“Bewitching, like the wanton mermaid’s song” Shakespeare, Venus & Adonis
By analogy with sirens, we are led to believe that mermaids have beautiful and enticing singing voices. Most of the British folklore evidence actually contradicts this: they are certainly alluring, though it seems to be their hair, their good looks and their topless state that generally draws men towards them.
Welsh folklorist Professor John Rhys was certain that mermaids were no singers. For example, he recounts the story of a Caernarfonshire fisherman who came across a mermaid in a cave. Translating (rather freely) from the original Welsh version published in Cymru Fu, Rhys describes how “at first she screeched wildly” when the man discovered her, but then calmed down and entered into a relationship with the human. The couple had children, but she never lost her close link to the sea, meaning that one time when they were out in a boat that was overtaken by a storm she was able to calm it by whispering to the waves. The storm was evidently of more than meteorological origin, because it was accompanied by “the most unearthly screeches and noises.”
Recounting the fate of a mermaid who became stranded on the shore at Conway and was left to die of exposure by the locals, Rhys quotes from a rhyme: “Y forforwyn ar y traeth/ Crio gwaeddu’n arw wnaeth.” He translates this as “The stranded mermaid on the beach/ Did sorely cry and sorely screech,” though the literal and less poetic version is “The mermaid on the beach / Crying, crying loudly.” (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 1901, 117-119 & 199)
Rhys was evidently firmly convinced that mermaids are tuneless shriekers. This seems to have some echoes in an account from the Scottish island of Mull. In the waters around Mull there lives a ‘water witch’ (an cailleach uisge), a malign creature who is consciously contrasted in folklore to the mermaid (maighdean mara), a being who meant no harm. The cailleach is old and dresses in weeds, but her voice, apparently, sounds young. She ensures that she always sits with the light behind her, dazzling the observer, so that she seems young and attractive to that person. She is accompanied by two seal familiars, one black and one white (these would seem to be selkies, because one caught in the late eighteenth century fought her way out of the fishing net, leaving strands of a woman’s hair behind). If any man laughs at the cailleach’s song, the seals will upset his boat.
Whatever their musical accomplishments, on the Channel Island of Sark it was believed that the local mermaids would sit on rocks offshore and sing just before storms blew in, their voices attracting ships to veer too close to the coast. Conversely, there is a newspaper report I quote in my book Beyond Faery that described how mermaids were to be seen nightly at the mouth of the River Dee in Aberdeen, singing “harmonious lays” in their “charming, sweet, melodious voices.” Their performances concluded with God Save the King. Given that this was in 1688, the year of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ in which Protestant William of Orange dethroned Catholic James II, we must strongly suspect that a political statement was being made here under cover of a miraculous sighting. Whether the mermaids were Jacobite supporters isn’t clear.
The Sark tales, linking the songs to shipwrecks, are far more authentic sounding. For all their physical charms, mermaids tend to be deadly. Here are three Scottish examples of this. A Shetland man did a deal with a selkie, in which he would get a mermaid wife in return for giving the selkie a knife. The new wife was delivered, but she promptly drowned the man, whilst the selkie used the blade to cut all the fishing lines in the harbour.
On South Uist, a fishing crew spotted a mermaid. The Hebridean tradition was to throw items to her and Domhnall threw his knife. She caught this and dived out of sight. By taking his sacrifice, it was a sign that Domhnall would drown within the year- which he did. Lastly, on North Uist, a man walking home came across a mermaid on the shore who told him that he had to answer a question for her- or she would kill him. She asked “When were you in greatest danger?” He replied that there had been two occasions: when he was born and when he first learned to walk. Perhaps by boldly refusing to acknowledge that he was at that present moment in great peril, it seems he broke the spell. He was able to drive the mermaid off- very strangely and inexplicably by throwing a large round cheese at her head…
Alluring as they may be, the best advice always with the merfolk is to steer clear (often quite literally). Their love and their gifts are almost always perilous pleasures to enjoy; they may look like charming playmates- but beware…
I have suggested in the past that faery lovers such as the Scottish leannan sith can have a pretty possessive and pitiless attitude towards their human partners. Poor attitudes to potential lovers are by no means something unique to fairy-kind’s treatment of humans. Human males can be equally as bad in their attitudes towards faery females.
