Along the Atlantic Coast of Cornwall, a few miles west of St Ives, sits the small village named “Zennor.” The village is home to 196 residents, a small pub, a few guest houses, and a church. Although the church itself is of Norman origins, it is said to stand on the site of a Celtic church dating back to the 6th Century AD. The pub known as the ‘Tinner’s Arms’ is located opposite ‘St Senara’s Church’ and was, according to folklore originally built in 1271 to house the masons who built the church. [1]

The church was dedicated to Saint Senara who legend has it was a Breton Princess also known as Asenora. Historical fact records little of her, but legends claim Asenora’s husband, a Breton King, suspected her of infidelity when she became pregnant. As a harsh punishment he had her nailed into a barrel and cast out to sea, where she eventually washed up on the Cornish shore. Notwithstanding she founded the church in Zennor so to bring Christianity to the local Celtic people, before moving on to Ireland to spread the word of God. It is fitting that the church is named after a woman who came to Cornwall from the sea, as St Senara’s Church is also the resting place of the last surviving relic of another local legend – The Mermaid of Zennor. The ‘Mermaid Chair’, which sits alone in a darkened corner of the church, is a seat made from two medieval bench ends. One of these ends bears a carving depicting a woman with long flowing hair and a fish tail. Locals say the carving was made around 400 years ago in memory of a man named Matthew Trewhella, who, so the story goes, ran off to sea with a mermai. [2]

For as long as man has gone to sea, there have been tales of mermaids. Supposedly the result of ocean-weary sailors mistaking aquatic mammals such as manatees for the figure of a woman, the well-known image of a creature with the head and torso of a female but the tail of a fish from the waist downwards has become a popular feature in folklore. Each culture has their own variation on this legend, from the ‘Sirens’ of Ancient Greece, the ‘Melusine’ of Normandy, to the ‘Mami Wata’ spirits of West, Central, and Southern Africa. Despite the geographical and historical distance, they all share certain characteristics, namely their beautiful appearance which often leads to romances with humans. While each incarnation of the mermaid legend agrees on being female from the waist upwards, the most notable difference between depictions of mermaids across cultures is the form of their legs. The most recognisable is the classic fish tail, but in many areas, such as Western Europe and Africa, mermaids are imagined with the tail of a serpent. Elsewhere, mermaids are often pictured as almost identical to human women in shape, but with some subtle differences, such as pale skin and long green hair in Eastern Europe, or webbed hands and feet in China. One Chinese folklorist describes a mermaid captured on Namtao Island as ‘Her features and limbs were in all respects human, except that her body was covered with fine hair of many beautiful colours’.[3]

Whatever form their legs may take, the folklore surrounding mermaids across the globe agrees on their ability to disguise themselves as human. This does not have to be achieved by forming a deal with an octopus-legged sea witch, as in the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, but derives from some magical power which the mermaid herself possesses. In Irish mythology, a mermaid becomes human by removing her ‘magic cap’; a hat or bonnet which gives her the appearance of a human female. Whereas in the Scottish equivalent, sometimes known as a ‘selkie’, the mermaid has the form of a seal when under the sea, and sheds this seal skin in order to walk on land. In many tales, if a human was to obtain this cap or skin, the mermaid would be trapped on land with them for evermore. In other stories, the mermaid simply splits her tail in two to resemble legs, or hides the tail under a long dress and tries not to have to walk anywhere.

A common feature attributed to mermaids across the world is their deadly nature; they are often said to lure sailors to a watery grave. Many are described as vengeful, as they were created from the spirits of women who supposedly died violent deaths at sea, and are said to bring storms and shipwrecks. Despite this, the figure of a mermaid is often associated with Christianity in Cornwall, as the dual nature of woman and fish mirrors the dual nature of Christ as both human and divine. With the exception of a rather violent mermaid from Padstow,[4] Cornish mermaids tend to be benevolent, as is the case in a tale from the Lizard Peninsula at the very edge of Cornwall, about a mermaid named ‘Movena’. She was said to have bestowed three wishes and a magical comb upon a helpful farmer named Lutey who carried her back to sea when she was stranded on the beach. The Mermaid of Zennor is a little more morally ambiguous: did she lure Matthew Trewhella to his death, or was he transformed into a merman himself so they could live a happy life together under the sea?

