find evidence that the figure of a mermaid was anciently used as a hieroglyphic of the Ark of Noah. Bryant notices several emblematic devices, both male and female, which refer to the Deluge and its attendant circumstances. The female, in his opinion, represents the ship, the Ark, the mother of the gods, under various names; and the male, the man, Noah, etc. The ox and cow, as well as the mermaid and merman, are thus interpreted by him.
We find the Irish Mermaid Saint known by two names, the first, Liban, answering to the name of the crescent moon, a type of the Ark, the same as Cybele, Damater, etc. Next, we have her name Muirgen, answering to Moriogan, a female Tuath-de-Danaan divinity in Ireland. Then we have Fintan, the Antediluvian, whose appearance as a heathen Irish Druid answers exactly to the representation of the Assyrian Dagon; and we have his connection with the great Deluge, a mutter of record in Irish historical legend. We have the supposed Saint Darerca corresponding with Derceto, the Syrian goddess and mermaid—both names signifying The Oak of the Ark. The Mermaid Liban, answering to the goddess Labana, the Moon, Cybele, or Damater, and the goddess Derceto being the same as Damata, we may reasonably conclude that the Irish Saints Liban and Darerca represented the same original, i.e., the mermaid, as a hieroglyphic of the Ark, whose emblem was the crescent moon.
In classic iconography the Tritons, and in later art the Sirens, are represented half fish, half human. Originally the Sirens were winged, but after the fable had been accepted, which told of their strife with the Muses, and their precipitation into the sea, they were figured like mermaids; the fish-form was by them borrowed from Derceto. “The prevalence of tales of mermaids among Celtic populations indicates these water-nymphs as having been originally deities of those peoples; and I cannot but believe that the circular mirror they are usually represented as holding, is a reminiscence of the moon-disc. Bothe, in his Kronecke der Sassen, in 1492, described a god, Krodo, worshipped in the Hartz, who was represented with his feet on a fish, a wheel to symbolise the moon in one hand, and a pail of water in the other. As among the Northern nations the moon is masculine, its deity was male. Probably the Mexican Coxcox, or Teocipactli (i.e. Fish-god), was either a solar or a lunar deity. He was entitled Huehueton-acateo-cateo-cipatli, or Fish-god-of-our-flesh, to give him his name in full; he somewhat resembled the Noah of Sacred Writ; for the Mexican fable related that in a great time of flood, when the earth was covered with water, he rescued himself in a cypress trunk, and peopled the world with wise and intelligent beings. The Babylonish Oannes was also identified with a flood. The Peruvians had likewise their semi-fish gods, but the legend connected with them has not descended to our days. The North-American Indians relate that they were conducted from Northern Asia by a man-fish.”
We have seen that the Mermaid has in various countries, and in very early ages, been used as a hieroglyphic of the Ark, and as such had a Scriptural origin. Later on, as a Christian symbol, the fish came much into use, and from it, doubtless, arose, to some extent, the adoption of the fish-maiden and fish-man as Christian decorations. Of the fish, as a Christian emblem, it will be necessary to say a few words. The word ‘ΊΧΘΥΣ (Ichthus), is a symbol or acrostic, and is formed, as will be seen, of the initials of the five words—
(or, as it appears in more than one instance in the Catacombs of Rome)
that is “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour,’’ and is said to have been invented by the Christians of Alexandria, and to have been used till about the time of Constantine. St. Clement of Alexandria, and St. Augustine, both allude to it, as do also Tertullian and Origen. The fish (says Wal-cott) “represented man in the troublous waves of this mortal life; the fish, which had the tribute-money, typified, according to Optatus of Milevi, the offering of Christ for the world; and the fish broiled on the lake side of Galilee, in St. Augustine’s and Bede’s explanation, the suffering of Christ. Sometimes the fish bears on its back in the Catacombs, bread and wine, the ship of the Church, or the elements in two chests; or, when it is connected with baptism, a little child. When it represents a Christian it hangs on a hook, as if caught by the Apostolic “fishers of men;” or is attached to the anchor of the cross, or sacred monagram. Sometimes two fish, symbolical of the Churches of the Jew and Gentile, are portrayed. Portable fish were worn as “marks of their profession by the newly-baptised.” The Vesica Piscis, the well-known mystical symbol and form for ancient ecclesiastical seals, although literally “the bladder of the fish,” is often used for, and is actually given, as the fish itself it was so described by medieval writers. Emblematically, of course, the symbol is significant of the letters ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthus), a fish just named as containing the initial letters of the titles of our Saviour. It has, therefore, the same general origin as the other emblems of the fish.
The fish itself is often represented on the Sarcophagi of the Early Christians in the Catacombs of Rome, where, in some instances, it occurs in connection with the Sacred Monogram. Of this, Mr. Withrow, in his able work on the Catacombs says—”It is one of the oldest symbols in the entire hieratic cycle. It is found accompanying the first dated inscription which bears any emblem whatever (A.D. 234), and nearly a hundred examples occur which are attributed to the first three centuries. It also occurs in a Christiau Catacomb at Alexandria, and at Cyrone, in Upper Egypt; and is said to be first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. There appears (be continues) to have been an allusion in this figure to the ordinance of baptism.”
“We are little fishes,” says Tertullian, “in Christ, our great fish. For we are born in water, and can only be saved by continuing therein,” i.e., through the spiritual grace of which baptism is the visible sign. “This sign,” says Clement, “will prevent men from forgetting their origin;” and Optatus says—”He [Christ] is that fish which in baptism descends, in answer to prayer, into the baptismal font, so that what was before water, is now called, from the fish (a pisce) piscina.” “This sacred sign was also regarded as an emblem of the sufferings of our Lord, and the benefits of his Atonement. The Saviour, the Son of God, is a fish prepared in His passion, by whose interior remedies we are daily enlightened and fed,” says Prosper of Aquitania; and Augustine—”ΙΧΘΥΣ is the mystical name of Christ, because He descended alive into the depths of this mortal, as into the abyss of waters;” and Jerome — “The fish in whose mouth was the coin paid as tribute money was Christ, at the cost of whose blood all sinners were redeemed.” Thus, as Dr. North-cote observes, this symbol became a sacred tessera, embodying with wonderful brevity and distinctness a complete abridgment of the Creed, a profession of faith, as it were, to these both in the two natures and unity of person, and in the redemptorial offices of Our Blessed Lord. The three engravings on Plate XVIII., figs. 1 to 4, will show some of the forms of this very common, and more than usually expressive, symbol; and in connection with these I give a representation of a lamp (fig. 5, on the same plate), from the Catacombs. It bears the ichthyic symbol repeated, and on the handle is the sacred monogram of our Lord. I also give a representation, on fig. 6, of a bronze fish bearing the inscription, CwCAIC, Salva (“Save us”), which, taken in conjunction with the fish itself, as hieroglyph of Christ, reads “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour, Save us,” as an invocation.
