Eggs, Mermaids and Fairies October 26, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Like, to use an Old Testament image, a dog returning to its vomit, Beach is sidling back to a problem from several months ago. The following reference appears in Waldron’s Description of the Isle of Man and what confuses Beachcombing is the final reference to eggs
Some people who lived near the coast, having observed [the mermaids’] 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… 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. […?] 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.
Why does the mermaid show such an interest in the water that eggs are boiled in? One possibility is that the story-teller was making clear the difference between the mermaid and the human world: humans are interested in the eggs, mermaids in the water. But there is an interesting parallel here with changeling belief as attested from Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When a parent suspected that a child was a changeling there were a number of strategies the parent could adopt. Take the following text from mid-nineteenth-century Ireland where a mother must decide what to do about her changeling child.
Some wanted her to put [the child] out on a hot shovel; others to make egg-broth before it, that is, to boil egg-shells, and offer it the water they were boiled in for its dinner, which would make it speak at once; others to keep its head under water for twenty and five minutes, when, if it was a right child, it would be drowned; if it was not, why it would be alive in the face of the country.
Offering a child egg-shell soup would seem a fairly mild strategy in relation to the others, even an act of random madness. But the point of the offering of egg-shells is to trick the non-talking changeling into an indiscretion. Typically the changeling, who pretends not to speak, is excited into uttering something by his foster parents’ bizarre behaviour. The classic text from the Gaelic world is ‘The Brewery of Egg Shells’ in a famous nineteenth-century Irish folklore collection:
30-31 The child was lying for a wonder quite easy and quiet in the cradle, every now and then cocking his eye, that would twinkle as keen as a star in a frosty night, over at the great fire, and the big pot upon it; and he looked on with great attention at Mrs. Sullivan breaking the eggs, and putting down the egg-shells to boil. At last he asked, with the voice of a very old man, ‘What are you doing, mammy?’ Mrs. Sullivan’s heart, as she said herself, was up in her mouth ready to choke her, at hearing the child speak. But she contrived to put the poker in the fire, and to answer, without making any wonder at the words, ‘I’m brewing, a vick (my son)’. ‘And what are you brewing, mammy?’ said the little imp, whose supernatural gift of speech now proved beyond question that he was a fairy substitute. ‘I wish the poker was red,’ thought Mrs. Sullivan; but it was a large one, and took a longtime heating: so she determined to keep him in talk until the poker was in a proper state to thrust down his throat, and therefore repeated the question. ‘Is it what I’m brewing, a vick’, said she, ‘you want to know?’ ‘Yes, mammy: what are you brewing?’ returned the fairy. ‘Egg-shells, a vick.’ said Mrs. Sullivan. ‘Oh!’, shrieked the imp, starting up in the cradle, and clapping his hands together, ‘I’m fifteen hundred years in the world, and I never saw a brewery of egg-shells before!’ The poker was by this time quite red, and Mrs. Sullivan seizing it, ran furiously towards the cradle; but somehow or other her foot slipped, and she fell flat on the floor, and the poker flew out of her hand to the other end of the house. However, she got up, without much loss of time, and went to the cradle intending to pitch the wicked thing that was in it into the pot of boiling water, when there she saw her own child in a sweet sleep, one of his soft round arms rested upon the pillow – his features were as placid as if their repose had never been disturbed, save the rosy mouth which moved with a gentle and regular breathing.
The significance of the eggs has been debated by others before Beachcombing. Are they a memory of a time when the changeling was boiled – see the end of this tale? Are they a psychological symbol of individuation? Or are they just a chance motif thrown up by the European folklore tradition – such tales stretch all the way through northern Europe? What does matter is that the reference to eggs may offer an insight into Waldron’s mermaid text.
[The mermaid] 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. […?]
The mermaid is allowed to go back to the sea.
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.
There are parallels here with the changeling tradition: the locals cannot get the mermaid to speak and yet it is finally the eggs boiled in water that cause her to utter words that are ‘distinctly heard’. The fact that the mermaid is surprised that the boiled water was thrown away may be Waldron’s misunderstanding of the Manx tale or a variant. Perhaps a mermaid and a fairy are of the same genus, after all?