The tale of the Mermaid of Zennor (An Vorvoren a Senar in Cornish) first appears in writing in the work of William Bottrell (1816-1881). This can be seen in his Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2 written in 1873.[5] Since then the tale has appeared in many contemporary incarnations, from poetry to pop songs. As with all old folk tales, the story differs slightly each time it is told, but the basic framework of the legend is always the same. It tells of a choir boy named Matthew Trewhella who sang in St Senara’s church every Sunday, and whose enchanting voice attracted a mermaid from the nearby coast. [6] At first, she listened only from the rocks at Pendour Cove, a small inlet of land along the rugged coastline barely a stone’s throw from the village. As the weeks went on, she grew bolder and even dared to attend the church itself to listen, appearing in the disguise of a well-dressed noblewoman. Every week from then on, she came to listen, finally catching his eye by way of a smile, a sigh, or a song of her own. He left the church with her and they made for the ocean, never to be seen again.  Their voices could still be heard singing together from beneath the waves, and it was said that Matthew would warn of rough seas by singing low. When he sang high, sailors knew it was safe to venture out.

The blame for Matthew’s disappearance is often placed on the mermaid; she is depicted as an evil temptress who lured an innocent man to his death with her song. Occasionally they are described as so perfectly in love that Matthew is willing to forsake his life on the land for her. Little consideration is made for the idea that it was Matthew who chose to follow a beautiful stranger with an ear for music, and discovered a forbidden secret about the existence of mermaids. Certainly, some supernatural influence must have been involved. Any visitor to Zennor will note that a rather steep cliff separates the nearby coastal path from the shoreline, which no mere mortal could traverse with ease.

In some versions of the legend, the mermaid was spotted several years later by a fisherman who had weighed anchor off the coast. This mermaid was in some distress as the fisherman had rested his anchor over the door to her house, and she was unable to return to her husband and children. The fisherman initially dismissed the encounter as a bad omen, but, as written in Bottrell’s telling of the story ‘When Zennor folks learnt that a mermaid dwelt near Pen-dower, and what she had told the captain, they concluded it  was this sea-lady who had visited their church, and enticed Trewella to her abode. To commemorate these somewhat  unusual events they had the figure she bore—when in her ocean-home—carved in holy-oak, which may still be seen’.

Not many people in this day and age have enjoyed extensive reading of Botrell’s original work, it having been somewhat lost to the obscurity of time. Most people who know the tale of the Mermaid of Zennor, particularly young children with a keen interest in mermaids, are familiar with Charles Causley’s book The Merrymaid of Zennor, complete with captivating illustrations by Michael Foreman. As the story begins: ‘On the rugged Cornish coast, where the land meets the sea, lies the village of Zennor. Here, there are stories and whispers of a villager capturing the heart of a mysterious and  beautiful stranger – a stranger from the sea – a mermaid!”[7]

This book is popular for a reason. Causley’s account tells the story in simple yet effective language, allowing the illustrations to create the magic of the tale. It is aimed primarily at children, as it is their young minds who take most keenly to the existence of mermaids. For a more poetic outlook on the story, one must look to Vernon Watkins’ poem from the 1960s, The Ballad of the Mermaid of Zennor. In particular, its final stanza:

However long the waters roll
Longer my love shall be,
Nor shall you leave my burning soul
Torn by the moving sea,
Though all the bells of Zennor toll
And say you died for me.[8]

This hauntingly beautiful poem is just over 100 lines long, and the simple alternating rhyme pattern has the effect of imitating the movement of waves breaking gently onto sand. A particularly interesting aspect of the poem is that it is structured as a dialogue between Matthew Trewhella and the mermaid herself, whereas in most incarnations of the tale, whether prose, poetry, or song, the narrative is from the perspective of either one character (usually Matthew) or, more commonly, an outside narrator. Watkins’ poem has a much sadder and darker tone than Causley’s cheerfully magical book, reflecting how the same story can have a hundred different meanings depending on the telling.