It is not needful, however, now to write more upon the fish as a Christian emblem; but I have desired, by the bringing together of these various matters, to show there is an undoubted affinity between it and the fish-emblem of mythological deities.
The Vesica Pisces to which I have referred is, as every one is aware, “a pointed oval figure, formed by two equal circles cutting each other in their centres,” i.e., it is the same as two right angle triangles, which I have endeavoured to show on Plate XVIII, fig. 7.
The half of the figure is, of course, the equilateral pointed arch (fig. 8), which is considered to be the best proportioned of any pointed arch, and is commonly found in the Early English and Decorated styles. It is a “common form given to the Aureole, or Glory, or Nimbus,” by which the representation of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, and of our Blessed Lady, are surrounded in the paintings, sculptures, and carvings of the Middle Ages; this will be best understood by referring to fig. 9. The Vesica form took the place of the representation of the fish itself (fig. 10), and was used in sculpture, in stained glass, in tile pavements, in illuminated MS., in seals, on wood carvings, and, indeed, in all imaginable ways in Ecclesiastical decoration. It may even, as I have already hinted, have been the origin of the pointed arch itself. Thus to the fish, as a symbol, and the various ramifications of thought to which it has given rise, we owe many of the most interesting features connected with Ecclesiastical architecture, decoration, and history; while to the other fish story, the Mermaid, and its allegories, we are indebted for much curious matter of a far different kind.
Of the occurrence of the Mermaid in Ecclesiastical decoration, a few words will suffice. It is one of the most common of subjects on the carved misereres of our cathedrals and churches, and is also found sculptured on brackets, bosses, doorways, and capitals of pillars.
Mermaids from Misereres #1 (Plate XIX)
Mermaids from Misereres #2 (Plate XIX)
Mermaids from Misereres #3 (Plate XIX)
Of Mermaids, and their male companions—the Mermen—examples occur on the misereres at Winchester Cathedral, where the male figure grasps a fish in his left hand, while his spouse holds a comb in her left, the right hand of each being elevated; and in one place, at least—Lyons Cathedral—the family ties are completed by the addition of a mer-baby. In this the bearded merman is playing on the fiddle for the amusement of his scaly-tailed wife, who is crowned and very lovingly holds, in true maternal fashion, her child in her arms. At Chichester is a somewhat sad-looking attenuated mermaiden, holding a circular mirror in her right hand; and at Exeter is an elegant figure enclosed in a bower of foliage—fig-leaves evidently, as a sly hint of the mediaeval artist that they were needful to the nude fish-maiden—in which the lady is gracefully represented as grasping her own tail; another bears a mermaid grasping a fish; and another has a merman and mermaid holding a mirror between them. At Bristol Cathedral, one of the cleverest in drawing and conception of the whole series of misereres, represents a mermaid in an attitude of fear and surprise, both her arms upraised, and hands expanded, while a winged human-headed monster on one side, and a dragon or griffin on the other, arc attempting to seize her. At St. Albaus is a mermaid with comb and mirror. At Bakewell are a mermaid and merman, the former with mirror and comb, and a foliated tail; and at Boston is a very peculiar design, representing two men with hoods on their heads, in a boat, who arc evidently overcome by the sweet Syren-sounds of the mermaid who, pipe in hand, is seen risen from the sea, and playing close to the stern of the vessel.
At Beverley, is a mermaid with a fish; and the side carvings are the “Trinity of fish” (fig. 11), and another design of one fish swallowing another. Another form of “Trinity of fish,” formed by intersecting segments of circles, the one central head serving for the triune figure, is shown on fig. 12. To this part of my subject, the mermaid on misereres, I shall again have occasion to refer.
In Heraldry, the Mermaid forms a very far from uncommon feature, and occurs alike as a bearing on the shield, as a crest, and as a supporter. Heraldically, it is usually represented as the tail of a fish conjoined to the head, arms, and body of a fair maiden, with long flowing hair, and bearing in one hand a looking glass or mirror, and in the other a comb; or sometimes, as more in keeping with the character of a syren, playing on a harp. Boswell, in his curious old book, Workes of Armorie deuided into three Bookes, entituled, the Concordes of Armorie, the Armorie of Honor, and of Cotes and Creastes, 1597, thus speaks of “ Syrens or Mermaydens “ :—
“The field is Gules, a Mermaid, or Siren proper, playing on a Harpe d’Or. The Mermaid is a sea beast, wonderfully shapen. Isidore saith, Li. II. cap. 3, where he treateth De Portenis that there be 3. Syrens, somedeale Maidens, and somedeale soules, with wings and clees. One of them singeth with voice an other w shamble, and the third with Harpe. They please shipmen so greatly with their song, that they draw them to peril, and to shipwrack. The cause why they have wings and clees. Quia Amor and volat, & vulnerat. Secundem veritatem autē meretrices fuerunt, quae tranfeuntes, quoniam ad aegeftatē deducebant, his fictae funt inferre naufragia. In fluctibus commoraffe dicuntur, quia fluctus Venerem creauerunt. Phifiologus speaketh of Syrena, and saith, it is a beast of the sea, in shape wonderful, as a Maid from the Navel upward, and a fish from the Navel downward. This beast is glad, and merry in tempest, and heavy and sad in faire weather. Shee causeth shipmen to sleepe with the sweeteness of her song, and when she perceibeth them to be on sleepe, she entereth the ship, and so useth one of them whom she best liketh, as here is not to be spoken or beleebed.”
This accords very closely with some of the droll legends concerning Mermaidens, that are to be found in the productions of many of our old writers, and indeed are still current and implicitly believed in by some people. To these I shall call attention later on, and will now proceed to give a few instances out of many that might be cited, in which the Mermaid and Merman occur in armorial bearings.
Argent, a Mermaid, gules, crined, or, holding a mirror in her right hand and a comb in her left, or, is borne by the family of Ellys. In this instance, it will be seen, the maiden is depicted with a red body and golden hair. Other families of Ellis, Elys, or Alis, bear the Mermaid, the one “proper,” i.e., in natural colours, if such there be in a fabulous monster, and the other reversed from the first one, the field being red and the Mermaid silver. This latter bearing also pertained to the old family of Prestwick—Gules, a Mermaid, argent; comb and glass, or; the bearing of Prestwick being, Vert, a Mermaid attiring herself, argent, crined, or, holding a mirror and comb, also or. To this family belonged Dr. Anthony Ellys, Bishop of St. David’s (1752), whose arms were borne impaled with those of that see. The crest of the family was a Mermaid, gules, with hair, comb, and mirror, or. Over the entrance gates of the family mansion, another scaly crest, that of Symonds, a later owner, appears; it is a dolphin naiant and embowed, swallowing a fish.