Numerous examples of this sort of behaviour come from Wales and can be found in the first volume of Professor John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore. Almost always, these involve the tylwyth teg dancing in a faery ring. Now, it’s perfectly true to say that although the faes very evidently greatly enjoy dancing and spend a lot of time engaged in it, one of the reasons for conducting their dances publicly in the open air seems to be to attract humans to them, so that they can be swept up in the excitement and then carried off to Faery. Rhys has plenty of examples of this. He also has plenty of examples of a human male- very typically a shepherd boy or farmer- who spots an attractive faery girl in the ring and, simply, kidnaps her- taking her against her will to be his ‘spouse.’
Here’s an example:
“One fine evening in the month of June a brave, adventurous youth… went to the banks of the Gwyrfai, not far from where it leaves Cwellyn Lake, and hid himself in the bushes near the spot where the folks of the Red Coats- the fairies- were wont to dance. The moon shone forth brightly without a cloud to intercept her light; all was quiet save where the Gwyrfai gently murmured on her bed, and it was not long before the young man had the satisfaction of seeing the fair family dancing in full swing. As he gazed on the subtle course of the dance, his eyes rested on a damsel, the most shapely and beautiful he had seen from his boyhood. Her agile movements and the charm of her looks inflamed him with love for her, to such a degree that he felt ready for any encounter in order to secure her to be his own. From his hiding place he watched every move for his opportunity; at last, with feelings of anxiety and dread, he leaped suddenly into the middle of the circle of the fairies. There, while their enjoyment of the dance was at its height, he seized her in his arms and carried her away to his home at Ystrad. But, as she screamed for help to free her from the grasp of him who had fallen in love with her, the dancing party disappeared like one’s breath in July. He treated her with the utmost kindness, and was ever anxious to keep her within his sight and in his possession. By dint of tenderness, he succeeded so far as to get her to consent to be his servant at Ystrad. And such a servant she turned out to be!”
In due course, he wins her over further and she consents to marry him. (Rhys, 44-45). This is just one of at least half a dozen examples where the girl is forcibly seized or snatched from amongst her friends, family and people (see too Rhys pages 85, 86, 90, 126 & 128).
Now, these violent takings are justified by the passionate love of the young man, but these are very weak excuses. Rhys also recounts several stories where relationships develop more normally- a couple are attracted to each other, start to meet and slowly fall in love (see, for example, on pages 54, 61, 91 & 97). Very plainly, kidnapping is not the only way of getting a faery lover.
Nonetheless, these methods have been used for centuries. At page 71 of his book, Rhys retells the story of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who snatches a faery lake woman to be his wife. This affair is retold from Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialum which was written in the twelfth century. Earlier still is the account of Wild Edric of Shropshire, who also bodily carried off a faery woman he spotted dancing with her sisters.
For that matter, it isn’t just faeries who are treated this way. As I’ve described previously, mermaids and selkies are also trapped on land by men against their will and are made to become the men’s ‘wives.’ In almost all these cases, though, the marriages don’t last very long. The selkies find their seal skins that the men had hidden from them with the clear intention of preventing their escape from the ‘marriage,’ which is plainly rather more like sexual slavery. As soon as they have the means, these wives will return home to the sea. In the Welsh cases, the woman’s consent to stay is conditional upon not being struck by her husband- usually with iron. This is always breached and the faery vanishes instantly- not infrequently, taking her children and the cattle she brought as a dowry with her.
Why do human men think they can just capture supernatural partners? To a great extent, no doubt, the folklore accounts reflect the attitudes and behaviours operating within human communities at the time they were recorded. The faes are assumed to be sexist because the humans were. The faery women are taken as something akin to slaves: they provide sexual services and- as we saw in the example I quoted- they are frequently extremely good around the house too.
