MERRYMAIDS AND MERRYMEN.
THE "merry-maids" of the Cornish fishermen and sailors possess the well-recognised features of the mermaid. The Breton ballad, quoted by Mr Keightley, relating to the Morgan (sea-women) and the Morverch (sea-daughters), peculiarly adapts itself to the Cornish merry.maid.
"Fisher, hast thou seen the mermaid combing her hair, yellow as gold, by the noontide sun, at the edge of the water?"
"I have seen the fair mermaid; I have also heard her singing her songs plaintive as the waves."
The Irish legends make us acquainted with the amours of men with those sea-sirens. We learn that the Merrows, or Moruachs, came occasionally from the sea, and interested themselves in the affairs of man. Amongst the fragments which have been gathered, here a pebble and there a pebble, along the Western coast, will be found similar narratives.
The sirens of the Aegean Sea--probably the parents of the medieval mermaid--possess in a pre-eminent degree the beauty and the falsehood of all the race. Like all other things, even those mythical creations take colour from that they work in, like the dyer's hand. The Italian mermaid is the true creature of the romance of the sunny South; while the lady of our own southern seas, although she possesses much in common with her Mediterranean sister, has less poetry, but more human sympathy. - The following stories, read in connection with those given by Mr Keightley and by Mr Croker, will show this. [a]
'When, five-and-thirty years since, I spent several nights in a fisherman's cottage on a south-western coast, I was treated to many a "long yarn" respecting mermaids seen by the father and his sons in the southern ocean. The appearance of those creatures on our own shores, they said, was rare; but still they knew they had been seen. From them I learned of more than one family who have received mysterious powers from the sea-nymphs; and I have since heard that members of those families still live, and that they intimate to their credulous friends their firm belief that this power, which they say has been transmitted to them, was derived, by some one of their ancestors, from merman or mer-maiden.
Usually those creatures are associated with some catastrophe; but they are now and then spoken of as the benefactors of man.
One word more. The story of "The Mermaid's Vengeance" has been produced from three versions of evidently the same legend, which differed in many respects one from the other, yet agreeing in the main with each other. The first I heard at the Lizard, or rather at Coverach; the second in Sennen Cove, near the Land's End; the third at Perranzabaloe. I have preferred the last locality, as being peculiarly fitted for the home of a mermaid story, and because the old man who told the tale there was far more graphic in his incidents; and these were strung more closely together than either of the other stories. [b]
[a] See "The Fairy Family: a Series of Ballads and Metrical Tales Illustrating the Fairy Mythology of Europe," Longman, 1857; "The Fairy Mythology, Illustrative of the Romance and Superstitions of Various Countries," by Thomas Keightley; and "Irish Fairy Legends," by Crofton Croker.
[b] The following extract from a letter from an esteemed correspondent shows the existence of a belief in those fabled creations of the ocean amongst an extensive class of the labouring population of Cornwall. There is so much that is characteristic in my correspondent's letter that it is worth preserving as supporting the evidence of the existing belief:"
I had the chance of seeing what many of our natives firmly beleved to be that family. Some fourteen years ago I found myself, with about fifty emigrants in the Gulf of St Lawrence, on beard the old tub Resolution, Captain Davies, commander. We were surounded in a fog so thick that you might cut it like a cheese, almost all the way from the Banks to Anticosti. One morning, soon after sunrise, when near that island, the fog as thick as night overhead, at times would rise and fall on the shore like the tantalising stage curtain. All at once there was a clear opening right through the dense clouds which rested on the water, that gave us a glimpse of the shore, with the rocks covered with what to us appeared very strange creatures. In a minute, the hue and cry from stem to stern, among all the cousin Johnnys, was 'What are they, you? What are they, you!' Somebody gave the word mermaids. Old men, women, and children, that hadn't been out of their bunks for weeks, tore on deck to see the mermaids, when, alas! the curtain dropped, or rather closed, and the fair were lost to sight, but to memory dear: for, all the way to Quebec, those not lucky enough to see the sight bothered the others out of their lives to know how they looked, and if we saw the comb and glass in their hands. The captain might as well save his breath as tell them that the creatures they saw on the rocks were seals, walruses, and sea-calves. 'Not yet, Captain dear, you won't come that over me at all; no, not by a long chalk! no, not at all, I can tell'e! I know there are mermaids in the sea; have heard many say so who have sees them too! but as for sea-calves, I ain't such a calf nor donkey neither as to believe ut. There may be a few of what we call soils (seals) for all I know; perhaps so, but the rest were flier-maidens.' No doubt, centuries hence, this story of the mermaidens will be handed down with many additions, in the log-huts of the Western States."