Or, a Mermaid proper, comb, glass, and hair, of the field, is said, but this is false heraldry, to be the bearing of Lapp.
Vert, three Mermaids, two and one, each holding comb and mirror, or, were the arms granted to the family of Wollstonecraft in 1765.
Gules, three finned or winged Mermaids, or Syrens, argent, is borne by Basford.
Azure, a Mermaid, proper, with her mirror and comb, argent, swimming in the sea, in base, belongs to the family of Sesquiere. As supporters, the Mermaid is borne by—
Viscount Boyne.—Two Mermaids, proper, hair dishevelled, or, each holding in the exterior hand a mirror, also or.
Earl of Caledon. — Dexter, a Mermaid with a mirror in her right hand, proper.
Viscount Hood.—Dexter, a Merman holding in the right hand a trident; sinister, a Mermaid holding in her left hand a looking glass.
Earl of Howth.—Sinister, a Mermaid, proper, holding in her left hand a mirror.
Baron Littleton.—Two Mermen, proper, each holding in the exterior hand a trident, or.
Baron Polworth.—Sinister, a Mermaid, proper, holding in her sinister hand a mirror.
Sir Walter Scott.—Dexter, a Mermaid with long flowing hair, holding in her right hand a mirror.
John the Second, Duke of Bourbon.—Two Mermaids. The members of the Bourbon family also bore one or more Mermaids as supporters.
The arras of Sir J. Otway, Bart., have, for supporters, two Mermen (or tritons), proper, each crowned with a naval crown, or, and blowing a shell; over the shoulder and across the chest of each a wreath of red coral, and in the exterior hand a trident, reversed, sable. The armorial bearings themselves have on a chief, azure, an anchor erect, encircled by a wreath of laurel, or, between, on the dexter, a demi-Neptune, proper, issuant out of a naval crown, or; and on the sinister, a Mermaid.
Sir W. Cusack-Smith, Bart., bears, as one of his family crests, a Mermaid, sable, crined and garnished, or, and bearing in her dexter hand a mirror framed and handled, proper; and for supporters, on the dexter side, a Merman, sable, crined and garnished, or, bearing in his dexter hand a trident of the second; sinister, a Mermaid, sable, crined and garnished, or, and bearing in her dexter hand a mirror, proper, framed and handled, or. Thus, in this case, the scaly couple are black with golden hair and central adornment.
As a crest, in our own peerage, the Mermaid is borne by the holders of the title of Baron Byron, Baron Massereene, and the Earl of Portsmouth.
Among other instances in which the Mermaid is borne as a crest, are the families of—
Bonham.—A Mermaid, holding in her dexter hand a wreath of coral, and in the sinister a mirror, all proper.
O’Byrne.—A Mermaid holding in the dexter hand a comb, and in the sinister a mirror, rising out of a ducal coronet.
Myers.—A Mermaid, with long flowing hair, holding a mirror, framed and handled, in her right hand, and combing her hair with a comb held in her left band. This is shown in fig. 2, Plate III.
Mayer.—A Mermaid with comb and glass.
Mason.—A Mermaid with long flowing hair, holding a comb in her left hand with which she is combing her hair, and in her right hand a framed and handled mirror (fig. 1). This crest of the Mason family has, I may add, been utilised by Sir Josiah Mason as a trade mark for his steel pens.
Sykes.—A demi-Merman, wreathed about the temples with flags or reeds; issuing out of bull-rushes, flags, and reeds, and blowing upon a shell (fig. 3).
Azure, a Mermaid, argent, are the ancient arms of Giros and Hopton (and quartered by Corbet), and the same pertains to the ancient family of De la Mare or De la Mere, by whom, of course, it must have been assumed as an “allusive,” “canting,” or “punning” device. The Mermaid is still borne as the crest of the Mayer (Mare, Mere, or Meyer) family, and it is also in one way or other borne by those of Marbury, Bentley, Newsam, Wallop, Brewer, Skeffington, Sleeford, Moore, Champaigne, Wybury, Lazun, Broadhurst, Sepham, Hartings, Rutherford, Lapp, Johnsou, Bonham, Garneys, Basford, Thome, Newman, Lany, and many others.
THE MERMAID AND MERMAN IN HERALDRY.
The arms of the borough of Boston, in Lincolnshire, have, for supporters, two Mermaids, each crowned with a ducal coronet, and holding comb and framed and handled mirror. The arms of Montrose have, for supporters, two Mermaids, each of whom is represented combing her own hair. The Guild of the Trinity House, at Newcastle-on-Tyne, also has for supporting its arms two Mermaids. These are well shown on Plate IV., where it occurs on the monumental slab to William Bower, merchant, 1671, and his wife Thomasin Bower (who had preceded him in 1657), in Bridlington Church. He was probably one of the “brethren” of the Guild, and thus the Guild arms, as well as his own and his wife’s, were inserted on the slab.
As a badge, the Mermaid was adopted by the Berkeleys; and on the brass to Thomas, Lord Berkeley, A.D. 1392, at Wotton-under-Edge, in Gloucestershire, a collar composed of this badge (Mermaids), is represented as worn over the camail (fig. 4, Plate II.). On one of the stalls in Bristol Cathedral, is the remarkably finely carved shield of Berkely, surmounted by a mitre and having Mermaid supporters, shown on page 193 ante, at the head of the commencement of my article. On the seal of the Lord of Berkeley, temp. Edward III., the supporters to the shield are a Mermaid and a Merman.
1. From Lyons Cathedral.
2. From Winchester Cathedral.
3. From Pucé (Gironde).
4. Berkeley Badge.
5. From “Mermaid Tavern” Token.
The Mermaid was also used as a badge by the Black Prince, who, in his will, speaks of some of his devices as “Swans, Ladies’ Heads, and Mermaids of the Sea.” It was assumed in very pictorial fashion by Stefano Colonna, Lord of Palestrina (1548), whose device was a crowned Mermaid swimming on the sea, with body erect, playing on a harp, and passing between two columns (a punning device of the Colonna family), reminding one of the “pillars of Hercules,” and each surmounted with a crown; the motto being Con-temnit tuta procellas (“Safe, she despises storms”).
In our own day it has been very wisely and appropriately, as well as elegantly, adopted as the “badge” or ensign of the Brighton Aquarium Company. This artistically-drawn device is shown here, and represents the traditional Mermaid, but bearing, instead of mirror and comb, a huge sea shell.
As though this badge foreshadowed coming events, in the present year (1879), the “living Mermaid”—i.e., the manattee—has been added to the attractions of the collection, and has caused a “sensation” not only in the scientific and literary, but in the sight-seeing, world. Of this I shall have more to say later on.