It may be that desperate measures are employed by the human male because he can’t think of any other way of bridging the gap between our dimension and the faery’s- and perhaps, too, he is worried that he might have only the one chance to see and to seize this girl. This may be a factor, but I suspect that a stronger element in this litany of bad conduct is a feeling of contempt and lack of empathy for individuals from another race or species. They seem to be regarded as being there for the taking, without opinions or rights of their own. It’s an extremely unattractive dynamic but, as I remarked at the outset, it cuts both ways, to be honest: human girls are as likely to be carried off as unwilling wives/ sex slaves to Faery as the other way round.
“Wheel’s on fire Rolling down the road Just notify my next of kin This wheel shall explode”
Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko
Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.
Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.
There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles. At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller. Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh. Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported. A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream. He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him. Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off. The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house. Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down. The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before.
At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road. A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane. The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared. Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.
Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:
“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it
Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”
As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.
My next book, Beyond Faery, will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in early November. It examines the variety of ‘faery beasts’ that exist alongside the traditional faeries we’re familiar with- the kelpies, water bulls, black dogs, hobgoblins and others that make Faery so complex, fascinating- and dangerous. For the next few weeks I’m going to examine some of these beings, using materials I’ve come across in my researches since the text of Beyond Faery was completed. This week, we start in the ocean.
(Jasper Maine, The City Match, 1639, Act III, scene 1)
The merfolk- the mermaids and the selkies- have long fascinated humankind. They are a complex as well as a beautiful people and both men and women seem to be drawn inexorably towards them.
There are in fact many different types of supernatural inhabiting the seas. We are familiar with the mermaids (half-human, half-fish) and the selkies (humans who can put on a seal skin in order to travel through the sea) but in addition to these there are, for example:
Sea fairies– Cornish folklorist and writer Enys Tregarthen described these as being amongst the fairy family, but able to ride the waves. She also identified cliff fairies, whose traits include a desire for doing good and healing injured animals and a liking for singing and dancing at dawn or sunset and,
Sea trows– on Orkney and Shetland the local fae folk, the trows, also inhabit the ocean and are said to be “great rolling creatures, tumbling in the waters” which are sometimes pulled up in fishermen’s nets.
“Yee mermaids faire,
That on the shores do plaine,
Your sea-greene haire
As yee in trammels knit your locks
Weepe ye; and so inforce the rocks
In heavy murmurs through the broad shores tell.”
(William Browne, Britannia’s Pastorals, II, Song I)
The best known trait of the mermaid is, of course, her physical beauty and desirability. In fact, traditional folklore is divided over the actual appearance of these beings. One story from Shetland typifies the standard views. Young Maikie found a selkie on some offshore rocks, a distance from her seal skin, which she’d shed on the beach. He responded in the conventional way to her physical charms, admiring her snow white body, her fine legs and her bonnie yellow hair. He hid her skin, offered her human clothes to wear and asked her to be his wife (which she was for a number of years, until she found her skin again and escaped to the sea).
Another account was less complimentary: a mermaid encountered near Buchan was discovered combing her long brown hair hair- a traditional activity. She had a small upper body with a thin neck, round head and small, flat face with white thick set teeth and small eyes. Her lower half was like a cod, but with a double tail.
