Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Salon Guest: Of Welshmen and Mermaids

It is my pleasure to welcome Willow C Winsham to the salon once more. A blogger on the witch, the weird and the wonderful, Willow is my much-valued writing partner in crime and today delights us with tales of mermaids!


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The image of the mermaid is one of enduring popularity; from the sirens of Homer's Odyssey to the more modern incarnation in the Starbucks logo, the beautiful, other-worldly,  and very often deadly maid of the sea has received a mixed press throughout the centuries. Intriguing sightings of such creatures can be found from around Britain's coastline, and today I bring to the salon two tales from Wales during the Long Eighteenth Century. 

The first story was recorded by Mary Morgan in 1791 in her Tour to Milford Haven. She recounts a tale taken from a paper by a pupil of Hannah Moore, in turn told to a Dr. George Philips by Henry Reynolds, a farmer from that area. 

Reynolds was walking one morning near his home when he spotted someone out in the water. Despite the depth of the sea there, the bather was visible from the waist up, raising his curiosity enough to take him up to the nearby cliffs for a closer look. From there he could see that the  person looked, to all intents and purposes, as though they were sitting in a tub.


Mermaid

When he was about twelve yards away, he was able to make out the figure of someone between sixteen and eighteen years of age, with very white skin. From the waist down, there was a “a large brown substance,” under the water,  on which the creature seemed to float. When the figure moved, it was clear that this substance was attached to it, and from the bottom a tail could be seen, moving in a circular fashion. Where arms and body were concerned, the figure was, according to Reynolds, most certainly human, although the arms and hands were shorter and thicker than might be expected. The head, although  again  human  in appearance, was also not quite right, with a high, long nose. As with the body, the skin of the face was remarkably white, all visible skin completely hairless.  

Far from being the stereotypical beautiful siren, therefore, this creature was somewhat less delightful, though just as fascinating, as the captivated farmer looked on for the best part of an hour. 

Seal

From his close distance, he was able to make out that “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 apparently was not hair-like, but thin and flat, “ribbon-like”, though Reynolds seems to suggest that it was attached to the figure, which spent a great deal of time washing, lifting the ribbon substance to wash underneath and also over the body and arms. The rest of the time was spent in swimming, moving quickly through the water.  

Rather than being oblivious to her audience, Reynolds felt that the creature  was clearly aware of his presence, sometimes looking at him, sometimes at the sky, birds and cliffs as she paused. There was no expression to the face, but Reynolds took her to appear, on the whole, “wild and fierce”. 

When Reynolds went to fetch others to look at the sight, the figure was about a hundred yards away from him, but when they returned it was gone.  Such a sighting could, perhaps, be put down to either an exaggeration of what he had seen or an outright fabrication, but Reynolds was, by all accounts, a man of good character and not given to flights of fancy such as  inventing sea creatures. 

In Folklore of West and Mid-Wales, there is a similar tale reported from Aberystwyth in 1826. It again involved a farmer who lived close to the shore, who, early one morning, spied a woman bathing in the nearby sea. Like with the previous case, the water where the woman was sighted was known by the farmer to be deep, but this did not bother her as she seemed to be standing. The farmer lay down on the edge of the cliff, watching for over half an hour as she continued to bathe and swim. He then decided to go back to bring his family out to see;  many of the household came out and watched for ten minutes, thereby corroborating the tale.  

The last to arrive with their youngest child, the  farmer's wife did not crawl like the others but remained upright, in full view of the swimming creature.   Upon seeing her, the mermaid, if that was what she was,  dived into the water and swam further away – the farmer, his family and servants followed along the shoreline for over half a mile, keeping pace with the fascinating creature. 

Upon reaching a large rock in the water, the figure stopped and stood upon it; from the waist up her body was clearly visible, and it was unanimously agreed that she appeared as a young woman of around eighteen years of age. She had a handsome face, strikingly white skin, with short dark hair and arms and neck the same as any woman. However, as she bent herself in the water, a black, tail-like shape showed itself, visible as she finally swam away. 

What then is behind these tales of strange semi-human creatures off the coast?  Some of course say that mermaids are exactly that – girls of the sea, the creatures that have inspired legend way back into the mists of time. 


Seal


Others seek more mundane explanations.  The Welsh farmers were not the only ones to encounter this less than exotic version of the popular myth. In January 1493, Columbus complained that mermaids were “not half as beautiful as they are painted, though they have something of a human face,” and it is widely believed that what he actually encountered was the manatee or dugong. These marine mammals can appear to have human-like characteristics, including carrying their young in a similar fashion to a human mother with her child; a manatee might, at a distance, be mistaken as woman-like in appearance. Similarly, it has been suggested that a mermaid's “hair” is in fact seaweed, sticking to the creature's head when the manatee surfaces beneath it.  Found in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Amazon Basin and West Africa, the manatee  is, however, not a plausible explanation for what the two farmers saw off the coast of Wales. Another similar explanation though is that the creatures seen were actually seals, the appearance of which, could, with a little poetic license, account for what the Welshmen saw. 


Mermaid and manatee

The rare medical condition of Sironemelia or mermaid syndrome, is a congenital deformity that causes the legs to fuse together, giving an appearance similar to a mermaid's tale.  Usually resulting in stillbirth and at best fatal within a week after birth due to complications with kidney and bladder, there are only a handful of examples of those born with the condition surviving longer than a few years. It is not likely therefore that this could account for mermaid sightings.    


About the author:

Willow is an author and blogger, currently working on her first series, The Virginia Dewhurst Trilogy. Visit her witchy blog at http://winsham.blogspot.co.uk/ or find her on Twitter!


Written content of this post copyright © Willow C Winsham, 2014.

5 comments:

Suzie Lennox said...

What a great post! I spent a year in Aberystwyth, but sadly didn't see any 'mermaids'.

Catherine Curzon said...

I spent my honeymoon in Wales but saw no mermaids either!

Beth Elliott said...

Aberystwyth is a bit rocky and the sea is rough - not a good place for mermaids to comb their hair. Perhaps they would favour Borth, where they could frolic with dolphins.

Catherine Curzon said...

So perhaps we're just looking in the wrong places!

Lucienne Boyce said...

Fascinating blog! Just spent a couple of days in Aberystwyth and I didn't see any mermaids either.