In Alciatus’ Book of Emblems, 1551, is the highly interesting and characteristic engraving I am enabled here to reproduce.
[I owe thanks to Messrs. Trübner and Co., for the use of this and some other illustrations from my late friend, the Rev. Henry Green’s valuable volume, “Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers.”]
It there occurs with the following Latin stanza:
“Absque alis volucres & cruribus absque puellas,
Rostro absque, & pisces, qui tamen ore canant:
Quis putet esse vllos? iungi hœc natura negauit
Sirenes fieri sed potuisse docent.
Illictum est mulier, quce in piscem desinit atrum,
Plurima quód secum monstra libido vehit.
Aspectu, verbis, animi candore, trahuntur,
Parthenope, Ligia, Leucosiaq viri.
Has musœ explumant, has atquœ illudit Vlysses.
Scilicet est doctis cum mere-trice nihil.”
Upon which Witney thus poetically commented ;—
“Withe pleasaunte tunes, the Syrenes did allure,
Vlisses wise, to listen to theire songe:
But nothinge could his manlie harte procure,
He sailde awaie, and scap’d their charming stronge,
The face, he lik’de: the nether parte, did loathe.
For womans shape, and fishes had they bothe.
“Which showes to vs, when Bewtie seeks to snare
The carelesse man, whoe dothe no daunger dreede,
That he should flie, and shoulde in time beware,
And not on lookes, his fickle fancie feede:
Such Mairemaides liue, that promise onelie ioyes:
But hee that yeldes, at lengthe him selffe distroies.”
In the “Comedy of Errors” are the words :
“O, train me not, sweet Mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in the sister flood of tears:
Sing, Syren, for thyself, and I will dote:
Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And, as a bed I’ll take them, and there lie;
And, in that glorious supposition, think
He gains by death that hath such means to die.”
In Alciatus, 1584, the exquisite representation I have given at the head of this article, on page 9, occurs.
As a tavern and ale-house sign, the Mermaid is well-known, and has ever been held in repute. The famous hostelry, the “Mermaid Tavern,” in Cheapside (known as the “Mermaid in Chepe,” in “Bread Street,” and in “Friday Street,” and having an entry from each), is of historical renown, and others bearing the same sign have been of more or less note. As early as the fifteenth century (1464) this tavern, one of the haunts of the pleasure-seeking John Howard, the “Jocky of Norfolk” of Shakspeare, is often named in his household book. Thus “Item, the xxvij day of March, 1664. Payd for wyn at the Mermayd in Bred Stret, for my Mastyr and Syre Nycholas Latimer, xd. ob,” and so on. In 1603, the first literary club ever formed in England was established at that sign by Sir Walter Raleigh, and numbered “among its members, Shakspere, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Seiden, Carew, Martin, Donne, Colton,” and others.
“What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble and so full of subtle flame
As if that any one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest,
Of his dull life; then when there hath been thrown
Wit able enough to fill the town
For three days past; not that might warrant be
For the whole city to talk foolishly,
Till that were cancelled; and when that was gone
We left in air behind us, which alone
Was able to make the two next companies
(Right witty, though but downright fools) more wise.”
There were several taverns in the metropolis, and very many in the provinces, whose signs were the Mermaid, and it has continued to be used down to our own day. This being the case, of course it is but natural that, as a sign, it occurs, not unfrequently upon traders’ tokens of the seventeenth century. A description of two of these will suffice; and first, I choose that issued by the tavern of which I have been speaking. It is as follows :—
Obverse—AT YE MEAREMAYD. In the field, a Mermaid, with comb and glass (fig. 6, Plate II.).
Reverse—TAVERNE CHEAPESIDE In the field, the initials I.T.M.
Obverse-AT YE - MAREMADE - TWIXT - MILK STR - WOOD - STR - In the field, a Mermaid, body erect, on waves of the sea, holding in her right hand a mirror, and in her left a comb.
Reverse—HABERDASHER - SMALL - WARES - IN - CHEPSIDE – In the field, a merchant’s mark with the initials W. R.
It was also the sign of some celebrated printers. For instance, John Rastell “emprynted in the Cheapesyde at the sygne of the Meremayde, next to Poulysgate” in 1527; and Henry Binnemann, the Queen’s Printer, was at the “Mermaid” in Knight-rider Street, and used the “Mermaid” as his colophon.
The Mermaid is also occasionally found as a device upon mediaeval bells, and possibly some superstitious feeling akin to that which caused the fylfot to be used as a bell ornament, might have caused its adoption. Here is an excellent representation of the Mermaid, with comb and glass, from the bell at Appleby, in Derbyshire. The same device occurs on medieval paving tiles.
The Mermaid, as I have before remarked, is very commonly alluded to by our early writers—indeed it enters largely, both in its own name as Mermaid and in that of Syren, into both fable and legend of medieval times, and this not only in our own country, but, as was natural to expect, in all the nations of Western Europe. We had our Mermaid, or Syren; Scotland its White Lady; Germany its Ondine, or Nix; France its Siren; and the Netherlands their Neck, or Merminne, as water-spirits, and each bearing analogous features to the rest The figures the illuminators and old artists drew of these imaginary beings, equalled in extravagance of form the strange accounts they wrote of the habits and instincts and influences of the supposed creatures themselves. Here is a figure of a Merman, or Triton (as given by Rondelet), said to have been captured in 1531, and sent to the King of Poland, but which showed by signs that it desired to be returned to the water, and was accordingly thrown in again.
Next I give a representation of a fit companion to the last, a Mermaiden, said to have been caught “on the coast of the island of Borne or Beeren, in the Department of Amboyna. It was fifty-nine inches long, and as thick in proportion as an eel. It lived on land, in a tank full of water, four days and seven hours. From time to time it uttered little cries like those of a mouse. Nor would it eat, though little fishes were offered to it, shell-fish, crabs, shrimps, and the like.”
Here are two other “queer fish!” copied from Rondelet (1554), where they are of course given as actual and truthful portraits of real live animals! The first of these is the “Bishop,” said to have been captured in the British Channel in 1581; and the next, the “Monk,” caught in Norway, and so named because “it had the face of a man, but rustic and not very graceful, with a smooth shaven head; on the shoulders a kind of monk’s hood; two long fins instead of arms; the end of the body terminating in a long tail. The middle part was much broader, and assumed the form of a military breastplate.”
[For these two admirable woodcuts I have to express my thanks to Messrs. T. Nelson and Sons. They form part of a large number of exquisite illustrations to their truly interesting “Monsters of the Deep,” which has already been noticed in these pages, and of whose, excellence I cannot speak in too high terms of commendation.]
MONUMENTAL SLAB, BRIDLINGTON CHURCH.
( Continued from page 16.)
