It is hard to explain why mermaid stories are so common. Mermaids of various forms seem to be part of the mythology of all fishing, coastal living and sea-faring peoples around the world. They have been so for thousands of years. In ancient Babylon, in the beginning of civilisation, a fish-tailed god called Oannes was worshipped as lord of the waters. Water sprites, many fish-tailed, were rife in Greek and Roman mythology. In Britain, Celtic legends and folklore from the coastal dwellers most likely underly our myths.
But where did the image come from? The image of beautiful, alluring sea-dwellers who are half human, half fish, magical, sometimes dangerous, sometimes benevolent? Why is it found in art and literature throughout the world, firing people’s imaginations right up to the present day?
Again, why, in so many cultures do mermaids have a love of music, with entrancing voices themselves? Sometimes their singing is used to lure people to their deaths or sometimes to attract human lovers to a wonderful life with them beneath the waves, as in this story.
Are these stories the result of people mistaking various fishes and sea-dwelling mammals as human, as is often suggested? But would not coastal people and sailors know the creatures in their waters better than that, others argue? Another theory says that maybe the stories come from memories of a time when coastal people would swim beneath the seas in search of food such as shellfish. Females have a better resistance to the cold, so this may have been more likely to be their job, whilst the males hunted on land.
Maybe we shall never know for certain, but that does not prevent us from enjoying the magic of these myths and legends.
What do we know about St. Senara’s church?
St Senara's Church, Zennor
St. Senara’s church is in the coastal village of Zennor, which is in north west Cornwall, about 10km north of Penzance. The church is at least 1400 years old and nowadays is a Grade 1 listed building, but is still in constant use.
There has been a church dedicated to St. Senara on the site since at least the 6th century, when the Irish and Breton missionaries came to Cornwall to convert the locals to Christianity. The graveyard, which is still in use, is circular and is an Iron Age site which overlies the Stone and Bronze Age boundaries. It contains 2 ancient crosses.
The church was rebuilt in Norman times and extended in the 15th century. In the early days, the church’s bell rope was made from straw, and there is a local legend that one day a cow ate the bell-rope.
On the wall outside, next to the west porch, there is a memorial to John Davy who died in 1891. He was the last person to speak Cornish as his native tongue.
Next to the church is an enclosed garden containing a statue of St Senara.
Who was St. Senara?
Mother and child being pulled from the waves - Waterhouse
Saint Senara is herself the subject of legend and speculation. In reality, very little is known about her. She is reputed to be Breton princess, Asenora, a devout Christian.
The story tells that she was married to a Breton king (maybe King Goello). His mother was a pagan and disliked the influence her Christian daughter-in-law had upon her son. When Senara became pregnant, the king’s mother took a story of his wife’s infidelity to the king with faked evidence. He, believing his mother, ignored his wife’s protestations of innocence and had her nailed into a barrel and thrown into the sea.
The barrel floated towards Ireland. As Senara was due to give birth, an angel came to her aid, providing her with food and drink. Once the baby was born, the barrel was washed up on the coast and mother and child were taken in by a fisherman and his wife. As the baby boy, Budoc, grew up, he and his mother set out to found churches and convert the local people to Christianity.
Eventually, they arrived in Cornwall where they founded the church of St. Senara which gave its name to the village of Zennor. King Goello eventually heard of his wife and son’s survival and their good work. He sent word asking them to return to Brittany, where he reinstated Asenora as his queen and recognized his son as his heir.
In other versions, she was washed up in Cornwall and founded the church and Zennor before continuing to Ireland. The story is remarkably similar to that of Danae in Greek mythology, who was cast into the sea in a wooden box with her son Perseus.
What have mermaids to do with the church?
Mermaid Chair in St Senara Church
St. Senara’s church contains a very famous chair, called the “Mermaid Chair”. It is in the side aisle of the church and is thought to be over 600 years old. On its seat are carvings of fish and on one side there is a carving of a mermaid! The mermaid is holding up a mirror and a comb.
It seems strange that such an ancient mythical creature as a mermaid should be in a church, as mermaids were seen by early Christians as symbols of the sins of the flesh.
But in medieval mystery plays in Cornwall, the mermaid was used to explain the two natures of Christ. Just as she was both human and fish, so Christ could be both human and divine.
Locally it is believed that the carving commemorates the legend of Matthew Trewhella and the mermaid, though there is speculation about whether the legend inspired the carving or the carving the legend.