Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  English Folklore  Index  Previous  Next 


MORE than a hundred years since, on a fine summer day, when the sun shone brilliantly from a cloudless sky, an old man from the parish of Cury, or, as it was called in olden time, Corantyn, was walking on the sands in one of the coves near the Lizard Point. The old man was meditating, or at least he was walking onward, either thinking deeply, or not thinking at all --.that is, he was "lost in thought "--when suddenly he came upon a rock on which was sitting a beautiful girl with fair hair, so long that it covered her entire person. On the in-shore side of the rock was a pool of the most transparent water, which had been left by the receding tide in the sandy hollow the waters had scooped out. This young creature was so absorbed in her occupation,--arranging her hair in the watery mirror, or in admiration of her own lovely face, that she was unconscious of an intruder.

The old man stood looking at her for some time ere he made up his mind how to act. At length he resolved to speak to the maiden. "What cheer, young one?" he said; "what art thee doing there by thyself then, this time o' day?" As soon as she heard the voice, she slid off the rock entirely under the water.

The old man could not tell what to make of it. He thought the girl would drown herself, so he ran on to the rock to render her assistance, conceiving that in her fright at being found naked by a man she had fallen into the pool, and possibly it was deep enough to drown her. He looked into the water, and, sure enough, he could make out the head and shoulders of a woman, and long hair floating like fine sea-weeds all over the pond, hiding what appeared to him to be a fish's tail. He could not, however, see anything distinctly, owing to the abundance of hair floating around the figure. The old man had heard of mermaids from the fishermen of Gunwalloe; so he conceived this lady must be one, and he was at first very much frightened. He saw that the young lady was quite as much terrified as he was, and that, from shame or fear, she endeavoured to hide herself in the crevices of the rock, and bury herself under the sea-weeds.

Summoning courage, at last the old man addressed her, "Don't 'e be afraid, my dear. You needn't mind me. I wouldn't do ye any harm. I 'm an old man, and wouldn't hurt ye any more than your grandfather."

After he had talked in this soothing strain for some time, the young lady took courage, and raised her head above the water. She was crying bitterly, and, as soon as she could speak, she begged the old man to go away.

"I must know, my dearie, something about ye, now I have caught ye. It is not every day that an old man catches a merry-maid, and I have heard some strange tales of you water-ladies. Now, my dear, don't 'e be afraid, I would not hurt a single hair of that beautiful head. How came ye here?" After some further coaxing she told the old man the following story:-- She and her husband and little ones had been busy at sea all the morning, and they were very tired with swimming in the hot sun; so the merman proposed that they should retire to a cavern, which they were in the habit of visiting in Kynance Cove. Away they all swam, and entered the cavern at mid-tide. As there was some nice soft weed, and the cave was deliciously cool, the merman was disposed to sleep, and told them not to wake him until the rise of the tide. He was soon fast asleep, snoring most lustily. The children crept out and were playing on the lovely sands; so the mermaid thought she should like to look at the world a little. She looked with delight on the children rolling to and fro in the shallow waves, and she laughed heartily at the crabs fighting in their own funny way. "The scent from the flowers came down over the cliffs so sweetly," said she, "that I longed to get nearer the lovely things which yielded those rich odours, and I floated on from rock to rock until I came to this one; and finding that I could not proceed any further, I thought I would seize the opportunity of dressing my hair." She passed her fingers through those beautiful locks, and shook out a number of small crabs, and much broken sea-weed. She went on to say that she had sat on the rock amusing herself until the voice of a mortal terrified her, and until then she had no idea that the sea was so far out, and a long dry bar of sand between her and it. "What shall I do? what shall I do? Oh! I'd give the world to get out to sea! Oh ! oh! what shall I do?"

The old man endeavoured to console her; but his attempts were in vain. She told him her husband would "carry on" most dreadfully if he awoke and found her absent, and he would be certain of awaking at the turn of the tide, as that was his dinnertime. He was very savage when he was hungry, and would as soon eat the children as not, if there was no other food at hand. He was also dreadfully jealous, and if she was not at his side 's'hen he awoke, he would at once suspect her of having run off with some other merman. She begged the old man to bear her out to sea. If he would but do so, she would procure him any three things he would wish for. Her entreaties at length prevailed; and, according to her desire, the old man knelt down on the rock with his back towards her. She clasped her fair arms around his neck, and locked her long finny fingers together on his throat. He got up from the rock with his burthen, and carried the mermaid thus across the sands. As she rode in this way, she asked the old man to tell her what he desired.

"I will not wish," said he, "for silver and gold, but give me the power to do good to my neighbours: first, to break the spells of witchcraft; next, to charm away diseases; and thirdly, to discover thieves, and restore stolen goods."

All this she promised he should possess; but he must come to a half-tide rock on another day, and she would instruct him how to accomplish the three things he desired. They had reached the water, and taking her comb from her hair, she gave it to the old man, telling him he had but to comb the water and call her at any time, and she would come to him. The mermaid loosened her grasp, and sliding off the old man's back into the sea, she waved him a kiss and disappeared. At the appointed time the old man was at the half-tide rock,--known to the present time as the Mermaid's Rock,--and duly was he instructed in many mysteries. Amongst others, he learned to break the spells of witches from man or beast; to prepare a vessel of water, in which to show to any one who had property stolen the face of the thief; to charm shingles, tetters, St Antony's fire, and St Vitus's dance; and he learnt also all the mysteries of bramble leaves, and the like.

The mermaid had a woman's curiosity, and she persuaded her old friend to take her to some secret place, from which she could see more of the dry land, and of the funny people who lived on it, "and had their tails split, so that they could walk." On taking the mermaid back to the sea, she wished her friend to visit her abode, and promised even to make him young if he would do so, which favour the old gentleman respectfully declined. A family, well known in Cornwall, have for some generations exercised the power of charming, &c. They account for the possession of this power in the manner related. Some remote great-grandfather was the individual who received the mermaid's 'comb, which they retain to the present day, and show us evidence- of the truth of their being supernaturally endowed. Some people are unbelieving enough to say the comb is only a part of a shark's jaw. Sceptical people are never lovable people.

Next: The Mermaid's Vengence