Mermaids Ahoy!

The mermaid sculpture in Little Sheringham church

In Upper Sheringham church you will find a mysterious carving. It depicts a mermaid, and reflects one of the most alluring myths that has haunted men’s minds for centuries.

Another fishy tale. . .

Mermaids, as we understand them, are mythical creatures from the sea with a woman’s head and torso and a fish’s tail. The word comes from the Old English for the sea – mere – and maid is the old-fashioned term for a young woman. Their male equivalent is the merman, but, as we shall see, they have not captured the imagination of sailors quite so vividly. Long hours and days spent gazing out at sea can play havoc with a man’s imagination. But it was not just seafaring men who were enchanted by the idea of mermaids – the legend spread far inland and across the world. At All Saints Church, Upper Sheringham, the story goes that some time during the 15th century a service was taking place. As the beadle (a church official) looked to the door he saw a young girl open it up and peek into the church. To his surprise he saw she had a fish’s tail. The beadle shooed her away, slamming the door in her face for everyone knew that mermaids had no soul and were not allowed in God’s house. Undeterred, the mermaid sneaked back in again while the beadle’s back was turned, and sat in the pew to listen to the service. Other versions of the tale insist the mermaid had been washed up on Sheringham beach in rough weather, and hauled herself (or should that be slithered?) up the hill to the church in search of a soul. And that is why a mermaid is carved into a pew end, and the village sign has an illustration of a pair of mermaids around the name.

Nice story. . . totally made up, surely!

One theory is that mermaids were at one time a symbol of prostitution. These supposed sexual predators of the sea became a metaphor for loose women. It could be that the origins of the Upper Sheringham tale concern a notorious prostitute who scandalised parishioners, and the story had grown with the telling. If so it is just another thread to a fantasy that has been going on since ancient times. To the ancient Assyrians in 1000BC the origins of the legend go back to a goddess, Atargatis – who fell in love with a mortal, but turned herself into an aquatic creature in grief after inadvertently causing his death. To the Ancient Greeks they were the Sirens, alluring creatures who sat on the rocks and sang to sailors, distracting them and causing them to founder in dangerous shallow waters – although the Sirens were sometimes seen as birdlike characters rather than humanoid. They also feature in the tales of the Arabian Nights, as ‘Sea People’.

Good. . . or bad?

On the whole, bad. In British folklore the sighting of a mermaid either predicts disaster or causes it. They are also a sign of bad weather to come. Not only are they seen at sea, but in rivers and freshwater lakes. The Lorelei of the German Rhine, as depicted by the likes of Richard Wagner, are a case in point. These tales are not just European in origin, spreading to such places as Japan and the Philippines. Old tales tell of mermaids dragging sailors into the depths and crushing the life out of them. More benign mermaids are said to just forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, so their attempts to revive drowning sailors usually end in disaster. For churchmen, such as the Upper Sheringham beadle, the worst aspect of mermaids was they had no souls, so had to be wicked. Although merfolk were said to live for up to 300 years, they simply disappeared into nothing when they eventually died. Others were less fussy. Our rather more positive view of mermaids is probably influenced by Hans Christian Andersen. His Little Mermaid, written in 1837, was a rather more innocent creation. She was willing to give up her life in the sea in exchange for an eternal soul and the love of a human prince. Eventually, despite being thwarted in her desire to marry a prince, she won her soul by doing good deeds. It’s a long way from dragging sailors to a watery grave! The Danes, as enchanted by the myth as any seafarer, built a bronze statue of a mermaid in Copenhagen harbour in honour of their great storyteller.

What about mermen?

They don’t really get a look in. Supposedly rather ugly, they have simply failed to captured the imagination. One story is probably based on fact. At Orford in Suffolk, a tale persists of a merman who was captured in a fisherman’s net in 1207. Naked and “covered in hair with a long shaggy beard”, when taken into a church “he showed no signs of reverence or belief,” wrote a contemporary chronicler, Ralph of Coggleshall. He would eat anything given him, and was particularly keen on raw fish. The creature was imprisoned in the castle. There, the garrison mistreated him. He “would not talk, although oft times hung up by his feet and harshly tortured”. Probably tiring of such terrible torments, he eventually escaped back to sea, never to be seen again.

And mermaids today?

Divested of their dark origins, mermaids have been given the full Disney and Hollywood treatment in modern times, usually pictured as young and beautiful women with no sinister implications. A number of pubs and inns bear the name, such as the Mermaid Inn at Elsing, Dereham, Hedenham, near Bungay, and – far inland – Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. Look out also for The Mermaid’s Slipper at Stalham. Elsewhere in our region, the Mermaid at Surfleet in Lincolnshire stands by the River Glen. (By the by, the name came in 223rd on a recent list of British pub names listed by website, with 21 in all. The Red Lion is by far the most popular name, with 567 across the country.)

Anything else?

Local rockpoolers come across mermaid’s purses. These are egg capsules left by some sharks, skates and dogfish which resemble a sort of pouch. Presumably, they are not filled with some sort of mermaid currency. . .

Taken from the book Anglian Annals by Peter Sargent