A selection of other nineteenth century accounts reinforce the impression that the merfolk resemble us, but that their reported good looks are not always all that we tend to imagine:
Campbelltown, Argyll, 1811: a man was able to creep with a few paces of a mermaid lying on a rock and watched her for two hours. She was six to seven feet in length, the upper half being white and the lower half brindled or reddish grey and covered in scales, terminating in a fin that was of greenish-red and shining, about twelve to fourteen inches wide. The upper half was human, except that the arms were short and thin. The creature had long brown hair and a human face with hollow eyes;
Ardeal, Argyll, 1814: the mermaid seen was very white, but with rosy cheeks. She had long dark hair and arms that tapered to her hands, which were said to be only the size of those of an eight to ten year old child. Her tail was like that of an immensely large cuddy fish or saith;
Port Charlotte, Argyll, 1857: a woman was seen in the sea at close range. She had a full breast, dark complexion, fine hair in ringlets and a comely face;
Southside, Deerness, Orkney, 1890-94: a mermaid returned regularly to this spot in the summer months. She was six to seven feet in length, with a little black head, white neck and a snow white body. She sat on a rock waving her hands about; and,
lastly, older accounts still, from Tudor and Stuart times, record the “whooping noise” that the merfolk made and their sea green hair. The mermaid’s long hair is frequently matched by the copious beards of the mermen.
The eyewitness descriptions are less consistently complimentary, then, and as Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi of 1634, “Mermaids and Menfish seem to me the most strange fish.”
All the same, the consensus seems to be that mermaids have a high opinion of their own good looks. They are reputed to be very vain and their traditional attributes are a comb and a mirror, with which they pass hours sitting on rocks, combing their long hair (admittedly, one seen at Mumbles near Swansea in 1893 was combing her hair with a mackerel’s back bone). They are also very partial to jewellery and can be wooed with rings and necklaces.
The most recent accounts don’t question the mermaids’ charms and it is very true to say that they are regularly sought by human males as their spouses. As in the earlier example, selkies are continually portrayed as being captured and forced into marriage by men. However, the traffic is not all one way. Dora Broome in her Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man describes a mermaid who developed an obsessive passion for a young man from Port Le Murrey, and nearly managed to lure him away with her charms. In another Shetland story, a girl gathering shell-fish on a beach fell asleep in a cave after sitting down to eat her lunch. Some months later she discovered she was pregnant and, when the baby was born, it had flippers instead of hands. This she explained by the fact that, as she had wandered along the beach that day, she had been watched by a seal offshore. It would seem that this creature had, in fact, been a selkie and that he had taken advantage of her sleep to rape her. The best we can say about the selkie’s conduct is this: the girl then learned in a dream that, if she went to a nearby sea inlet, she would find silver coins that would pay for the child’s upbringing.
The love of a mermaid can be perilous and, on the Isle of Man, there seemed to be a settled procedure for freeing a hapless fisherman from a mermaid’s attentions. To do this he needed help- and the right preparations. Herring roe had to be boiled for three days and then dried and ground into a powder. The human victim would consume this in a drink and then set to sea, protected by sprigs of vervain and a cross made of rowan wood. As soon as the mermaid began to follow the boat, a charm had to be repeated:
“Ben-varrey, ben-varrey- go back to thy home,
Til the sea from this island of Mannin doth roam,
Find a mate with a tail, for if thou X should wed,
In the deeps of the sea he’ll be drownded and dead.”
As soon as this verse has been completed, the vervain should be dropped in the waves and an iron knife should be stuck in the mast, which will summon up a storm, driving the mermaid beneath the surface and the ship back to land.
The merfolk are, of course, not just love interest for humans. They have an independent and separate life. They are said to herd fish out at sea and they have control over the weather and sea conditions, so that when breakers drive up onto the shore, the Welsh say “The mermaid is driving her sheep.”
The merfolk’s supernatural powers are attested by a story from Padstow in Cornwall. A man called Tristram Bird bought a hunting rifle and went out to try to shoot a seal. Instead, he found a mermaid combing her hair and instantly conceived a passion for her. She rejected his advances and his offer of marriage; he became angry and threatened to shoot her. She warned him he’d be sorry but he fired off a shot anyway- in revenge for which she cursed Padstow’s harbour. Very soon afterwards, a storm arose that created a sandbar across the mouth of the harbour, cutting it off from the sea. It’s very evidently inadvisable to annoy or hurt a mermaid- on the Isle of Man it is said that if you vex a mermaid, you will never have an luck when you’re out fishing.
