Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Women of the Sea

A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

- William Butler Yeats

(picture by Arnold Bocklin, 1827-1901)

Spring seems a fitting time to write about one of mythical creatures often connected to Ireland and the green islands of the north: the mermaid and her close cousin, the seal-woman or selkie.

First is one of my favorite ballads, an odd song that is humorous and mournful at the same time. This is Child Ballad #289 (and like so many of the Child ballads, there are a number of variations, many of which can be found on the British Traditional Music site). Dating to around the mid 1700s, this song is known by several names: The Mermaid, Waves on the Sea, The Wrecked Ship according to Wikipedia, but most commonly called The Mermaid Song. I heard it first on a CD called Classic Ballads of England and Scotland, but learned to sing it from my granddaughters who learned it at Girl Scout camp.

The Mermaid Song

We set sail from old Salem town
We were not far from the land
When our captain spied a pretty mermaid
With a comb and a glass in her hand

Oh the stormy winds may blow
And the stormy waves may roll
While we poor sailors go skipping to the top
And the landlubbers lie down below below below
And the landlubbers lie down below

Then up spoke the Captain of our gallant ship
And a well-spoken Captain was he,
Said I married me a wife in old Salem town
And tonight she a widow will be.

Then up spoke the mate of our gallant ship
And a well-spoken mate was he
Said I married me a wife in old Portsmouth town
And tonight she a widow will be.

Then up spoke the cook of our gallant ship
And a well-spoken cook was he
Said I care much more for my pots and my pans
Than I care for the bottom of the sea.

Then three times around went our gallant ship
And three times around went she
Three times around went our gallant ship
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.

("Sailor's Delight" painting by William Holbrook Beard, 1824-1900)

When I began telling stories, I was enchanted by the stories of seal-women, or selkies. These creatures abound in old stories; they are human on land, but seals beneath the water. Many of the stories end on a mournful note, as a man loses his sealwife back to the sea and her people. Here is one such tale, from stories collected by Jeremiah Curtin. I usually think of selkie stories in relation to Scotland, but Curtin listed this story as coming from Ireland.

Tom Moore and the Seal Woman

(painting by John William Waterhouse, 1849-1917)

In the village of Kilshanig, two miles northeast of Castlegregory, there lived at one time a fine, brave young man named Tom Moore, a good dancer and singer. 'Tis often he was heard singing among the cliffs and in the fields of a night.

Tom's father and mother died, and he was alone in the house and in need of a wife. One morning early, when he was at work near the strand, he saw the finest woman ever seen in that part of the kingdom, sitting on a rock, fast asleep. The tide was gone from the rocks then, and Tom was curious to know who was she or what brought her, so he walked toward the rock.

"Wake up!" cried Tom to the woman. "If the tide comes 'twill drown you."

She raised her head and only laughed. Tom left her there, but as he was going he turned every minute to look at the woman. When he came back be caught the spade, but couldn't work; he had to look at the beautiful woman on the rock. At last the tide swept over the rock. He threw the spade down and away to the strand with him, but she slipped into the sea and he saw no more of her that time.

Tom spent the day cursing himself for not taking the woman from the rock when it was God that sent her to him. He couldn't work out the day. He went home.

Tom could not sleep a wink all that night. He was up early next morning and went to the rock. The woman was there. He called to her.

No answer. He went up to the rock. "You may as well come home with me now," said Tom. Not a word from the woman. Tom took the hood from her head and said, "I'll have this!"

The moment be did that she cried, "Give back my hood, Tom Moore!"
"Indeed I will not, for 'twas God sent you to me, and now that you have speech I'm well satisfied!" And taking her by the arm he led her to the house. The woman cooked breakfast, and they sat down together to eat it.

"Now," said Tom, "in the name of God you and I'll go to the priest and get married, for the neighbors around here are very watchful; they'd be talking." So after breakfast they went to the priest, and Tom asked him to marry them.
"Where did you get the wife?" asked the priest.

Tom told the whole story. When the priest saw Tom was so anxious to marry be charged £5, and Tom paid the money. He took the wife home with him, and she was as good a woman as ever went into a man's house. She lived with Tom seven years, and had three sons and two daughters.