Mermaid stories, traditions, legends, and beliefs, the world is full; and it would indeed take a goodly sized volume to collect even a tithe of the best of them. But before proceeding, as I trust to do, to select here and there one or other of these stories, I desire to call attention to one of many remarkable instances in which the Mermaid was used as a lampooning emblem by medieval and other draughtsmen and writers. The most notable example that comes to my mind, of this use to which the fishy lady has been put, is that of Mary Queen of Scots, who was made the subject of many vile attacks by the unscrupulous limners and scribblers who disgraced the period in which she lived, and added pain to that already endured by the cruelly treated and deeply injured Queen.
On Plate IX., I give a facsimile of a remarkable satiric drawing, preserved in the State Paper Office, which was first brought into notice some years back in the Illustrated London News; it undoubtedly refers to the wretchedly used, and ultimately murdered, Queen, who is thereon represented as a mermaiden, holding in her hand a lure.
FACSIMILE OF SATIRICAL DRAWING TEMP ELIZABETH
In the State Paper Office
Agnes Strickland, in her lives of the Queens of Scotland, thus speaks :—
“ Among the cruel devices practised against Mary at this season by her cowardly assailants, was the dissemination of gross personal caricatures; which, like the placards charging her as an accomplice in her husband’s murder, were fixed on the doors of churches and other public places in Edinburgh. Rewards were vainly offered for the discovery of the limners by whom these treasonable painted tricks, as they were styled in their proclamations, were designed. Mary was peculiarly annoyed at one of these productions, called ‘The Mermaid,’ which represented her in the character of a crowned syren, with a sceptre formed of a fish’s tail in her hand, and flanked with the regal initials ‘M.R.’ This curious specimen of party malignity is still preserved in the State Paper Office.”
The drawing on Plate IX., fully, it will be seen, answers to this description, and shows clearly that it was the Scottish Queen who was intended to be symbolised. Shakspere in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, has this passage :—
“ Oberon. Thou remember’st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And hoard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
Puck. I remember.
Oberon. That very time I saw (but thou couldst not),
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid, all arm’d: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west;
And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts :
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on
In maiden meditation, fancy free.
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell :
It fell upon a little western flower ;—
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,—
And maidens call it, Love in Idleness.”
“No one disputes,” says a learned writer, “the application of the latter part of this most exquisite description to Queen Elizabeth; the question controverted is whether by
“The mermaid on a dolphin’s back”
is meant, as Warburton surmised, Mary Queen of Scots, and by the stars which shot madly from their spheres are figured the Duke of Norfolk, the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland, who fell from their allegiance by the witchery of this enchanting siren. Adopting the affirmative of Warburton’s hypothesis, the late Rev. J. Hunter has acutely shown that there is not a circumstance connected with the mermaid of the allegory to which something correspondent may not be found in the Scottish Sovereign. She has the “Dolphin” with her to symbolise her youthful marriage with the “ Dauphin “ of Franoe, and she was celebrated, like her counterpart, for the melody of her singing, no less than for the fatal fascination of that
“Dulcet and harmonious breath.”
The expression, that very time, which connects the two portions of the allegory, appears to show that a contrast was intended between the two Queens. At “ the very time “ when the Duke of Norfolk was aspiring to the hand of the Queen of Scots, and so shooting from his sphere, the Queen of England was urgently entreated to marry the Duke of Anjou. At “the very time” when at the seamaid’s music certain stars had empty left their orbs, the shaft aimed at the “fair vestal” fell hurtless, and she passed on, “in maiden meditation, fancy free.” “All this is strong presumptive evidence for the correctness of Warburton’s theory. But the most striking confirmation that could well be imagined is the drawing I have given. It was made apparently at the time when public attention was inflamed by the murder of Darnley and by the alliance of Mary with Both well, wherein the Queen of Scots is depicted as a Mermaid, and her lover, or betrayer, as a Hare. If its existence does not establish the identity of the poet’s sea-maid and the Queen of Scots, it shows that this typical designation of the Queen was popular, and adds to the probability of its adoption by a dramatist so prone as Shakspere was to the choice of imagery already familiar to his auditory. In this respect alone, then, it is of value; but it is, besides, historically interesting from the insight it affords of what in contemporary estimation were the characteristics of the Scottish Queen and Both well.” In the drawing the Mermaid is represented on a butcher’s block—a coarse allusion to one of the circumstances of her career, and she holds in her right hand not a “sceptre formed of a fish’s tail,” as Miss Strickland has it, but a hawk’s lure, which she waves aloft as luring, syren-like, her favourites to destruction; and in her left hand a lantern, in allusion to the fate of Darnley. On another sheet, bound up with the original drawing, the author has left a still cruder sketch of the same figures. In this, besides the initials M. R., to indicate the Queen, and J. H., to mark John Hepburn, there are, over the Mermaid, the words “Spe illecto inani” while round the inner ring which surrounds the hare, we read, “Fores vastabit te gladius et intus pavor.” And in the centre of the circle, just above the animal, may be deciphered, “Timor undique clades.”
The allusions to the Mermaid by Shakspere are tolerably numerous. Thus, among other instances that might be referred to besides the one just quoted, and the lines from the Comedy of Errors given on page 13 ante, the Queen in Hamlet is thus made to speak of Ophelia’s death—
“There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies, and herself,
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time, she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indu’d
Unto that element: but long it could not be,
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death;”
and again, “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaids shall;” “At the helm a seeming mermaid steers;” and so on.
Of Mermaid ballads, perhaps one old example and one modern one may be enough for my present article, and for that purpose I choose the following. It was first published by Finlay, having been taken down in “Auld lang syne,” from an oral version.
“To yon fause stream that, near the sea,
Hides mony an elf and plum,
And rives wi’ fearful din the stanes,
A witless knicht did come.
“The day shines clear—far in he’s gane
Whar shells are silver bright,
Fishes war loupin’ a’ aroun’,
And sparklin’ to the light.
“Whan, as he laved, sounds cam sae sweet
Frae ilka rock and tree;
The brief was out, ‘twas him it doomed
The mermaid’s face to see.
“Frae ‘neath a rock, sune, sune she rose,
And stately on she swam,
Stopped i’ the midst, and becked and sang
To him to stretch his han’.
“Gowden glist the yellow links
That round her neck she’d twine;
Her een war o’ the skyie blue,
Her lips did mock the wine;
“The smile upon her bonnie cheek
Was sweeter than the bee;
Her voice excelled the birdie’s sang
Upon the birchen tree.
“Sae couthie, couthie did she look,
And meikle had she fleeched;
Out shot his hand—alas! alas!
Fast in the swirl he screeched.
“The mermaid leuch, her brief was gane,
And kelpie’s blast was blawin’,
Fu’ low she duked, ne’er raise again,
For deep, deep was the fawin’.
