The Mermaid of Zennor
Every Thursday over on Twitter is Folklore Thursday, a twitter chat using #folklorethursday where people share related stories, blog posts, images, and facts. I adore myths and legends and I’ve always enjoyed reading through the things people share, discovering new tales from elsewhere in the world, but I’ve never contributed much myself. I thought I’d change all that and start sharing some of my favourite nature and Westcountry lore on this blog.
Growing up in Cornwall I’ve always been enchanted by the myths and legends of the southwest. As a child, I was fascinated by the tales of giants, pixies, and witches! What little kid wouldn’t be infatuated with mystical stories that took place on their doorstep? It sparked a love for witchcraft that has stayed with me until this day as anyone who knows me offline will be more than aware. Of course, many of the tales I’ll tell in this blog and future ones are well known, but I’ve always felt that stories should continue to be told. After all, isn’t that the only way to keep them alive? It saddens me to think of forgotten folklore and lost legends! I also know that whilst some of the stories I want to share with you are commonly told in the southwest, I have readers from elsewhere in the country (and indeed the world) who may be less familiar with them.
As we’re still in the midst of National Marine Week 2017, where better to start than with mermaids? This is one of Cornwall’s best-known tales, appearing in many a tourist guide, but it’s also one of the first I fell in love with so it seems the perfect place to begin.
Initially recorded by the Cornish folklorist William Bottrell back in 1873, the mermaid of Zennor is the most famous of the Cornish mermaids, and one that has gone on to inspire many pieces of creative work in a rich variety of mediums from paintings to plays. I remember hearing the story many times throughout childhood, always longing to go to Zennor and find her. A small village between St. Ives and St. Just on Cornwall’s Atlantic coast, Zennor is surrounded by a rugged and wild landscape with high cliffs on one side and hills scattered in granite boulders on the other. You only need to look at a photo of the cliff view to see why it inspired tales of mermaids!
According to the legend, a well-dressed woman used to on occasion attend the St. Senara’s church, the Zennor’s village parish. It was not known where this woman came from, but she was the subject of much discussion in the village due to her mesmerising beauty. Despite attending the church infrequently over many years, she never appeared to age, only adding to both her mystique as well as her list of admirers!
One such suitor was a local man Mathew Trewella, a handsome young man who was said to have quite the angelic voice. Week after week the villagers would come to church to hear him sing, and what was once the occasional visit from the mysterious stranger soon became an almost weekly occurrence. She would slip into the back of the church whilst Mathew sang, and slip out again before the end, only adding to the intrigue and gossip of the locals. Mathew, however, had never witnessed her beauty, on account of being a member of the choir and facing in the opposite direction to the door whilst he sang. Though of course, he’d heard all the rumours! The locals would tease him, declaring that it must be his voice drawing her in.
On one evening his song was particularly beautiful, said to soar into the rafters of the church. Then, all of a sudden, his voice was accompanied by the voice of another, harmonizing perfectly as a duet. It was, of course, the song of the enigmatic stranger in the back. The villagers were in awe, her melody said to be sweeter than all others. Unable to take it anymore, Mathew turned to grab a glimpse of the woman he’d heard so much about. Their eyes met and he lost himself within them, completely captivated by her gaze, yet they didn’t stop singing. The villagers looked on in awe, as bewitched by their music as they were by each other. When they finished the church fell silent, and she slipped away once more.
Fascinated by her, Mathew following her out of the church. This time, she hadn’t completely disappeared. In the distance, he could see her stood beside a stream. He broke out into a run, making his way towards the cliffs where she stood waiting for him, welcomely holding out her hands for the man who’d joined her in song.
As is the case with many a mermaid tale, the handsome Mathew disappeared. A search party tirelessly looked for him, exploring the coast, moorland, and neighbouring villages, but he was never found. At first, the villagers wondered what had happened to the two, but for most the pair soon faded into distant memory, a thought only being spared when they missed Mathew’s voice in the church, as they went back to their daily lives.
That is, until years later. One Sunday morning a ship cast its anchor off of Pendour Cove, a beach about a mile northwest of Zennor. It is said that the fisherman aboard had heard a beautiful voice calling to him across the waves. Upon looking overboard he met the gaze of a woman with flowing long hair, who asked him politely to move his anchor declaring that it was blocking the door way to her home where her husband and child were waiting for her. This woman, it turns out, was Moreven, one of the mermaid daughters of Llyr, a king of the ocean. The villagers concluded that the man she was desperate to return to was Mathew, who must have joined her under the waves after falling deeply in love.
It is said that if you sit on the cliffs at Pendour you can still hear their song, carrying across the ocean. Sounding softly if the seas are to be calm, or deep if Llyr is to make the waves rough that day.
The mermaid chair of Zennor, a bench carved to commemorate the story of Moreven and Mathew, can still be seen in St. Senara’s church to this day.
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This blog post is dedicated to Kanisa, the daughter of my two closest friends. Born in the early hours of this morning (10th August 2017), they’d originally had plans for a water bath and their own little mermaid, but things don’t always go to plan (especially when children are involved). Welcome to the world Kanisa!