Mermaids are also said to pursue ships out at sea, trying to sink them. In the old ballad, The Mermaid, she’s seen by the crew of a ship with her mirror, combing her hair. They instantly despair of reaching their homes- rightly, because she circles the ship three times- and then it sinks. So strong was this belief that in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III, Act III, scene 2) it is declared “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall.”
The merfolk can foresee bad weather. At Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall, a mermaid would appear, floating head and shoulders above the waves, whenever a storm was approaching. On the small Channel Island of Sark, it’s said that the mermaids sit on rocks and sing before storms develop. It’s not entirely clear from this whether they are foreseeing or actually causing the bad weather. Folklorist Edgar MacCulloch reported this information and then observed that sailors on ships are attracted by the sound of the singing and come too close to shore, where they are then caught when the storm breaks. This juxtaposition suggests he regarded the mermaids as malign and culpable.
It’s plain that merfolk need to be treated with cautious respect. Around the Isle of Man mermaids are seemingly more numerous than mermen- they are certainly seen more frequently- and wise sailors know that, when they’re out at sea, they should never refer to them by the names used on land, so that the mermaid, the ben-varrey or pohllinagh, is called instead Joaney Gorm (‘Blue Joan’), a habit which must be linked to the name taboo so often found in folklore accounts.
Destructive as they may be, merfolk can also be healers. As I’ve mentioned before, they are known for their understanding of herbs’ healing properties and they can pass on these skills and knowledge to chosen humans- often those who’ve done them a good turn, such as carrying them back to the sea when they’ve become stranded.
Mermaids can be a source of riches, as well as useful skills, for humans. The Isle of Man ben-varrey I mentioned earlier demonstrated her affection for the fisherman she fancied by leaving him shells and seaweed, but others can offer a lot more than this. In another Manx story, a man falls under the spell of a mermaid after he rescues her from being stranded at low tide. He becomes preoccupied with her beauty and with the buried gold to which she guides him. Having found this hoard of gold coins, he gives up his work as a fisherman and spends his days dreaming of the mermaid and what he can do with his new found wealth. The problem is that the coins are antique Spanish gold that no-one will accept as currency, so the man and his wife have precious metals- but no income to buy food.
As several of these stories imply, the fundamental problem about relationships between humans and merfolk (and probably with all faery beings) is that we are from different dimensions and there is a gulf in comprehension between us. The merfolk don’t really understand the complexities of human society- nor why we can’t follow them under the water. Too often, indeed, the fate of the mermaid’s lover is, simply, to drown.
As I have discussed before, there are also mermaid-like creatures that live in freshwater. I’ve referred to these as ‘mere-maids’ to try to distinguish them, but throughout Britain there can be confusion about their true nature. For example, in Banffshire in Scotland a mhaidan mara (maid of the sea) is seen in rivers just before they swell after a heavy rain. She has an ‘enchanting’ figure and melodious voice, according to one late eighteenth century report, but her appearance always precedes an accident in the river; someone is sure to drown once she’s been spotted.
Foreseeing the future is a trait ascribed to the freshwater mermaids that lived in the moat of Blore castle in Staffordshire. Over several mornings before the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, they rose to the surface and, whilst combing their hair, sang this prediction:
“Ere yet the haw-berry assumes its deep red,/ Embued shall this heath be with blood nobly shed.”
Our final freshwater maid combines the peril and charms of her marine cousins. A boy was fishing on the River Towy when he hooked a huge salmon. Hauling the fish into his coracle, he prepared to hit it on the head when he heard a voice asking him not to do so. Looking again, he saw he’d hooked a beautiful young woman. He decided she must be a demon and said he’d kill her anyway, to which she said she’d drown him first. She asked him to be her lover, which he refused, so she grabbed him and took him down “yng ngwaelod yr afon” (“to the land under the river”). She did this twice, nearly drowning him, before he decided that a salmon wife was the better option. He had to cut the hook out of her top lip, doing which he splashed his face with her blood. This, she declared, made him hers forever- and they had a long marriage with several children, all of whom had a scar on their upper lip like their mother.