“Aboon the stream his wraith was seen,
Warlochs tirled lang at gloamin’;
That e’en was coarse, the blast blew hoarse,
Ere lang the waves war foamin’.”
The modern poems I have selected, are, of course, Tennyson’s admirable “Merman” and “Mermaid,” than which nothing could be better.
“Who would be
A Merman bold,
Under the sea,
With a crown of gold
On a throne?
I would be a merman bold;
I would sit and sing the whole of the day;
I would fill the sea-halls with a voice of power;
But at night I would roam abroad and play
With the mermaids in and out of the rocks,
Dressing their hair with the white sea flower;
And holding them back by their flowing locks,
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they kiss’d me,
And then we would wander away, away
To the pale green sea-groves straight and high,
Chasing each other merrily.
There would be neither moon nor star;
But the wave would make music above us afar—
Low thunder and light in the magic night—
Neither moon nor star.
We would call aloud in the dreamy dells,
Call to each other and whoop and cry,
All night, merrily, merrily;
They would pelt me with starry spangles and shells,
Laughing and clapping their hands between,
All night, merrily, merrily.
But I would throw to them back in mine
Turkis and agate and almondine:
And leaping out upon them unseen
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they’d kissed me
Oh! what a happy life were mine,
Under the hollow-hung ocean green!
Soft are the moss-beds under the sea,
We would live merrily, merrily.
Who would be
A Mermaid fair,
Combing her hair,
Under the sea,
In a golden curl,
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?
I would be a mermaid fair;
I would sing to myself the whole of the day;
With a comb of pearl I would comb my hair,
And still as I comb’d I would sing and say
“Who is it loves me ? who loves not me?”
I would comb my hair till my ringlets would fall
Low adown, low around.
From under my starry sea-bud crown,
Low adown, low adown,
And I should like a fountain of gold
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea,
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps,
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
And all the mermen under the sea,
Would feel their immortality
Die in their hearts for the love of me.
But at night I would wander away, away,
I would fling on each side my low-flowing locks,
And lightly vault from the throne and play
With the mermen in and out of the rocks:
We would run to and fro, and hide and seek,
On the broad sea-wolds in the crimson shells,
Whose silvery spikes are nighest the sea.
But if any came near I would call, and shriek,
And adown the steep like a wave I would leap
From the diamond-ledges that jut from the dells;
For I would not be kiss’d by all who would list,
Of the bold merry mermen under the sea;
They would sue me, and woo me, and flatter me,
In the purple twilights under the sea;
But the king of them all would carry me,
Woo me, and win me, and marry me,
In the branching jaspers under the sea;
Then all the dry pied things that be
In the hueless mosses under the sea
Would curl round my silver feet silently,
All looking up for the love of me.
And if I should carol aloud, from aloft
All things that are forked, and horned, and soft,
Would lean out from the hollow sphere of the sea,
All looking down for the love of me.
One of the choicest examples of Mermaid jewellery that has come under my notice, is the one I have drawn on Plate X.
MERMAID JEWEL BELONGING TO LORD LONDESBOROUGH.
This remarkable jewel, which belongs to Lord Londesborough, represents a mermaid holding a comb in her right hand, and in the left, which is uplifted, a mirror. The chain by which she is suspended is enamelled, and enriched with diamonds and emeralds, and is of a high order of workmanship. On her head is a tiara of emeralds, and there is another upon her bosom, with bands of blue enamel. An oval ornament covers the middle of her body from her breasts downwards, and is enriched with emeralds placed in the form of a cross, the central one being larger than the others, and by scrolls enamelled in red, blue, and white; this oval portion opens as a lid, and discloses the hollow body of the figure, which has, of course, been intended to hold some precious relic or other little treasure. The tail is richly enamelled in red, green, and purple, and is set with emeralds, as is also the back of the figure.
And now, to pass on from the poetry to the prose of Mermaids, let me recount one or two out of scores that might be adduced of actual encounters that are said to have taken place with these mermaidens. When Captain John Smith, in 1614, led an expedition to America, he saw, near the new continent, a graceful and most lovely woman swimming in the sea. Her eyes were large, expressive, and beautiful, and full of love; her nose and ears were well made; her green hair, long, silken and flowing, and her arms, breast, and body perfect as nature could make them, and “wondrous to behold.” The captain at this sight naturally at once fell in love with the beautiful creature, who he believed to be really a lovely woman out bathing in the ocean. Manning his boat, he rowed out in pursuit of the fairy-like enchantress, and rapidly approached her. On coming near, however, the lady immediately “made a somersault, and discovered to her admirer a fish’s tail” —much to his chagrin and disappointment—as she dived down into the mighty deep.
In a “Tour to Milford Haven,” by Mrs. Morgan, in 1791, occurs the following singular and romantic account :—
“If you delight in the marvellous, I shall now present you with a tale that is truly so; and yet, from the simple and circumstantial manner in which it was told by the person who believed he saw what is here related, one would almost be tempted to think there was something more than imagination in it. However, I will make no comments upon the matter, but give it yon exactly as I copied it from a paper lent me by a young lady who was educated under the celebrated Mrs. [Hannah] More, and who has acquired a taste for productions of the pen, and likewise for whatever may be deemed curious. Mrs. M------ inquired of the gentleman who took down the relation from the man’s own mouth, a physician of the first respectability, what credit might be given to it. He said the man was of that integrity of character, and of such simplicity also, that it seemed difficult to believe he should be either able or willing to fabricate this wonderful tale. Farther the doctor was silent, and so am I.
