Catching Mermaids on Man February 24, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Different peoples build their identity around different facts: the Italians around their food, the French around La France, the Poles (at least in times gone by) around their Catholicism. The Isle of Man, between Britain and Ireland, meanwhile, built its identity, at least in early-modern times, around a belief in the wonderful (phantom dogs, water bulls and, as Beachcombing will soon demonstrate, merfolk). The rest of Europe got all enlightened, revolutionary and ‘with-it’: taking the long slippery slide that leads to social democracy, universal but mediocre healthcare, a do-gooding parasitical political class and obscene tax levels. But the Manx pinned their identity, instead on pixies and related beliefs that the English were already giving up in the twelfth century. Hence ‘magical Man’, an island famous today for low tax rates, motorcycle races and fairies.
Anyway, to the source. This text appears in a rare book on Man written by an English resident in the island toward the beginning of the eighteenth century. The book was written as a kind of tour guide, but fails miserably as the author keeps getting distracted by the ‘magical’ beliefs of the locals that he is sceptical about but that he cannot resist reporting. Interestingly, he almost admits to being a reluctant convert to the fairy faith having seen ‘fairy circles’ and fairy footprints in the snow.
The event here dates to the 1650s about eighty years before the book was published. It is just within living memory then, but deep within the period when ‘Manks man’, as our author insists on calling the locals, would have been able to people the past with bold eye-witness events. Beachcombing is going to risk ridicule by suggesting that the following sentence contains the first ever explicit reference to mysterious beasts needing peace and obscurity – a favourite of later nineteenth-century marvel literature and twentieth-century cryptozoology. Certainly the account has a strangely rational entrée.
In the time, said they, that Oliver Cromwell usurped the protectorship of England [1649-1658 at the broadest], few or no ships resorted to this island [of Man], and that uninterruption and solitude of the sea, gave the mermen and mermaids (who are enemies to any company but those of their own species) frequent opportunities of visiting the shore, where, in moonlight nights, they have been seen to sit, combing their heads, and playing with each other; but as soon as they perceived anybody coming near them, they jumped into the water, and were out of sight immediately.
But human curiosity naturally got the better of the good Manx folk.
Some people who lived near the coast, having observed their behaviour, spread large nets, made of small but very strong cords, upon the ground, and watched at a convenient distance for their approach. The night they had laid this snare, but one happened to come, who was no sooner set down, than those who held the strings of the net, drew them with a sudden jerk and enclosed their prize beyond all possibility of escaping. On opening their net, and examining their captive, the largeness of her breasts, and the beauty of her complexion, it was found to be a female; nothing, continued my author [i.e. informant?], could be more lovely, more exactly formed, in all parts above the waist, resembling a complete young woman, but below that, all fish, with fins, and a huge spreading tail. She was carried to a house, and used very tenderly, nothing but liberty being denied. But though they set before her the best provision the place afforded, she could not be prevailed on to eat or drink, neither could they get a word from her, though they knew these creatures were not without the gift of speech, having heard them talk to each other, when sitting regaling themselves on the seaside.
Beachcombing presumes the Merfolk spoke Manx, a language that died out in the 1970s.
They kept her in this manner three days, but perceiving she began to look very ill notwithstanding, and fearing, some calamity would befall the island if they should keep her till she died, they agreed to let her return to the element she liked best and the third night set open their door; which, as soon as she beheld she raised herself from the place where she was then lying, and glided with incredible swiftness, on her tail, to the seaside. They followed at a distance, and saw her plunge into the water, where she was met by a great number of her own species, one of whom asked what she had observed among the people on earth; nothing very wonderful answered she, but that they are so very ignorant, as to throw away the water they boil their eggs in. This question, and her reply, they told me, was distinctly heard by those who stood on the shore to watch what passed.
