A variety of fish-tailed gods were worshipped by the first civilisations of the Middle East, and the earliest known of these was Oannes, Lord of the Waters, who appeared about 7000 years ago.
However, it is unclear what the connection is between these ancient gods and the mermaids that were reported by European sailors from around the 15th century onwards. But sightings were at one time pretty common in Cornwall.
British folklore proposes that the mermaid represents an early depiction of the goddess Aphrodite, who was seen as a warning by medieval Christians against the sins of lust.
But she also had another interpretation amongst seafaring communities, where she was also used to illustrate the two natures of Christ. As she was both human and fish like, so Christ could be both human and divine, a powerful message for the inhabitants of this isolated region whose lives were both dependent upon and intertwined with the sea.
There are a variety of stories of Cornish mermaids, but the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor seems the most deeply embedded in the local folklore: she features in books, songs, cartoons and art works.
Since centuries, a church dedicated to St. Senara stands in the lovely seaside village of Zennor.
According to the legend, Senara was Breton princess, a devout Christian, who was married to a king named Goello. When Senara became pregnant the king’s mother falsely accused her of infidelity, and the king cast into the sea. According to the story, she was put in a barrel, which was then nailed shut and allowed to drift on the waves. The barrel drifted to Ireland, and she was rescued by an angel. After her son, Budoc, had grown, they both set out to convert the natives to Christianity.
Alternative versions of the same story say that she was washed up at Zennor, where she founded a church, before continuing on to Ireland, or that she came ashore in Ireland, and only later visited Cornwall and founded a church here.
Historically, although the earliest records of the present building date from 1150, it is a certainty that a church of some sorts has stood on this site since at least the 6th century, when the Irish and Breton missionaries came to Cornwall with the intention of converting the natives to their religion.
The stone structure includes a tower and a small cemetery.
Inside, however, there is one of the most intriguing features: a wooden bench carved from oak with carvings of fish on the seat and a long haired woman with curvaceous figure admiring herself in a mirror. Instead of legs she has a scaly tail with fins on either side. This is the “Mermaid Chair.”
According to local lore, a long time ago, a beautiful and richly dressed woman would occasionally attend services at the church. She would appear from time to time over the course of many years, but never seemed to age. Of course, locals noted her beauty and her lovely singing voice, but no one knew where she came from. The mysterious woman was enchanted to a young man named Mathew Trewella, a churchwarden’s son, who sang at Zennor church.
Each Sunday she would sit at the back of the church, spellbound by his beautiful voice. They fell in love, but the woman knew that she could not survive for long away from her home in the sea.
Sadly she had to say to Mathew that she would have to go. Mathew was distraught and told her that he could not live without her. Thus, she led him along the tiny stream that still babbles through the centre of the village and into the sea at nearby Pendour Cove.
The two were never seen again.
As story goes, one day at Pendower Cove, a mermaid appeared to an anchored ship and asked them to move the anchor, as it was blocking her door and preventing access to her husband and children. The mysterious woman turned out to be Morveren, one of the daughters of Llyr, king of the ocean according to Cornish folklore. The villagers then knew their mystery visitor had taken Matthew Trewella to the sea. They live together now in the seas surrounding the beautiful Cornish coast.
So…did the legend inspire the mermaid chair carving, or did the carving give rise to the legend?
Sad but true: It’s almost impossible to say for sure.
One version of the story says that the wooden seat, that dates back possibly to the 15th century, was carved to commemorate the events, and to warn other young men who may be tempted by mysterious women. Another version says that the mermaid chair was the very bench on which the mystery woman would sit as she sang in church, prior to enticing young Mathew away from his home.
Interestingly, there are two other unusual carved bench ends at Towednack church, just two and a half miles from Zennor. Dated 1633 the panels show two churchwardens: Matthew Trenwith and James Trewhella. Matthew Trewhella’s father? And might the real Matthew have disappeared in strange circumstances and his true story has evolved into this fantastic legend? Of course it could be amazing, even though, checking the parish records for Towednack, there were no less than fourteen Matthew Trewhellas christened between 1679 and 1849!
Still today, in warm summer evenings, if you stroll to the picturesque inlet now called “Mermaid’s Cove,” local people will tell you that the sweet voice of Mathew can be heard carrying across the waves as he sings of his undying love for Morveren, the Mermaid of Zennor. Their voices rising from beneath the thunderous percussion of the crashing waves.
Legends apart, visitors are drawn to Zennor Church from all over the world by the magical story of the ancient Mermaid Chair and by the enchanting beauty of Cornwall itself.
Images from Web – Google Research