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

and

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

and

"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?

Wwdeasura

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.”  

 

Wwsiren

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.
They
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?

Sleep



Rochester sleepingNicola here. Today I’m talking about sleep. Do you sleep like a log (like Rochester in the photo) or are you a light sleeper? An insomniac, even? I tend to sleep for about four hours, wake up, lie awake for a while and then go back to sleep. Until recently I had no idea that this might actually be quite normal and a throwback to the not so distant past. New research however suggests that as recently as the 19th century the idea of “first sleep” and “second sleep” was common. It was only with the introduction of artificial lighting and the push towards a more efficient use of time after the industrial revolution that the idea of sleeping over two separate parts of the night disappeared.

First and Second Sleep

"And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of
Full moon

your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake." This quotation comes from an early English ballad called Old Robin of Portingale. In the medieval period it was the norm to sleep in two portions. The “first sleep” started about two hours after dusk. Then there was a waking period of about two hours when people would have a cup of tea, smoke a pipe, write letters, read a book or even go out to visit friends, and then there was “second sleep” until daybreak. Evidence for this comes from court records, diaries, medical text books and other literature including prayer books, which give a number of readings and prayers suitable for the time “between sleeps.” Between sleep was also the best time to have sex, if you believed the medical practitioners of the day, and the best time to conceive.

Spreading the Light

The lamplighter“Second sleep” started to disappear in the late 17th century when coffee houses in the cities started to open all night and more entertainments took places during the hours of the night. Previously the period after dark had been the province of criminals and of the supernatural, the haunt of highwaymen, prostitutes and witches, as one writer said. Although the wealthy could afford candles, most ordinary people could not afford to light the nighttime hours. Paris became the first city to light its streets at night in 1667, with Amsterdam following and London lit by 1684. It became fashionable amongst the urban classes to be up at night although in the country where there was no street lighting, fashions did not change so fast.

The industrial revolution encouraged an idea of clock- watching, time-consciousness and efficiency. Parents were encouraged to get their children out of a natural pattern of two sleeps per night. A medical text book of 1829 disapproved heartily of a first and second sleep; it was no longer the done thing and by the early 20th century the idea of splitting the night into a first and second sleep had completely vanished from public consciousness.

A Fascination with Sleep

Sleep, however, continues to be of fascination to us both in terms of our own experience and also in
Sleeping beauty Burne Jones literature. Fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White involve magical sleep, as do other myths. King Arthur, for example, is said to be asleep by enchantment and will come again to save Britain when he is needed. The myth of the sandman, which I remember my grandparents telling me when I was a child, also stems from the medieval period. Shakespeare wove themes of sleep through his plays, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Macbeth, for example, and wrote beautifully on the subject:
"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, the death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast."

In the past there were not the scientific and physiological explanations for sleep that we have today hence its close association with magic and even death. But that wasn't to say that people had not noticed the detrimental effect that worrying had on good sleep. Charlotte Bronte commented: "A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow." William Wordsworth tried counting sheep and imagining the soothing sound of rain falling and the hum of bees. These days there is everything from Sleep Labs to hypnosis to help us get a good night's sleep but I wonder if the reason some of us still wake is because sleeping through the night is actually an artificial state for our bodies and we are actually meant still to have a first and second sleep?

So how well do you sleep? Do you have a favourite myth or story that involves sleep? Do you like the connection between sleep and magic? And if we still had first and second sleeps, what would you enjoy doing with your “between sleep” time in the middle of the night?