A story of a human falling in love with a creature of the sea naturally lends itself to music, as mere words sometimes cannot do justice to the magic of the tale. Brenda Wootton’s song ‘Mermaid’ is inspired by the Zennor legend, and its melody, which rises and falls much like the waves, gives the tale an ethereal beauty of its own. The song is sung from the perspective of the mermaid, giving her a voice which she is so often denied, but still presenting her as a strange and dangerous sea creature. But it is not only folk songs of the 1980s which are inspired by the legend; the funky and upbeat song ‘Zennor Mermaid’ by indie pop band The Hit Parade is a more modern musical adaptation of the legend. The lyrics are less dictated by the legend as Wooton’s song, but the musical arrangement has the same unearthly quality to it.

Even today, the village of Zennor itself seems exactly the sort of place where one would expect to encounter a mermaid. The dark cloisters of the church where the mermaid chair sits have an underwater feel to them, and even the local pub sells a ‘Zennor Mermaid’ ale (which, by the way, is delicious). Traces of the legend appear to have permeated many aspects of modern life in the area; there is even a local ice cream company named ‘Moomaid of Zennor’.  However, it is at the edge of the cliffs over Pendour Cove, looking out to sea, where the words of Watkins’ poem or Wootton’s melodies are truly brought to life, and the sparkles on the waves could easily be mistaken for a mermaid’s tail.

Notes and References

[1] Kirsty Fergusson, Slow Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly: Local, Characterful Guides to Britain’s Special Places, Bradt Travel Guide, 2012.

[2] Mathew Trewhella is the modern form of the name; in Bottrell’s original tale of the Mermaid of Zennor it is written as ‘Mathey Trewella’.

[3] N.B. Dennys, The folk-lore of China, and its affinities with that of the Aryan Semitic races [electronic resource], London: Trübner, 1876, p. 115, ttps://archive.org/details/folkloreofchinai00denn [last accessed 18 February 2020]

[4] The Doom Bar sandbank blocking the Camel estuary in which Padstow resides was supposedly created by an angry mermaid after a sailor shot her. The bank has been the cause of many shipwrecks, notably the HMS Whiting (whose attack on Fort McHenry inspired the American national anthem – for more information, visit www.promare.co.uk/whiting/index. htm). In 1816 there was a wreck so catastrophic that it reduced the width of the channel by nearly half and locals had to petition the Admiralty to have it removed.

[5] William Bottrell (7 March 1816 – 27 August 1881) was a Cornish folklorist who documented many Cornish tales and wrote articles on Cornish life. He was born in Raftra, St. Levan, a few miles short of Land’s End, but spent much of his life abroad in Australia and Canada, where he worked as an English teacher. After the death of his wife he returned to Cornwall to write three volumes chronicling the folklore and legends of Cornwall.

[6] In most versions of the legend, she is named ‘Morveren’, however, in his novel ‘Seat of Storms’ Craig Weatherhill includes a mermaid of Zennor named ‘Azenor’. This is most likely derived from ‘Asenora’, the original Breton name of St Senara who founded the church in Zennor.

[7] C. Causley, The Merrymaid of Zennor, Orchard Books, UK Edition, 2012. Charles Causley (24 August 1917 – 4 November 2003) was a celebrated Cornish poet who was born and died in Launceston. He received many awards for his poetry during the course of his life, including the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry (1967), and was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1955. Much of his poetry centres on Cornish stories, such as ‘The Ballad of Charlotte Dymond’, which narrates a notorious murder in Bodmin in 1844.

[8] V. Watkins, Affinities, London: Faber and Faber, 1962. See http://literaryballadarchive.com/PDF/Watkinson_Mermaid _of_Z_f.pdf

Photographs courtesy of Becky Orchard and the Cornish Maritime Churches project.

 

Eleanor Frampton is a Cornish writer currently based in York, where she is studying English and History at the University of York. From a young age Eleanor spent much of her time chasing Piskies and seeking out Mermaids in the woods and waters around her home in Probus Cornwall. These activities fostered a keen interest in Cornish folklore which has extended into her adult life. Eleanor has worked with a number of Cornish theatre companies such as Wildworks and Cornwall Youth Theatre Company. In one case Eleanor was engaged in the Hells Mouth a Cornish adaptation of Greek theatre by Nick Darke, based on the final play of Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy, The Thebans was staged by Kneehigh Theatre in the clay workings near St Austell in mid Cornwall.

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