One day Tom was plowing, and some part of the plow rigging broke. He thought there were bolts on the loft at home, so he climbed up to get them. He threw down bags and ropes while he was looking for the bolts, and what should he throw down but the hood which he took from the wife seven years before. She saw it the moment it fell, picked it up, and hid it. At that time people heard a great seal roaring out in the sea.

"Ah," said Tom's wife, "that's my brother looking for me."

Some men who were hunting killed three seals that day. All the women of the village ran down to the strand to look at the seals, and Tom's wife with the others. She began to moan, and going up to the dead seals she spoke some words to each and then cried out, "Oh, the murder!"

When they saw her crying the men said, "We'll have nothing more to do with these seals."

So they dug a great hole, and the three seals were put into it and covered. But some thought in the night, "'Tis a great shame to bury those seals, after all the trouble in taking them." Those men went with shovels and dug up the earth, but found no trace of the seals.

All this time the big seal in the sea was roaring. Next day when Tom was at work his wife swept the house, put everything in order, washed the children and combed their hair; then, taking them one by one, she kissed each. She went next to the rock, and, putting the hood on her head, gave a plunge. That moment the big seal rose and roared so that people ten miles away could hear him. Tom's wife went away with the seal swimming in the sea. All the five children that she left had webs between their fingers and toes, halfway to the tips.

The descendants of Tom Moore and the seal woman are living near Castlegregory to this day, and the webs are not gone yet from between their fingers and toes, though decreasing with each generation.

(From Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World, by Jeremiah Curtin, 1895)

And another story, this one a bit chilling:

The Dead Soldier

THERE is an island in the Shannon, and if a mermaid is seen sitting on the rocks in the sunshine, time people know that a crime has been committed somewhere near; for she never appears but to announce ill-luck, and she has a spite against mortals, and rejoices at their misfortunes.

One day a young fisherman was drawn by the current towards the island, and he came on a long streak of red blood, and had to sail his boat through it till he reached the rocks where the mermaid was seated; and then the boat went round and round as in a whirlpool, and sank down at last under the waves.

Still he did not lose consciousness. He looked round and saw that he was in a beautiful country, with tall plants growing all over it; and the mermaid came and sang sweetly to him, and offered him wine to drink, but he would not taste it, for it was red like blood. Then he looked down, and to his horror he saw a soldier lying on time floor with his throat cut; and all round him was a pool of blood, and he remembered no more till he found himself again in his boat drifting against a hurricane, and suddenly he was dashed upon a rock, where his friends who were in search of him found him, and carried him home.

There he heard a strange thing: a soldier, a deserter from the Athlone Barracks, being pursued had cut his throat and flung himself over the bridge into the river; and this was the very man the young fisher had seen lying a corpse in the mermaid's cave. After this he had no peace or comfort till he went to the priest, who exorcised him and gave him absolution; and then the wicked siren of the rocks troubled him no more, though she still haunts the islands of the Shannon and tries to lure victims to their death.

from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde [1887], online at www.sacred-texts.org

Mermaid Folklore
Art by Arnold Bocklin, 1827-1901)
Seeing a mermaid can be a bad omen--which certainly held true in the Mermaid Song above.

The mermaid looking at herself in a mirror is sometimes considered to be bad luck, although some sources say the mirror is her source of power and to take her power, you need only take her mirror. Other items are also thought to give her power, most notably her hair. Many selkie stories refer to the selkie's seal suit being taken, which forces her to remain in her human form.

From the Isle of Man comes this bit of lore: "The POHLLINAGH was a merman or mermaid. BEN-VARREY is another appellation for mermaid. Mermaids, it seems, were more numerous than mermen, for they were oftener heard of. We are told that these nymphs of the sea have occasionally become enamoured of native youths who chanced to wander in the vicinity of their grottoes." from The Manx Notebook, 1885.

Places to learn more:

This article has good source notes, although does not notate specifically what information came from what sources. The story from the 15th century of a sea-woman is particularly intriguing.

For a long list of mermaid lore, visit this site. No source notes unfortunately, but interesting anyway.

The Devil and The Deep: A Guide to Nautical Myths & Superstitions by Chris Hillier and published by Sheridan House, Inc., (1997) addresses mermaids and all other manner of strange water beings.

