Arthur Rackham, ‘They have sea green hair’ from ‘Three Golden Apples’
“A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed his body to her body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.”
W. B. Yeats, ‘The mermaid’ from The Tower, 1928
It is not, of course, possible to undertake a serious taxonomy of imaginary beasts, but personally I have never considered mermaids to be fairies: they cannot disappear, they have no magical powers (mostly) and they are often at the mercy of humans. They seem too solid and physical; fairies are terrestrial whilst mermaids are marine. They are semi-human, with some supernatural qualities, but they are not in the same dimension are fairies, I would contend.
Types of sea spirit
As stated, a phylogeny of creatures that are the products of mythology rather than biology is futile, but we can still offer some sort of classification and analysis:
- mermaids and mermen are part human, part fish and are found around the coasts of England and Wales;
- seal people including the selkies of Orkney and Shetland and the roane of the Highlands and islands are humans who can assume a seal skin to move through the sea. Comparable are the merrows of Ireland.
Mermaids and seal people are often captured and made into the wives of human males, the mermaids by being stranded at low tide and the seal maidens by having their seal skins found and hidden after they have shed them on the shore. These wives always pine for the sea and, eventually, escape back to it.
Ashore, mermaids are usually helpless and are at the mercy of the men who find them. If they are assisted back into the sea, they may well grant magical protection to their saviours; if aid is refused, the men may be cursed.
The lure of mermaids for men appears to be their semi-naked state, their beauty- and most notably their hair- and their strange gnomic sayings, which added to their mysterious aura. One of the more comprehensible sayings is recorded as follows: a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore. She called out-
“If they wad drink nettles in March/ And eat muggons in May/ Sae mony braw maidens/ Wadna gang to the clay.” (R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p.331)
The advice in this case seems sound: nettles, taken as tea or soup, are diuretic and are a good source of minerals and vitamins; mugwort is both a tonic and vermifuge.
Doubtless mermaids and fairies both were invented by our ancestors to explain sudden and inexplicable illness (see too my next post) and storms, drownings and disappearances. There must, too, be some measure of anthropomorphising of seals, glimpsed floating in the waves and mistaken for humans.
Generally, mermaids lack magical abilities, although their deaths may provoke (or be avenged by) storms. In some cases they can control the waves by their words; in other instances their power is not innate but derives from an article such as a cap or a leather mantle.
Some mermaids, beautiful as they may seem, are in truth monsters who lure fishermen to their deaths. For Yeats, as seen in the verse above, this may be through a combination of accident and neglect. Sometimes, too, these unions need not be tragic, as with the mermaid of Zennor in Penwith who lured away Mathey Trewella to live with her; he was lost to his human friends and relations but apparently did not perish. Indeed, Cornish mermaids are generally more fairy-like in their attributes. In the story of ‘Lutey and the mermaid’ a fisherman of Cury on the Lizard was granted three wishes by a stranded mermaid whom he rescued. Likewise in the ‘Old man of Cury’ a mermaid found and returned to the waves at Kynance Cove provided a magical comb by which she could be summoned to provide arcane knowledge to her saviour. For these stories see Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.
Fresh water beasts
Mermaids and selkies are strictly salt water beings. A variety of fresh water spirits or monsters are identified by folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into ponds, and kelpies. There are also marine monsters (see my earlier post on fairy beasts). All of these have only one characteristic- destroying human life- and they lack any personality and society like fairies ‘proper.’ That said, in north-west England is found the Asrai, an aquatic fairy occasionally dredged in nets from pools and lakes, but which melts away in the air very quickly. In Wales the Gwragedd Annwn are lake maidens who emerge from inland waters and occasionally marry young men- but always on their own terms and subject to their own conditions, which are ultimately always breached by their husbands, causing the water fairy to return home forever.
Brian Froud, A mermaid
Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880) devotes his third chapter to the gwragedd annwn, recounting various folk tales and, in passing, observing that these fresh water sprites exist in the absence of mermaids in Welsh mythology. Katherine Briggs provides full details of all these stories and others concerning selkies in her Dictionary of fairies ; she also directs readers to Sea enchantresses by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh (London 1961). An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017). I have posted more recently on freshwater mere-maids, on the asrai, a particularly vulnerable type of British fresh water fairy, and on the variety of supernatural water beasts. Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see too my post on mermaid wisdom.
Lastly, Charles Kingsley in The water babies had his own unique slant on the idea of the marine fairy and I have examined this separately.