“Henry Reynolds, of Pennyhold, in the parish of Castlemartin, in the county of Pembroke, a simple farmer, and esteemed by all who knew him to be a truth-telling man, declares the following most extraordinary story to be an absolute fact, and is willing, in order to satisfy those who will not take his bare word for it, to swear to the truth of the same. He says he went one morning to the cliffs that bound his own lands, and form a bay near Linny Stack. From the eastern end of the same he saw, as he thought, a person bathing very near the western end, but appearing, from almost the middle up, above water. He, knowing the water to be deep in that place, was much surprised at it, and went along the cliffs, quite to the western end, to see what it was. As he got towards it, it appeared to him like a person sitting in a tub. At last he got within ten or twelve yards of it, and found it then to be a creature much resembling a youth of sixteen or eighteen years of age, with a very white skin, sitting in an erect posture, having, from somewhat about the middle, its body quite above the water; and directly under the water there was a large brown substance, on which it seemed to float. The wind being perfectly calm, and the water quite clear, he could see distinctly, when the creature moved, that this substance was part of it. From the bottom there went down a tail much resembling that of a large Conger Eel. Its tail in deep water was straight downwards, but in shallow water it would turn it on one side. The tail was continually moving in a circular manner. The form of its body and arms was entirely human, but its arms and hands seemed rather thick and short in pro-portion to its body. The form of the head, and all the features of the face, were human also; but the nose rose high between its eyes, was pretty long, and seemed to terminate very sharp. Its head was white like its body, without hair; but from its forehead there arose a brownish substance, of three or four fingers’ breadth, which turned up over its head, and went down over its back, and reached quite into the water. This substance did not at all resemble hair, but was thin, compact, and flat, not much unlike a ribbon. It did not adhere to the back part of its head, or neck, or back; for the creature lifted it up from its neck, and washed under it. It washed frequently under its arms and about its body; it swam about the bay, and particularly round a little rock which Reynolds was within ten or twelve yards of. He staid about an hour looking at it. It was so near him, that he could perceive its motion through the water was very rapid; and that, when it turned, it put one hand into the water, and moved itself round very quickly. It never dipped under the water all the time he was looking at it. It looked attentively at him and the cliffs, and seemed to take great notice of the birds flying over its head. Its looks were wild and fierce; but it made no noise, nor did it grin, or in any way distort its face. When he left it, it was about an hundred yards from him; and when he returned with some others to look at it, it was gone. This account was taken down by Doctor George Ρ ------ , [Phillips] of Prickerston [Haverfordwest], from the man’s own mouth, in presence of many people, about the latter end of December, 1782.”
The reports that at one period or other have been published of the actual appearance of Mermaidens are numerous, and, in many instances, as circumstantial and startling as those of encounters with, and visions of, sea-serpents, or other monstrosities; and in not a few instances, the “queer-fish” of a Mermaid has actually been publicly exhibited and believed in by hosts of people. Among others, that “prince of showmen” and maker or “bringer-out” of marvels and monsters, Barnum, exhibited one—a disgusting-looking object—some years ago, “which proved on examination to be an ingenious combination of the head of a monkey with the tail of fish!”
One was exhibited in Piccadilly, in 1824, and at a penny show in St. Bartholmew’s Fair in the following year. Like Barnum’s later example, “this imposition was a hideous combination of a dried monkey’s head and body, and the tail of a fish,” believed to have been manufactured on the coast of China, and exhibited as the product of the seas there. We are told that when this made-up creature was first shown in London, it was of all things the one that attracted attention of sight seers. Even when the price of admission to see it alone, was a shilling (this was in 1822), it was spoken of as being “now the great source of attraction in the British Metropolis; and three to four hundred people every day pay their shilling each, to see a disgusting sort of a compound animal, which contains in itself everything that is odious and disagreeable;” and, although naturalists and journalists fully exposed the imposture, we are at the same time assured that “this circumstance does not appear to affect the exhibition, which continues crowded as ever.” Of this “compound animal” Cruikshank made an etching, which is now, I believe, like many others of his productions, very rare. It is shown on the accompanying engraving, and certainly does not convey to us an idea of feminine beauty; nor could we fancy that such a mouth could produce “syren notes” “of dulcet sweetness,” or such features tempt even seamen to dive down into the deep in pursuit!
An earlier example, exhibited in London a century-and-half ago, was thus advertised at the time (January 23rd, 1788), in “The London Daily Post, and General Advertiser” :—
“To be SEEN, Next Door to the Crown Tavern in Threadneedle Street, behind the Royal Exchange, at One Shilling each. The Surprising Fish or Maremaid, taken by eight Fishermen on Friday the 9th of September last, at Topsham Bar near Exeter, and has been shewn to several Gentlemen and those of the Faculty in the cities of Exeter, Bath, and Bristol, who declare never to have seen the like; so remarkable is this Curiosity among the Wonders of Creation. This uncommon Species of Nature represents from the Collar-bone down the Body, what the Antiente call’d a Maremaid; has a Wing to each Shoulder, like those of a Cherubim mention’d in History: with regular Ribs, Breasts, Belly, Thighs, and Feet, of a human Position, the Joints thereto having their proper Motions, and to each Thigh a Fin; the Tail resembles a Dolphin’s, which turns up to the Shoulders, the fore-Part of the Body very smooth, but the skin of the Back rough; the back Part of the Head like a Lyon, has a large Mouth, sharp Teeth, two Eyes, Spout-holes, Nostrils, and a thick Neck.”
In the beginning of the present century, Mr. Lawrence Edmonston, a surgeon of Zetland, wrote, that “an animal answering to the following description, so far as the account of six fishermen, who captured it can be depended on, was actually in their possession for three hours, but unluckily, from some superstitious dread of injuring it, they returned it to its native element, and thus prevented the scientific identification of an animal, which appears very nearly to have resembled what has been generally regarded as a merely fabulous creation. Length of the animal, three feet; body without scales or hair; silver grey above, whitish below, like the human skin; no gills were observed; no fins on the back or belly; tail like that of a dogfish; body very thick over the breast; by the eye, the girth might be between two and three feet; the neck short, very distinct from the head and shoulders; the body rather depressed; the anterior extremities very like the human hand, about the length of a seal’s paw, “webbed to about an inch of the ends of the fingers; mammœ as large as those of a woman; mouth and lips very distinct, and resembling the human.”
Speaking of these made-up monstrosities, the writer of an admirable book, “Monsters of the Deep” [Published by T. Nelson & Sons, and noticed in the “Reliquary,” vol. XVI., p.66.] —a book of extreme interest, well written, characterised by deep research, and in every way admirable—says “We are not speaking here of the so-called remains of Sirens, ‘cooked up’ and manufactured by skilful speculators on the public credulity. Thus, a fisherman on the coast of British India made a fictitious Siren, by joining together the upper part of the body of an ape, and the lower part of that of a large fish. With so much skill were the different parts united, that it was very difficult to detect the cheat. The fisherman made a public exhibition of it, and to draw forth the liberality of his visitors, asserted that those who touched the Siren would be cured of their diseases. The crowd flocked to the show, and eventually a European acquired the Siren for a large sum, and transported it to Europe at the beginning of the present century. The speculation, at first a success, was afterwards forgotten, but not long ago the same monster again made its appearance in the curious museum of Barnum. It is probable that the famous Siren of the Leyden Museum, which is still exhibited, owes its origin to some trick of an analagous character. The same may be said of that at the Hague.
“To impose upon sight-seekers and wonder-lovers, use has also been made of the dried skin of a hideous fish, one of the Raiidae, the baudroie. The peculiar fins have been metamorphosed with special success into the hands of men; and we acknowledge that, in the eyes of a superficial observer, they might easily be mistaken for human members.”
