Why would a mermaid be depicted in a church?
It’s not really a Christian symbol, and as far as I’m aware there are no mermaids in the Bible. And yet, in the Church of St Senara, in the village of Zennor in West Cornwall, is a bench with the unmistakable carving of a mermaid.
With long flowing hair, she carries a comb in her left hand, and a mirror in her right.
Mermaids exist in myths far older than Christianity, and in legends from countries as far apart as Brtain, Brazil, and Japan. Older legends associate mermaids with the Sirens of Greek mythology, and are usually omens of bad luck.
What is the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor?
Although there are variations in different tellings of the legend, the essentials are that a mermaid from nearby Pendour Cove was so entranced by the singing in church of a local man, Matthew Trewella, that she would sit in the back of the Church to listen to him. It is said that one day he followed her, even beneath the waves, and was never seen again. According to the legend, a sea-captain came across a mermaid many years later, who told him she still lived with Matthew, and their children, at the bottom of the sea.
When this legend originated, we do not know. The earliest recorded account was by William Bottrell in 1873, in his book Traditions and Hearthside stories of West Cornwall.
Since the bench dates from the 1500s, it is probable that the story developed from the carving rather than the other way round.
To discover why the image of a mermaid ended up in a church, we need to consider the relationship of pagan myths and Christianity in medieval times. The mermaid was originally associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and later with the Venus, the Roman goddess associated with love, sex, and fertility. The symbols of Venus included a mirror and a comb.
The early and medieval church frequently borrowed earlier myths and changed them to suit their own purposes. Christmas and Easter are both adaptions of older pagan festivals. In the case of the Venus/mermaid myths, these creatures came to symbolise the sins of vanity and lust. There are, in fact, several carvings of mermaids in medieval churches, such as at Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway. Crowcombe Church, in Somerset, has a mermaid (or merman?) carved on a bench-end similar to that in Zennor.
To further muddle the myths, Crowcombe Church includes another carving combining the pagan myth of the Green Man with the symbol of the mermaid.
The mermaid chair is the most well-known artefact within the Church of St Senara. It is not, though, the only thing of interest. In the churchyard are memorials to Vera Atkins, a leading member of the wartime Special Operations Executive, and John Davey, one of the last native speakers of the Cornish language. In a later post, I will look at these individuals in more detail, and explore the fascinating history of the church itself.
I have always found the village of Zennor enchanting. For a village so small, it has a surprising number of interesting historical reminders. Beyond the church and its contents, the Wayside Museum contains a restored waterwheel, the village contains a memorial to the cholera epidemics of the mid-1800s, and there are tangible connections with DH Lawrence and John Wesley.
My first visit to zennor was in 1979, as a teenager. A friend and I had decided to walk part of the South West Coast Path and we started out from St Ives. Zennor was our first refreshment stop. Lunch at the Tinners Arms will always be a special memory.
It is easy to drive to Zennor; it is just off the B3306 St Ives to Land’s End road. A visit for an hour or two, or longer, or an overnight stay at the Tinners Arms, has much to recommend it. The best way to get to Zennor, though, is to follow the coast path from St Ives, then head inland from Zennor Head. Following the coffin path back to St Ives would give a 12-mile circular walk, and a rewarding day out.