The coastal landscape is shrouded in eerie mystery. Sea mists, tempestuous waters, dramatic scenery and unearthly sounds lend themselves to many a tale that send a shiver down the spine. There can’t be many coastal towns or fishing villages that don’t have a malevolent mermaid, tormented spirit, drowned bell or mysterious sound in their folklore.
Of mermaids and selkies
Tales of beautiful temptresses luring unsuspecting mariners to an early grave with their honeyed voices have existed for thousands of years. The Greek myths speak of the sirens who used their enchanting songs to captivate passing sailors and draw them towards the deadly rocks surrounding their island. Usually portrayed as beautiful young women, these beings possessed the most beguiling of voices, seductive enough to bring the most resolute of men into their deathly embrace.
We also encounter tales of sea maidens closer to home. In deepest Cornwall, the village of Zennor has a legend that speaks of a beautiful and mysterious woman who would occasionally come to the church of St Senara and enchant the parishioners with her heavenly singing. Eventually, one of the parishioners, Matthew Trewhella, decided to follow this captivating beauty out of the church. He was last seen following her towards the sea, never to be seen again. Years later, a passing ship’s captain spoke of an encounter with a beautiful mermaid who kindly asked him to lift his anchor as it was blocking the doorway of her home where her child and husband – Matthew – were waiting. Finally the fate of the local man was known. Today, a battered wooden chair carved with the image of a mermaid sits in St Senara’s church. They say that the carving serves to remind young men to be wary of the charms of beautiful women.
'The Law Concerning Mermaids', a recording of Kei Miller performing at The Power of Caribbean Poetry conference
Inspired by an obscure British law, ‘Mermaids’ tells of the damage caused by imperial rule to colonised lands – and seas. The restriction of the civil freedoms of mermaids – to ‘no longer belong to themselves’, ‘exist or to be beautiful’ without permission – results in the formation of a ‘dry and stifling world’.
I think every Caribbean writer - I know I'm falling into cliches here - but, I figure every Caribbean writer needs a post-colonial rant.
So this is my post-colonial rant. Hope it don't sound too rant-y, but. It's called 'The law concerning mermaids' and it's, it's about just the fact that as I was reading around some things once and I found that in the UK there used to be a law about mermaids. You must agree when you find out the fact that there was a law 'bout mermaids you simply have to write about the fact that there is a law about mermaids. Such things as demanded to
The Law Concerning Mermaids.
There was once a law concerning mermaids. My friends think it's a wondrous thing - that the British Empire was so thorough it had invented a law for everything.
And in this law it was decreed: were any to be found in their usual spots, showing off like dolphins, sunbathing on the rocks - they would no longer belong to themselves.
And maybe this is the problem with empires: how they have forced us to live in a world lacking in mermaids.
Mermaids who understood that they simply were, and did not need our permission to exist or to be beautiful. The law concerning mermaids only caused mermaids to pass a law concerning man: that they would never again cross our boundaries of sand never again lift their torsos up from the surf; never again wave at sailors, salt dripping from their curls; never again enter our dry and stifling world.
Scottish and Irish folklore also tell of mysterious creatures known as the selkies, or sealfolk. Believed to take the form of seals when at sea, once on land, selkies had the power to shed their seal skin and transform into a man or a woman. Legend suggests that selkies in human form would be doomed to a life on land if ever their magical skins were lost or stolen. Stories from the islands of Orkney and Shetland detail romantic encounters between selkies and local people. Both selkie men and women were reportedly so bewitching that no human could resist their charms. While selkie men would usually come ashore for a short time, just long enough to seduce a local woman, the common theme for selkie women is rather more sombre. These alluring seal maidens were often forced into staying on land by young men who would steal their skins and take them as their wives. Though not always an unhappy union, a selkie wife would still yearn for the sea and could often be found wandering the coastline, singing heart-wrenching laments. Some would eventually recover their skins and return to the sea, coming back to land occasionally to see their human husband and children. But such was the lure of the sea that they could never be truly happy without it.
Investigating the songs and behaviours of seals themselves might provide clues to the origins of these myths. Half the world’s population of Grey Seals can be found around Britain’s shores, with large populations living in the Scottish Hebrides and along the Northumbrian and Lincolnshire coastlines. During their autumn breeding season, females come ashore in the thousands to give birth and remain on land until their pups are ready for independence. It’s at this time that males hit dry land in order to woo the available females, forming large breeding colonies, known as rookeries, on rocky shores, sandy beaches and sometimes in caves. This short period is both an aural and visual spectacle, with the air overflowing with the mournful, haunting and almost human-like wails of these marine mammals.