I, myself, remember well in my younger days, now more than fifty years ago, a Mermaid, so-called, being taken about the country for exhibition. It was in Derbyshire I saw it, and it was brought, not only from town to town, and village to village, but even, in some instances, from house to house. I know it was brought to my father’s door, and we had therefore a good opportunity of seeing the creature in all her dried up and shrivelled deformity. The head seemed more like that of a mummied cat than anything I can now liken it to, and the body and limbs, in which, by-the-bye, stitches of tolerable size were plainly visible, but which we were told were simply the necessity attendant upon “stuffing” the dried skin, and not the attaching of part of one animal to another. The body was, I suppose, fish-skin, but to me it appeared as though formed of old parchment, and the whole thing was so rubbed, and crumpled, and “messed,” that no trace of beauty or symmetry, if it ever had any, remained.
“This morning,” wrote Hudson, in his account of his voyage, centuries ago, “one of our company looking overboard saw a Mermaid; and calling up some of the company to see her, one more came up, and by that time she was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly at the men. A little after, a sea came and overturned her. From the navel upwards, her back and breasts were like a woman’s, as they say that saw her; her body as big as one of us, her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind, of colour black. In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, speckled like a mackarel. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Bobert Beyuer.”
The legends by which Mermaids are connected with certain localities are tolerably numerous, and many of them very curious. Thus, among the lands in Babwell Fen, “belonging to the manor of Fornham All Saints, are the Bell Meadow and Mermaydon Field, or Long Sponge.” In the latter are certain store-ponds of the Abbots of St. Edmund’s, called the Mermaid Pits, where some lovesick maid is said to have perished. A couple more instances will be all I shall need to give as examples of these localities.
In the Peak of Derbyshire is a so-called “Mermaid’s Pool;” and in the adjoining county of Stafford, near Leek, is another pool of the same name. The legend connected with the first of these, in the neighbourhood of Chapel-en-le-Frith, has been well told by my friend Henry Kirke, in a former volume of the Reliquary, [Vol. IX., p. 49.] but will bear referring to again on the present occasion.
. . . . . . . . . . . pool, dark and mysterious,
Shadowed by blackened rocks, and sedges drear,
is described as one in or around which no living creature or plant will flourish, and whose waters no animal will drink, and from whose confines all people shrink as from an unholy place, or from a spot where pestilence is rife :—
With solemn awe the lonely shepherd treads
Past the weird margin of the mountain’s tarn.
Fearing the sprite that dwells within its depths.
And rot, and ague, and a thousand ills
He thinks such fearsome folks are wont to gire
To those that trespass on their sovereignty.
But one there was, a sprightly lad and tall,
And gifted with a face in which for mastery
Action and thought seemed always combating
Who always felt attracted to the pool,
And sat for many hours plumbing its depth
With anxious eyes; but nought saw he therein
Save the reflection of his comely face.
Warning he had full oft from wiser men
To meddle not in such a dangerous quest,
Nor seek for death where death was surely found :
For ‘tis believed that on a certain eve
When summer fruits are ripe, and in the sky
The stars can scarcely light their shining lamps,
And the soft air is strangely musical
With the faint hum of fairy merriment,
A maiden, strangely fair, but strangely formed,
Rises from out the pool, and by her songs
And heavenly beauty lures to shameful death
The luckless wight who hears her melodies.
But youth is curious, and the shepherd lad
Longed with intense desire to see the maid.
He dreamt of her by night, her white arms seemed
To lock him in a clinging, fond embrace;
She haunted him by day as moodily
He watched beside the pool, and seemed to see
In each reflected cloud her drapery.
At last the night arrived, the sun just dipped
His rosy fingers in the pathless sea,
Leaving the world not dark, but hardly light;
The waning stars scarce marked the azure sky,
And zephyrs gently cooled the heated earth:
‘Twas just the hour when night and morning meet,
When, watching still, the boy sat eagerly,
On a huge stone that darkened all the pool ;
When suddenly the wave gleamed fitfully
With sudden light, as in the tropic seas
The lambent waves shine with phosphoric glare,
And brighter grew the water, and the air
Was filled with music ravishingly sweet.
With open mouth and eager starting eyes
The youth stood gazing at these mysteries,
And saw from out the troubled waves arise
A maiden, clothed alone in loveliness;
Her golden hair fell o’er her shoulders white,
And curled in amorous ringlets round her breasts;
Her eyes were melting into love, her lips
Had made the very roses envious;
With all a voice so full, and yet so clear,
So tender, made for loving dialogues.
And, then, she sang—sang of undying love
That waited them within her coral groves
Beneath the deep blue sea, and all the bliss
That mortals made immortal could enjoy,
Who lived with her in sweet community.
She sang, and stretching out her rounded arms,
She bade him leap and take her for his own—
With one wild cry he leapt, and with a splash
That roused the timid moorhen from her nest,
Sank ‘neath the darkling wave for evermore.
The one near Leek, the “Black Mere of Morridge,” or the “Mermaid Pool”—
“A lake that with prophetick noise doth roar,
Where beasts can ne’er be forced to venture o’er;
By hounds or men, or fleeter death pursued.
They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood” —
has more than one legend attached to it — some of “dark deeds of mystery and blood” (one of these is pretty similar in its incidents to the famous story of “Mary the Maid of the Inn,”) and others of frights and supernatural appearances, as well as one in which a Mermaid figures as an alluring and destructive syren. “The water of the Black Mere,” wrote Plot, “is not so bad as some have fancied, and I take it to be nothing more than such as that in the peat pits, though it be confidently reported that no cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.” Despite this, there has for generations been a firmly rooted belief in the minds of the people about there that the place is the abode of a Mermaid, who does her best (and now and then has succeeded) to lure wayfarers’ and loiterers’ to destruction. Many, down to this day, indeed, affirm they have seen this fish-tailed lady and heard her voice. It is said that some years ago, when the water in the “pool” was partially “let off” for some purpose or other, the Mermaiden appeared, and warned the operators that, should the water be ever allowed to escape, “it would drown all Leek and Leek-Frith!” From the popular legend in connection with this pool, the inn in the neighbourhood takes its sign of the “Mermaid.”
One of the most deliciously told stories of the union of a Mermaiden, Mel usina, with Raymond, adopted son of Emmerick, Count of Poitou, is given by Baring-Gould, in his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, and to this story, and others connected with the subject on which I am treating, I earnestly and cordially refer my readers; they will gain much pleasure, as well as profit, from the perusal of that excellent book.
I have, however, no need to pursue the subject further. To collect together even a tithe of the Mermaid tales that have, at one time or other, obtained credence, and even popularity, would fill a goodly volume. I therefore bring my disjointed notes to a close, and, in doing so, would simply express a hope that what I have in this and my preceeding three papers on the subject, thrown together, may have been not only interesting to my readers, but to some extent useful in calling attention to the literary, artistic, and legendary value of the Mermaid as an emblem and as a source of ornament.
Winster Hall, Derbyshire.