I hope this may have whetted your appetite to explore the rich world that lies Beyond Faery.
I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans. Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.
Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore. When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship. Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’ We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on. For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.
Fairy Family Life
Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting? Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.
Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen. Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame. These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.
A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616. She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’ He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together. A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.” In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.
Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers. There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females. For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.
All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk. The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed. In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.
In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore. He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people. The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years. Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.
Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents. The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.
There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record. The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea. We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church. From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb. To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves. They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up. The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.
The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened. They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands. These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.
As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.
John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:
“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)
Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)
As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring. The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos. Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai. In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy. The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:
“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,
that he might understand
Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant
whatever he did demand:
To any forme that he did please
himselfe he would translate;
And how one day hee’d send for him
to see his fairy state.”
Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable. There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes. One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.
I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery(Llewellyn Worldwide). See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.
I recently visited the Orkney islands, a long planned holiday to see the many megalithic monuments there- the standing stones, burial chambers and cairns. The Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe were all well worth the trip, but it was good too to experience the scene of so much folklore that I’ve read.
The islands are quite bleak and treeless and are covered in lochs (mostly fresh water but a few salt water). The grey, cold water under grey cold skies (the weather wasn’t brilliant) made it very easy to imagine kelpies and tangies (the Gaelic speaking Highlanders’ each uisge or water horse) emerging from the waters and roaming the land in search of prey.
One day we crossed from the mainland to the island of Rousay, using the ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall jetty. Eynhallow (the first syllable is pronounced like ‘eye’) is one of the two islands inhabited by the fin folk, or selkies. Formerly it was called Hildaland, and was often hidden from human eyes whilst the fin-folk lived there during the summer months.
A man called Thorodale, who lived in Evie on the mainland, just across the sound from Eynhallow, lost his wife one day when she was abducted by a fin-man. He planned revenge and sought the advice of a wise ‘spae-woman’ on the island of Hoy. She told him how to see the hidden island of Hildaland. For nine moons, at midnight when the moon was full, Thorodale went nine times on his bare knees around the great Odin Stone of Stenness (this was a huge holed stone that no longer exists). For the duration of nine moons, he looked through the hole in the stone and wished for the power of seeing Hildaland. After repeating this for nine months one beautiful summer morning, just after sunrise, Thorodale looked out on the sea and saw that, in the middle of Eynhallow Sound, there lay a pretty little island, where no land had ever been seen before. Armed with salt and crosses to dispel the faery glamour, Thorodale rowed across to the revealed isle. He fought off the fin-men, rescued his wife and then sowed salt around the whole island, banishing the fin-folk forever and claiming it for men. Eynhallow is deserted today, but it is still protected- by a fearful tidal race of white crested standing waves.
I also visited Hoy, not to meet the spae-wife but to visit the stunning Dwarfie Stane, a burial chamber hollowed out of a massive boulder. It lies on a bleak hillside, just near the end of the Trowie Glen (the fairy valley). That anything like this was carved with stone tools alone is deeply impressive. The sound effects achieved by a single voice inside are also remarkable.
The last notable fae site was a burial chamber on Cuween Hill on the mainland, called the Tomb of the Beagles because of the dog bones found inside, but also known locally as the Fairy Knowe. It was a steep climb up to the site and a tight crawl along the entrance passage to get in, but it was very still and mysterious within. Outside the wind was blowing; inside there was thick silence and a sense of contact, not just with the Neolithic farmers who had been buried there but with the faes whose dwelling it subsequently became.
Lastly (on one of the coldest and wettest days of our trip!) we visited the farm museums at Kirbuster and Corrigall. These were especially interesting as they preserved traditional Orkney farm houses and it was fascinating to see the open peat fires in the centre of the main rooms, with the smoke curling up through the hole in the roof, and to imagine those many stories I’d read in which a changeling child was placed in a basket in the smoke from the hot peat flames and driven to fly up through the ‘lum’ (the smoke hole), forcing the trows into returning the stolen human infant.