And yet… And yet… There are other references that break this neat explanation. For example, in one late nineteenth-century text from the Scottish Highlands we read:
A mermaid was caught by a man of Skye and kept by him for a year, during which time she gave him ‘much curious information’. When they parted, he asked her ‘what virtue or evil there was in egg water’ – water in which eggs had been boiled. To this she returned the tantalising answer, if I tell you that, you have a tale to tell, and disappeared.
Or what about this from the Orkneys in the seventeenth century as paraphrased by Diane Purkiss (90) in her excellent Troublesome Things. A fairy explains to a girl, one Elspeth that to become wise she should ‘Take an egg and roast it. And take the sweat of it three Sundays. And with unwashed hands wash her eyes wherby [sic] she should see and know any thing she desired.’
What the hell is going on here? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
27 Oct 2011: James writes about witches and the sea and notes that Reginald Scot’s catalogue in Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) states that witches could ‘saile in an egge shell, a cockle or muscle shell, through and under the tempestuous seas. ‘(Bk.I ch.14 p.6) This is how the witches travel in Jonson’s Masque of Queenes: — ‘we all must home i’ the egg shell sail’. So there you are. Invisible also has been doing her research: ‘I dipped into A Dictionary of Superstitions (Opie and Tatem), to see what it says about eggs and found some interesting points about eggs being unlucky for seafarers: “EGG” taboo word 1875 Notes & Queries 5th series II, p. 204 [Flamborough, Yorks.] The fishermen…had a great fear if…eggs were spoken of. 1923 P S Jeffrey, Whitby Lore, p. 138 [Staithes, York., 1885] An egg is deemed so unlucky that the fishermen will not even use the word, but call the produce of the fowl a “roundabout.” EGGS on board ship 1885 Folklore, p. 55 [Rosehearty, Aberdeen ] Eggs are [supposed to cause contrary winds], and there are fishermen that would not allow a single one on board. 1853 Notes & Queries 1st series VII p. 152 [ Somerset ] Always poke a hole through your egg-shell before you throw it away. If you don’t, the fairies will put to sea to wreck the ships. [same thing said of witches] 1887 ‘Speranza’ Wilde Superstitions of Ireland II p. 102. People ought to remember that egg-shells are favourite retreats of the fairies, therefore the judicious eater should always break the shell after use, to prevent the fairy sprite from taking up his lodgment therein. Thinking practically, given the food value of chickens on a long sea voyage, I find it interesting that eggs are considered so unlucky by mariners (of course many things were unlucky onboard ship including pigs, whistling, red hair—and mermaids.). If even mentioning eggs onboard was unlucky, it must have been doubly unlucky to overhear a mermaid discussing them. Further, I find that this statement in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland , Collected Entirely from Oral Sources, Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, 1900. p. 230: It is unlucky to use for washing your hands or face water in which eggs have been boiled or washed. It is a common saying when mischance befalls a person through his own stupidity, “I believe egg water was put on me.” I also remembered a fairy tale read in childhood called “The Sea Maiden” in which the life of the sea maiden was contained in an egg. An old soothsayer tells the hero how to kill the mermaid, who has kidnapped his princess: “On an island in the middle of the loch is a white deer whose slender legs are swifter than a cry. If you catch her, from her mouth will come a black crow, a hoodie, that is strong of wing. If you catch it, from its mouth will come a trout that can swim faster than a racing salmon. If you catch it, out of its mouth will come an egg. In the egg is the life of the sea maiden. Crush it and she dies.” [This is a Scottish tale found in Popular Tales of the West Highlands by John Francis Campbell and Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs. Both of these are available online.] If a mermaid’s life was contained in an egg, then what is special about the water it is boiled in? And yet, aren’t the mermaids in the tales speaking of ordinary hens’ eggs? Still more food, as it were, for thought. Cracking under the strain of trying to find an answer’ Thanks Invisible and James!
27 Oct 2011: Diane Purkiss author of the brilliant Troublesome Things (At the Bottom of the Garden in the US) writes in: ‘I liked your webpage on eggs and mermaids and changelings. It’s a recurring motif in folktales about changelings, and nobody has really explained it, but it’s interesting to note how little folklore there is on eggs in general. Chickens very rarely get bewitched – it does happen, but not often in comparison with dairy animals and pigs – so I wonder if the egg has some kind of power derived from being an enclosed but living thing? But I don’t REALLY know, and people often do rituals without really understanding how they came into being – why a rabbit’s foot, why unlucky thirteen? – though the latter is also VERY recent.’ Thanks Prof Purkiss!