Tales of the Seal People by Duncan Williamson is a treasure trove of stories and lore by one of the master storytellers of our time.

There is much, much more to this topic. I've merely skimmed the surface.

Look for more under these headings:

seal woman
seal people

Other names are also used, which does give one to wonder--if they're not real, why have the stories continued for centuries, and why are there so many names in so many cultures? Why can creatures resembling merpeople be found in artworks dating back hundreds of years? It's intriguing, isn't it? As with most folklore and myth, the answers to the why questions will never be answered, leaving us to continue to wonder and hold on to the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, long ago there was some basis in fact for the ancient stories.

In closing, this from the Bard:

Thou rememberest
-Oberon, in Act 2, Scene I of A Midsummer's Night Dream by William Shakespeare


Marilyn said...

According to legend, the McPhies were descended from selkies. I have been pondering that for several years, intrigued by the legend, but not wanting to tell it as a tragic tale of agression, control, rape and/or abuse. I finally figured it out in a way that satisfied me and told the story at a concert last month. I still find myself inexplicably touched by the whole idea.

Granny Sue said...

As do I. Most of us have family legends, but yours is magical. What a story to share with succeeding generations. I can see your dilemma--to be descended from a selkie would seem to indicate that at some time the selkie was removed from her habitat. I would like to hear your story and how you developed it to the way you wanted to tell it.

Jason Burns said...

I actually saw a movie version of the selkie tale. It was really well done! It's called The Secret of Roan Inish. I definitely suggest it.

Cathy said...

I recommend Roan Inish as well. It's beautiful movie and story. I have read many mermaid stories to the girls and they were always fasinated by them even when an ending was not what you would call innocent. Our imaginations want to believe in something so beautiful and children love beautiful things.

Granny Sue said...

I agree, Jason. The Secret of Roan Inish is a beautiful film. I need to watch it again.

You've hit on something there, Cathy--we do want to believe in beautiful and mysterious things. Why else would such stories remain in our folklore for so long? Part of me really thinks that there was at one time some basis in fact for these stories, while my rational mind says "no way." And yet...it's like the Green Man, whose image is everywhere in antiquity. Why? What powerful force did he represent? or was there at one time...the imagination loves it.

tipper said...

A super interesting post!!

Susan said...

I've got quite a few stories in my files, published and unpublished, about mermaids and selkies. They're irresistible!

(I was going to tell you I loved these photos--jeeeeez, they're paintings aren't they? Maybe some of us believe a little tooo much LOL)

Small Pines said...

Oh, I do love mermaid and sea stories. Those are a few really cool ones. Don't know as much as I ought to about this sort of mythology, but I love it all the same. Appreciated the Midsummer's piece too. I always think that it's quick to understand why it's such a perennial among the Bard's works.

Granny Sue said...

Tonight on the way home I was listening to a CD by the Irish group Solas, and there on track #4 was the most haunting of ballads, called the Grey Selkie. I cannot believe I have not heard this ballad before. It is listed as Child Ballad #113--now you know I'm off on the hunt to find other versions of it. Right away I found one on one of my favorite sites, Orkneyjar, which said the ballad originated there. I love this stuff!

Granny Sue said...

Funny how one thing leads to another! Here is a link to Joan Baez singing the Great Silkie on YouTube:


Copy and paste to hear it--absolutely beautiful.

Simon Brooks said...

Hi Granny Sue,
What a great post, as folks have said. I remember the tale of the sea woman being told to me when I was young and love the tale. One of my other favourites is found in Williamson's book. I think it is called the Selkies Farewell. It is about the seal who is found with a great gash and the husband and wife fix te seal up and save its life. Then the wife gets sick and a stranger comes and heals her. It turns out to be the bull seal selkie.

Another Irish story related to the silkies I feel, is the White Trout. That is another haunting and beautiful story.

Thanks Grannie!

Rowan said...

An interesting post Granny Sue, I always admire and envy people who can tell stories, my mum had this talent and my whole childhood was filled with her tale-spinning. She didn't pass this ability on to me unfortunately. I love the Waterhouse painting and the quote from Shakespeare. Also The Mermaid Song - oddly for someone from England I actually know Portsmouth NH very well as I have friends who live near there, have been to Salem too.

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