Atlantic Grey Seal colony at Donna Nook, 2002
This recording from Alan Burbidge captures the barks, moans, hisses and snarls of a colony of Atlantic Grey Seals on a moonlit night in November 2002 at Donna Nook.
What are the superstitions of sailors?
Sailors are a superstitious bunch and birds never really fare well in their company.
The Listening Project: Wilfred Keys and Thomas Kyle on fishermen's superstitions
When Wilfred Keys asks Thomas ‘Tommy’ Kyle about fishermen’s superstitions, Tommy refers back to his youth. He describes how skippers would call the fishing off if they encountered certain people on their way to the harbour – as well the trouble he would find himself in if he were to mention rats, pigs or Salmon aboard a boat fishing for Herring.
The root causes of these superstitions are unknown. But Tommy speculates that whilst they may be coincidence, if something bad were to happen aboard, fishermen would assign fault with certain harbingers of misfortune.
MS1: Well, there were a lot of superstitions, you know, I’ve never been in a fishing boat –
MS1: But I’ve heard stories that if somebody’s gone down, there are certain things they hears or sees or whatever, and he’ll turn tail and go home. Is that right or is it – is that all in the past or –
MS2: I could nae just speak now –
MS2: But I know in my time at the fishing, as a wee fella – you know, as a wee fella you notice everything, Wilfred.
MS2: You know, you’ve nae responsibility, so you tend to notice – you’re no really doing a job – you’re there doing a job, but you’re no as needed as the man who’s [skelding 0:00:36] the deck.
MS2: So, you tend to notice everything.
MS2: Listen to everybody’s conversation, be amazed at some of the things you would have thought were silly, and yet as a wee boy, they’re magical, you know?
MS2: You know, you only need to mention rats on boats. That was a dreadful thing, don’t mention a rat.
MS1: Oh [laughs].
MS2: Don’t mention a pig.
MS1: Yeah, yeah.
MS2: Don’t mention a salmon.
MS1: Any reason for that? I mean, is that – or is it – how did that come about, you know?
MS2: I don’t really know, but they were the –
MS2: There were certain people in the village and, you know, I’ve no memory of this, but my father would have told me that some of the skippers that he fished along as a young man, if any of them met a certain lady walking to the harbour in the morning or in the evening to fish for herring, they would have turned and called it off.
MS2: Because they – and we would all say, “Oh, a load of silly nonsense,” but the fella would have said the day that you went on to the fishing was the day you tore your nets or you lost something, or –
MS2: You know, and so –
MS1: Could have been coincidence or – you know, but there’s – yeah.
MS2: And then, for fun, you know – and I would have been involved in this when I was younger, we would have left tins of salmon on the wheelhouse window and things for men that were very superstitious –
MS2: Just for the fun of it, and [laughs] we would have been watching and you would have seen the tin of salmon hurtling across the harbour [both laugh]. And somebody would always say, now – somebody would say, [“Wish me any luck today” 0:01:58], you know [laughs].
MS1: A tin of salmon bounce off your head [both laugh].
MS2: We used to do it, and folk would have tied pig’s feet up on the foremast to the boat and things for [inaudible 0:02:08] and – you know?
MS1: Such goings on, but it’s such goings on in the fishing industry.
MS2: But it was good fun, Wilfred, you know, when we were younger.
The harsh cries of seagulls, a sound so entwined with the sonic landscape of Britain’s coastline, were believed to be the voices of dead mariners drowned at sea. Considered harbingers of bad weather, this morbid association eventually transformed seagulls into omens of death.
Other seabirds such as Storm Petrels and Gannets were also believed to carry the souls of deceased sailors and fishermen.
Storm Petrels, 1998
Storm Petrels also have a connection to 19th-century coastal folklore. Due to their ability to cope with the most severe weather conditions, they became known as harbingers of death. Legend goes that they would signal the imminent arrival of the dreaded sea witch, Mother Carey. Their calls can be heard in this recording made by Alan Burbidge.
When these birds were spotted at sea in large flocks, it would indicate that the weather was about to turn for the worse. Although the origins are hazy, Storm Petrels were said to be the heralds of Mother Carey, the cruel sea witch who wreaked havoc on the ocean waves, gleefully sending vulnerable seamen to their deaths so that her and her partner, Davy Jones, could feast upon their bodies:
She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed yound seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.
It is from this legend that the birds get their more colloquial name of ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’.
The deep and boundless sea would have been enigmatic to the people who interacted with its sometimes calm, sometimes tumultuous presence. Inspired by its mystery, people would have passed down the tales, stories, myths and legends that still take root in our imaginations.
Banner image © Jonny Hannah