What did Regency Mermaids Get Up To?

Ww c14 The Hours of Yolande of Flanders

C14 Book of Hours The comb and mirror are symbols of Venus

Joanna here, asking: What did Regency mermaids get up to?

You have doubtless spent a lot of time wondering about this.

They differed significantly from modern mermaids. Disney’s singing amphibians were not a gleam on the horizon. Even the source story of that movie – Hans  Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, (Danish title Den Lille Havfrue) – wasn’t written till 1837 and not translated till 1845.

You ever notice how we don’t know the name of the mermaid in Andersen’s story? She’s like the heroine of Rebecca. This business of Fairy Tale protagonists having only a nickname or profession … Is this Fraught With Significance?

So. What kinda mermaids were floating around n 1800?

–  You could pay your pence and go see an ugly, shriveled-up specimen on exhibition or

Ww fake mermaid

Does not look so much like yer traditional mermaid

spot one displayed as a curiosity in a coffee house or tavern. The tradition of fake mermaids dated to at least the Sixteenth Century.

And, frankly, the mermaids were probably just as convincing as the duckbilled platypus in the next case.


They had accounts of sightings from reliable sources.


A traditional mermaid

A more ordinarty mermaid


Nor yet is the figure generally attributed to the nereids at all a fiction; only in them, the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales. For one of these creatures was seen upon the same shores, and as it died, its plaintive murmurs were heard even by the inhabitants at a distance.

The legatus of Gaul, too, wrote word to the late Emperor Augustus that a considerable number of nereids had been found dead upon the sea-shore.

     Pliny the Elder, The Natural History


On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [on Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits. The Admiral says that he had seen some, at other times, on the coast of Guinea, where you find manequeta.
     Dominican Bartolomé de la Casas quoting Christopher Columbus’, Journal of the First Voyage


"All day and night cleere sunshine. The wind at east. The latitude at noone 75 degrees 7 minutes. We held westward by our account 13 leagues. In the afternoon, the sea was asswaged, and the wind being at east we set sayle, and stood south and by east, and south southeast as we could. This morning one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time shee was come close to the ships side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after a sea came and overturned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a womans, as they say that saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner."
    Henry Hudson, Logbook, Second Voyage,  June 15, 1608

There continued to be a robust Regency sea folklore with sailors' eyewitness accounts. And rather more sailors repeating somebody else’s account

Wiki manatee

Here's a manatee.
You be the judge.

Many spoilsports suggested these were tall tales. Others posited drunken myopic sailors.And some folks offered manatees. Eighteenth Century Rationalists would have been perfectly happy with manatees, never having seen one.

Also, the stories of mermaids were of great antiquity which leant them an air of authority. I mean, who wants to argue with Pliny?


Deasura, about whom your average Regency buck knew nothing

The very oldest mermaids aren't so much relevant to the Regency. It’s unlikely your average Regency banker or barrister or baron knew much about Babylonian and Sumerian deities like Atargatis (aka Desura) the half fish/half human chief goddess of northern Syria, mother of Semiramis.

But with the loose change of all that Classical education in their pockets 1800 folks couldn’t help but trip over Greek and Roman mermaids, nereids, and other exciting marine mythical sorts. Lots of pastiche animals.

Ww sirens odyssey

Sirens, making everybody unhappy


Odysseus’ encounter with the sirens probably had feathers involved. Homer doesn’t get down to taxonomic details, but the available images show sirens as birds.

By Medieval times sirens stopped being bird-ladies and became fish-ladies. When Geoffrey Chaucer translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, (1378-1381) he translated “sirenae” as “meremaydenes.”  



In keeping with the general weirdness of the Medieval, there are some images with BOTH wings and tail

There’s a story that goes with that.

In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene book II (1590s), "mermayds . . . making false melodies" tempt the heroes. These mermaids, Spenser explained, were once "fair ladies" but arrogantly challenged the "Heliconian maides" (the Greek Muses) and were turned to fish below the waist as punishment. (This sort of ties in with Pausanias’ Description of Greece from around the 2nd century A. D., where the Sirens and Muses had a singing competition. The Sirens lost and the Muses plucked out their feathers to make into crowns.)
      Writing in the Margins, Fish or Fowl: How Did Sirens Become Mermaids?




Medieval mermaids differed from Disney’s Ariel in that they ate human flesh, sank ships, displayed sexually transgressive behavior, and lured men to their death.

Ww burne jones

Burne-Jones of whom I speak slightingly below

Medieval mermaids had fishy reputations.
(Okay. I didn’t say that.)

In short – they were not just pretty faces.
They were badass

…spekth of meermaides in the see,
How þat so inly mirie syngith shee
that the shipman therwith fallith asleepe,
And by hir aftir deuoured is he.
From al swich song is good men hem to keepe  
     Thomas Hoccleve, Male Regle, 1406 

We see lots of depictions of mermaids in Medieval bestiary, marginalia, and the odd Book of Hours. The combination of exotic sailor-killing sealife and nudity seems to have been irresistible.
represented sexuality and tenptation. But respectable, y’know. It was natural history. Like painting zebras.

The split tailed mermaids — in case you've every wondered — showed up in the C7 onward. I find them a bit puzzling. Rude and earthy. Authentic, but odd. I suppose they made good sense in the cultural context.

