The word, “mermaid,” is derived from a combination of “mere,” an old English word meaning “sea,” and “maid,” as in “woman.” According to old sea-faring legends, mermaids would often deliberately sing to sailors to try and enchant them, with the secret and malevolent intent of distracting them from their work and causing their ships to run disastrously aground. Other ancient tales tell of mermaids inadvertently squeezing the last breaths out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to particularly enjoy taking humans to their underwater lairs. In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, for example, it is said that mermaids often forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while other legends suggest the sinister she-creatures deliberately drown men – out of sheer, venomous spite, no less. The fabled Sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in folklore as being mermaid-like in nature and appearance. Other related types of mythical, legendary creatures that fall into this category include water-nymphs and selkies, animals that can allegedly transform themselves from seals into human beings – and vice-versa, too.
Mermaids were noted in British folklore as being distinctly unlucky omens – occasionally foretelling disaster and sometimes even maliciously provoking it, too. As evidence of this, several variations on the ballad, Sir Patrick Spens, depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships. In some, she tells the crews they will never see land again, and in others she claims they are near the shore, which the men are wise and astute enough to know means that deep, malevolent deception is at work. The ballad itself is of Scottish origins, and may possibly refer to an actual event; namely, the bringing home of the Scottish Queen Margaret, Maid of Norway, across the North Sea in 1290. There is, however, some speculation that the ballad may actually relate to a voyage by the princess’ mother in 1281. But, regardless of the specific truth behind the ballad itself, its words are prime evidence of both the knowledge and the deep fear of mermaids that has existed in the British Isles for an untold number of centuries.
One such account tells of a deadly mermaid inhabiting a small pool in the pleasant little village of Childs Ercall, England. In 1893, the writer Robert Charles Hope described the story as follows: “…there was a mermaid seen there once. It was a good while ago, before my time. I dare say it might be a hundred years ago. There were two men going to work early one morning, and they had got as far as the side of the pond in [a] field, and they saw something on the top of the water which scared them not a little. They thought it was going to take them straight off to the Old Lad himself! I can’t say exactly what it was like, I wasn’t there, you know; but it was a mermaid, the same as you read of in the papers.
“The fellows had almost run away at first, they were so frightened, but as soon as the mermaid had spoken to them, they thought no more of that. Her voice was so sweet and pleasant, that they fell in love with her there and then, both of them. Well, she told them there was a treasure hidden at the bottom of the pond – lumps of gold, and no one knows what. And she would give them as much as ever they liked if they would come to her in the water and take it out of her hands.
“So they went in, though it was almost up to their chins, and she dived into the water and brought up a lump of gold almost as big as a man s head. And the men were just going to take it, when one of them said: ‘Eh!’ he said (and swore, you know), ‘if this isn’t a bit of luck!’ And, my word, if the mermaid didn’t take it away from them again, and gave a scream, and dived down into the pond, and they saw no more of her, and got none of her gold. And nobody has ever seen her since then. No doubt the story once ran that the oath which scared the uncanny creature involved the mention of the Holy Name.”
Moving on, there is the story of Mermaid’s Pool (also known as Blakemere Pool), which can be found at the Staffordshire, England village of Thorncliffe, on the Staffordshire Moorlands, which are dominated by forests, lakes, rolling hills, and crags. It’s a story that dates back approximately 1,000 years. Lisa Dowley is someone who has spent a great deal of time and effort pursuing the story and sorting fact from legend. She says: “The story transpires that this particular mermaid was once a maiden of fair beauty, and it came to pass – for reasons that are unclear – that she was persecuted, and accused of various crimes, by a gentleman named Joshua Linnet. It is not clear whether these accusations included being a witch, or whether he may have had his amorous advances rejected.
“The said Mr. Linnet had this woman bound up, and thrown into the bottomless Blakemere Pool. As she fought for her breath and life, the woman screamed vengeance on her accuser, Joshua Linnet, and that her spirit would haunt the pool from that moment hence, and swore that one day she would drag her accuser and executioner deep down beneath the dark depths of the Blakemere Pool to his own death. It is a recorded fact that three days later, Joshua Linnet was found face down, dead in the Blakemere Pool. When his body was dragged out and turned over by the locals, to their horror, what greeted them was that what was once his face, but was now nothing more than tattered shreds of skin, the injuries seemingly caused by sharp claws or talons.”
Moving on, situated barely a stone’s throw from the Shropshire, England town of Newport and just over the border from rural Staffordshire, Aqualate Mere – at 1.5 kilometers long and 0.5 kilometers wide – is the largest natural lake in the Midlands; yet it is very shallow, extending down to little more than a uniform three-feet. Legend has it that one day many years ago, when the Mere was being cleaned, a mermaid violently rose out of the water – quite naturally scaring the living daylights out of the work-men – while simultaneously making shrieking, disturbing and damning threats to utterly destroy the town of Newport if any attempt was ever made to empty Aqualate Mere of its precious waters. Very wisely, perhaps, the Mere was not – and, to date, never has been – drained.