The Mermaid of Zennor,  by John Reinhard Weguelin (1900)
The Mermaid of Zennor, by John Reinhard Weguelin (1900)

I’m still thinking about Mermaids this week. Today’s story, “The Mermaid of Zennor,” was first retold by William Bottrell in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, 1873. Zennor is a village in Cornwall, England. There, at St. Senara’s church, is a 15th-century carved bench-end that depicts a mermaid, which was probably the inspiration for the tale. I’m relating the version of the story I like best. I read it here.

Long ago, a beautiful and richly dressed woman occasionally attended services at St. Senara’s Church in Zennor, and sometimes at Morvah. The parishioners were enchanted by her beauty and her lovely singing voice. She had many would-be suitors, on of whom was  Mathey Trewella. Mathey was handsome and had the best singing voice in the village.  After services one day, he followed the mysterious lady toward the cliffs. Neither were ever seen at services again.

The Mermaid of Zennor, wood-carved bench end, Cornwall, late fifteenth century.  Photo by Tom Oates
The Mermaid of Zennor, wood-carved bench end, Cornwall, late fifteenth century. Photo by Tom Oates

Years passed and eventually Mathey’s disappearance faded in the village’s memory. Until one Sunday a ship cast anchor about a mile from Pendour Cove. Soon after, a mermaid appeared, and asked that the anchor be raised because it was resting on her door, and she was anxious to get back to her husband, Mathey, and her children. It turned out that the beautiful stranger was in fact one of the daughters of Llyr, king of the ocean, a mermaid named Morveren. The sailors obliged, and quickly set sail, believing the mermaid to be an ill omen. But when the villagers heard of this, they concluded that the mermaid was the same lady who had long visited their church, and that she had enticed Mathey Trewella to come and live with her. The parishioners at St. Senara’s commemorated the story by having one end of a bench carved in the shape of a mermaid. It also served as a warning to other young men of the dangers of mermaids.

A slightly different version tells that Morveren was drawn to the church by Mathey’s singing. One night a particular lovely verse made her sigh and Mathey  turned to her, their eyes met, and it was love at first sight. The mermaid was frightened and made her way back to the sea with Mathew and some of the townsfolk in pursuit. In her haste to get back to the sea Morveren became tangled in her dress and tripped. Mathey saw the tip of her fish tail poking out from beneath the dress.  She told him she could not stay, that she belonged in the sea, but he didn’t care. “Then I will go with ye. For with ye is where I belong.”

Mathey carried her into the sea and neither was seen again. However, the villagers could still hear Mathey singing, soft and high if the day was to be fair, deep and low if Llyr was going to make the seas rough.

I love a happy ending. I like to believe he followed her willingly into the sea, that they truly loved each other, not that she tricked him.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.


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