Mermaid mosaic

Otano Cathedral 1088

Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 1.51.37 PM

Skipping nimbly past Shakespeare, who does not seem to have depicted mermaids as malevolent to any extent, we move into the Regency period.

Mermaids were trivialized.

The mermaids for supper provided such dishes
As suited the palates of Gods and of fishes …  
     A. Taby, The Fishes’ Feast with A Mermaid’s Song. 1806


Plucks harp c 1800

 Regency mermaid,  no longer boldly sexual

In 1800, our sophisticated Regency character stands at the cusp, as it were, in the matter of mermaids. Sailors' tales are not taken seriously. There's a whole world of exotic animals out there for the scientifically minded to theorize about. The educated are skeptical of mermaid reality, unconcerned with them as a danger to shipping, and no longer fascinated with this particular model of dangerous femininity, having doubtless found others.

Mermaids have dwindled to minor creatures of Classical myth, subject of naughty sea shanties, and not yet established in children’s tales.
Significanyly, t
he Regency had not yet embraced the Romantic mermaids of Burne-Jones.

An unsatisfactory time for mermaids, I suppose.
But at least they're not yet wearing scallop shells on their breasts.

So. What legends do you wish were real. Mermaids? Brownies? (House brownies is my own secret desire.)

Do you have a favored bit of folklore you’d really like to be true?

A Colorful Regency

Ww orange

What I was mulling over

Joanna here:  I was thinking about orange the other day. Not so much the delightful fruit, but “orange” as a color. I talked about this before in an earlier posting. Here.

What I was specifically mulling over was how folks in England had been  confronted with the color orange every day – flowers, sunsets, trees in the fall, ochre mud on their mukluks – from the day they hiked out of Doggerland and ended up in Britain. Somehow they didn’t have a special word for orange and apparently didn’t miss it,

In Sanskrit the orange fruit is a nāranja. Making its way through Arabic, Old Provencal, Old French and Middle English turned it into an orange and the color came from that in C14.

C14 robe

It wasn't as if they didn't HAVE orange

So what did they call that color before the Fourteenth Century? Apparently  geoluhread.  As in, "Wow. Love your geoluhread i-pod!"  Geoluhread would roughly translate as yellow-red and I am sure we are all grateful to Sanskrit for its intervention into what would have been a dismal shade with a long name.

Did folks think of orange as a distinct color, or was it just part of red? Roses, rubies, blood – were red. Pumpkins – also red.
When does a hue split off and become a different color?

Read more

A Loverly Bunch of Coconuts

Coconut wikijoanna here,

“I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
There they are a'standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
"Give 'em a twist, a flick o' the wrist,”
That's what the showman said!

“I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Every ball you throw will make me rich
There stands me wife
The idol of me life
Singing, "Roll up, bowl a ball, a penny a pitch!"
1944 song

The song celebrates the coconut shy, a traditional game at funfairs and fêtes. The mark – that is to say, the customer –  throws a wooden ball at a row of coconuts balanced on posts. Typically a player buys three balls and wins each coconut he dislodges.

My knowledge of this game is based on the cynical warning from Midsomer Murder’s Chief Inspector Barnaby that the shy’s coconuts will be far too old to eat.

Wiki commons

The "coco" in coconut might come a word for "head" or "skull"




While we thus know coconuts were common in the UK in 1944 – edible or not – we may be unsure as to exactly when they did show up.

Are they a Regency treat?
Can our Regency ingenue be delighted by her first taste of crisp, sweet coconut flesh?

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What they knew — Regency Lightning

Nasa lightning

somewhat more exciting than my actual view

Joanna here. I was sitting on the couch the other day with the rain coming down about sideways and hail pinging on the front porch and lightning crashing and thunder throbbing in all the little houses on the street and also no electricity. The dog crouched behind me, cowering down low and shivering in every muscle.

Me: It’s just fine. I’m here, girl. Nothing’s going to happen to you.

Dog: (expresses skepticism with a whine)

So I asked myself how folks dealt with lightning in the Regency period. I delight to imagine my heroine — in a lull between forays into adventure — sitting in her parlour, (them not having parlors over in England,) looking out at the lightning and accompanying timpani, chilling. There’d be an ugly sorta-mostly pitbull trying to dig a tunnel to safety under her chair. No electricity for her, either, but she wouldn’t have expected any, being Regency people and all.


Thor: Not so much a Regency feature

She’d have a nice little fire on the hearth, hissing every time a drip worked its way down the chimney. 

Folks were somewhat past worshipping weather by the Regency — though I can imagine some gruff old squire exclaiming, “By Thunder! They’ve all run mad.“ and shaking The Times Op Ed page.

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The Day of the Pine Marten


Wench karen Bullock:Flickr  CC BY-NC 2

photocredit karen Bullock

Joanna here, to say a few words about pine martens and wish them well in their endeavors.

I’m not talking about the American pine marten, fine fellow though he may be, but about the European pine marten. Specifically, the European pine marten in the British isles.

They belong to the same family as otters, weasels, stoats, and polecats. They have the same long sinuous body, the same taste for small animals, and the same tendency to be held in disliked by chicken farmers. It is no accident that “weasel” and “polecat” are not terms of affection.

Martens are native to the British Isles. Original inhabitants, if you would.

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