Warwick Goble, A mermaid combing her hair
Mermaids are best known for their captivating beauty, a quality that can sometimes prove fatal to human lovers, and sometimes they display magical powers- they can predict the future, make curses and conjure up storms- but they are not usually thought of as founts of wisdom. All the same, quite a few traditional folklore stories show that mermaids do have oracular powers. Also, like oracles, it can sometimes be pretty hard to make sense of what they’re saying.
Mermaids seem to have strong opinions about two matters in particular, human health and human cuisine. The latter is especially surprising seeing as mermaids aren’t likely to cook anything at all and certainly not much that would be eaten by humans. This doesn’t seem to stop them expressing their views, even so. For instance, a mermaid caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Man was held captive for three weeks by the boat’s crew. She refused to speak, eat or drink until they finally relented and took her down to the beach to set her free. Other merfolk came to meet her at the sea’s edge and when she was asked what men were like, she said:
“Very ignorant- they throw away the water eggs are boiled in.”
Another mermaid, caught in nets near Fishguard in West Wales, advised:
“Skim the surface of the pottage before adding sweet milk. It will be whiter and sweeter and less of it will do.”
This is probably very good advice, but how a mermaid would know about making soup with dairy products is anybody’s guess.
An incident from the Hebrides involves a mermaid escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him his failure can be ascribed to the dryness of his bread- whereas if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.
In one case the advice concerns the preparation of fish, which at least we can accept a mermaid might know about. A mermaid had been trapped on the land by the magical means of sprinkling stale urine across her path (this works with fairies too). She spoke only once in the week she spent ashore, to warn a woman gutting fish:
“Wash and clean well, there’s many a monster in the sea.”
In another case a mermaid has something to say about the preparation of fish, but in this case her words don’t seem to be about kitchen hygiene but instead are either a prediction or a grant of good fortune. The mermaid had been caught on a hook by some Shetland fishermen; she begged to be freed and promised to grant them anything they wished for. They returned her to the water and, before she sank beneath the waves, she declaimed a verse ending with the advice “Skoom well your fish.” One of the crew of the boat paid attention to her words and carefully skinned the next fish he caught. He found a large and valuable pearl inside.
Goble, Sea fairies
Cures & remedies
Mermaids also seem to know a good deal about human diseases and their treatment with herbal remedies. In one Scottish case, a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore and called out:
“If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May
So many braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.”
A very similar story has the mermaid tell a sick girl’s lover about the mugwort remedy in good time; he makes a juice from the flower tops which saves his beloved. There may well be some sound advice on herbal medicine being dispensed here, though once again quite what a sea dweller knows about weeds growing on dry land is another matter altogether.
Goble, Sea sprites
Lastly, some of the mermaid sayings seem so cryptic it’s hard to make much sense at all of them. Just before she dived out of sight beneath the waves, a mermaid who had been discovered sitting on a rock near Porth y Rhiw in South Wales said simply:
“Reaping in Pembrokeshire and weeding in Carmarthenshire.”
Another, who had become stranded on the beach as the tide went out at Balladoole on the Isle of Man called out to her rescuers:
“One butt in Ballacaigen is worth all of Balladoole.”
It’s may be possible to extract some sense from this, if the ‘butt’ refers to a barrel of fish. If this is right, she may have been saying that the herring catch at the first location would always be better than that off the beach where she was found- a helpful hint for the men who saved her.
There’s a tendency to forget these days that mermaids are more than a pretty face (and figure) and that they have a society and a character as rounded and complex of that of the faeries. They can be wise, they can be bewitching– and they can be deadly and dangerous. I have tried to cover this in a succession of previous posts.
The material will appear in expanded form in a forthcoming book, ‘Fairy beasts,’ that is currently in preparation.
Goble, A mermaid