What is perhaps most interesting is the importance of belief in the creatures for the eighteenth-century Manx:
As I had not yet attained a thorough knowledge of the superstition of these people, nor the passionate fondness for everything that might be termed, the wonderful, I was excessively surprised at this account, given with so serious an air, and so much, and solemnly averred for truth. Indeed, the locals were not happy at our author’s scepticism: I perceived they were not a little disgusted at my want of Faith…
Beachcombing hates baroque capitals and has ‘normalised’ the English in this passage. However, he left that final word in its virgin F-form.
Mermaid stories have never done anyone any harm and Beachcombing hopes to come soon to Barnum’s monstrosity and Carmichael’s Hebridean mermaids. He also has one more Manx mermaid story up his sleeve that will blow away all competitors. Any others? Please write by return post to: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
24 Feb 2011: Invisible has a question relating to this post: When I was studying sea serpents and such under the tutelage of a professor who knew all of Beowulf by heart (and who had recited it in its entirety at times of feast and revelry), I ran across the same concept expressed by the mermaid: they are so very ignorant, as to throw away the water they boil their eggs in. To the best of my recollection I read this same sentiment in a tale from Orkney, rather than Man as I was working on the lore of the seal-folk/Silkies of the Orkney at the time. The tale may have been in Minor Traditions of British Mythology by Lewis Spence. (I can’t find my copy to check. Sorry.) And it has fascinated me ever since: What are the virtues of egg-water? I think about it every time I hard boil eggs, but by the time I remember, it is too late and the water has been poured away. If the liquid contains the secret to eternal life or youth, I have wasted a golden opportunity. I don’t know any food science engineers. If you do, perhaps you could ask them if there are any special merits to the water eggs are boiled in. Beachcombing thanks invisible and has not the slightest idea. The only reference that he can find in Minor Traditions to mermaid eggs are mermaids hiding their souls in fish eggs. Any other references to egg water from ‘the Celtic Mediterranean’? Thanks Invisible!
28 Feb 2011: As SY points out Herbert, The Isle of Man has the following commentary on the quoted piece: ‘The mermaid, or Ben-varrey – history has very little to say of the merman, Dooiney-varrey – is no relation to the Cughtagh, a spirit of the sea, whose raison d’etre was just singing to herself in the spectral gloom of the caves. She sang because she loved to sing, from sheer joie de vivre apparently, and being woven into the labyrinthine muffled noises of the waves surging into the rocky crannies, and always so far from human habitation, the everlasting chant bored nobody, least of all the Cughtagh, who was born for no other purpose than to manufacture carols of the coast. The Benvarrey was much more active. Waldron [our author] tells us of his astonishment when he realized that the Manx had a whole-hearted belief in mermaids, and records several yarns about the fascinating sea-maidens. He says that during Cromwell’s government the Isle of Man was little resorted to by trading vessels, and that ‘uninterruption and solitude of the sea gave the mermen and mermaids (who are enemies to any company but those of their own species) frequent opportunities of visiting the shore, where, on moonlight nights, they have been seen to sit, combing their heads, and playing with each other; but as soon as they perceived anybody coming near them, jumped into the water, and were out of sight immediately’. The exclusiveness which Waldron observed would appear to have been but transitory, for at some periods the special line of the Ben-varrey was an overwhelming affection for every personable Manxman. So frequent and violent were her amatory affairs that she must have been a perfect nuisance to herself, and it is no wonder that, with so many love interests running concurrently, a few of them ran into one another, and were telescoped, necessitating stone-throwing at the young mortal, a rude manner of reprisal for which a highly incensed Ben-varrey showed great partiality. A mortal hit by one of these fairy-thrown missiles at first suffered no pain, only very suddenly, an hour or so afterwards, with an acute stab where the stone had struck, down sank the victim quite dead.’ (183-184) Thanks SY!
20 July 2015: Kate G writes in ‘human ignorance of how to use boiled-egg water — we humans, or some of us, HAVE learned that it is excellent for watering our plants.