Sunday, May 7, 2017

Mermaids of Terceira Island

I recently traveled to the Azores for vacation. I had never visited the Azores islands before, but after some research and looking at dozens of beautiful pictures online, it seemed like a worthy destination. The archipelago boasts a bounty of natural wonders, sites of historic interest, and lots of delicious, locally grown food.

I stayed on Terceira Island for a week with my husband in the capital city of Angra do Heroismo. 

Naturally, during my visit, I kept my eyes open for any traces of mermaids. I didn't discover an overwhelming presence of mermaid art or lore, but I'd like to share what I did find.

Natural lava pools, Biscoitos, Terceira Island, Azores

I took this picture in the village of Biscoitos, located on the northern coast of Terceira. Biscoitos features natural lava pools which formed millions of years ago when the island's volcanoes were active. The name of the town refers to the texture of these rocks that have a biscuit or biscotti-like feel to them. People swim here in the warmer months and lounge on man-made platforms and walkways that intersect the pools. I was struck by the aqua color of the water contrasted with the deep black of the lava formations. I thought if there were mermaids to be found on Terceira, they'd visit here for regular sunbathing and socializing.

Scrimshaw mermaid and dolphin, sperm whale ivory with wooden base

I found this piece of scrimshaw in a shop on Rua Direita, just steps from our hotel. It was in a glass case with other figurines and caught my eye. The shopkeeper let me take a closer look and take this photo. It was out of my price range at 325 euros, but even if I could have afforded it (and didn't have ethical misgivings about whaling), sperm whale ivory is illegal in the U.S.

Wooden chest with ivory and mother of pearl, India, Mughal dynasty

My favorite mermaid find of the trip was this inlay chest from India, located in the collections of the Museum of Angra do Heroismo. During the Spanish occupation of the Azores (1580-1642), Angra became a launching point for ships engaged in the lucrative spice and luxuries trade with Asia.

Wooden chest with ivory and mother of pearl, India, Mughal dynasty

I translated the object label for the chest (thank you Google translate!) and here's what it read:

Indo-Mogol Counter/Chest
Inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl
Malabar Coast, 17th century
The Malabar coast is the southwestern coastline of mainland India.  And as you can see, the chest is covered with dozens of mermaids. They have a split tail like many depictions of Melusine that were popular in Europe in the medieval period.

Wooden chest with ivory and mother of pearl, India, Mughal dynasty

I was amazed to think of this chest traveling from India to the Azores in the 1600s, and began to wonder about its story...Who purchased it? Was it a gift? How much would it cost today? Where did they keep it in their home? What did they store inside its lockable drawers? Where's the key?

Wooden chest with ivory and mother of pearl, India, Mughal dynasty

Maybe someday, I'll return to Terceira and have some of these questions answered, but for now, it's fun to imagine.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Medieval Mermaids: The Zennor Mermaid

Mermaid bench, St. Senara's Church, wood, embroidery, 15th century, Zennor, Cornall.

In the small village of Zennor in Cornwall, England in St. Senara's Church, you'll find a beautifully carved wooden bench whose end pieces probably date from the 15th century.  The carving shows a mermaid holding what looks like a mirror and a comb (historical mermaids really loved combing their hair).

The story of the mermaid behind the carving was first recorded by the Cornish folklorist William Bottrell in 1873.  The folktale says that she appeared at St. Senara's Church as an elegantly dressed lady, who loved to sing with the parishioners during their services. Her sweet voice enchanted the congregation and they always remembered when she visited though it was often years between her visits. And though many years passed, she never seemed to age.

One visit, a young man named Mathey Trewella caught her eye and ear with his own melodious singing voice. After the service, they went for a walk together, and he wasn't seen in the village again. People wondered what had happened to the pair, until some time later a ship anchored in Pendour Cove was addressed by a mermaid requesting the ship raise anchor because it rested on her front door and she couldn't reach her children. Based on this encounter the townspeople concluded that Trewella had gone to live with the mermaid in the cove.

Cornish poet Charles Causley wrote a picture book retelling this tale, The Merrymaid (Mermaid) of Zennor, illustrated by Michael Foreman

The Merrymaid of Zennor, Charles Causley, illustrated by Michael Foreman, Orchard Press, 1999.

The Merrymaid/Mermaid of Zennor is available for purchase on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Medieval Mermaids: Clonfert Cathedral Mermaid

Mermaid with comb and mirror, Clonfert Cathedral, Ireland

At Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway, Ireland, you'll find a mermaid carved into the stone of the chancel arch. Dating from an addition made in the 15th century, she's holding a mirror and a comb in her hands.

Chancel arch, Clonfert Cathedral, Ireland

The cathedral dates from around 1180, but it's built on an older church from the 6th century, founded by St. Brendan the Navigator, an Irish monk who sailed with a crew of 14 monks in a currach.  Brendan and his crew may have sailed to North Africa, and some think he may have even reached North America.

There are many fantastical accounts from Brendan's voyage, including this one detailing an encounter with a siren or mermaid:

"When all this was over at last, they resumed their journey and once more got into great difficulties, because they saw a beast coming towards them with a human body and face, but from the waist downwards it was fish. It is called a siren, a very lovely creature with a beautiful human shape; it sings so well and its voice is so sweet that whoever hears it cannot resist sleep and does not know what he is doing. When this sea monster approached them, the shipmen fell asleep and let the ship drift: the monks too forgot themselves completely because of its voice and did not know where they were," The Voyage of St Brendan.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Medieval Mermaids: Melusine

The legend of Melusine can be found in European regional folklore, particularly in Germany and the northern and western areas of France and Burgundy. In medieval times, royalty from these regions even claimed to be descended from the goddess or water spirit Melusine. Hey, whatever helps legitimize your claim to the throne, right?

The story usually goes as follows: a knight or king finds a beautiful and mysterious maiden in the woods, often near a stream or spring. They marry on the condition that he gives her one day out of the month, or week to spend alone bathing. He cannot look at her during this time, or speak with her. Things go on happily for a while (usually several years) and they have many children together. But then one day the knight or king's curiosity gets the better of him, and he peeks in on her bathing. He sees her in her true form, half woman on the top, half fish or reptile below the waist, and is greatly disturbed. She leaves with the children never to return.

Here's an illustration from the German translation of the Melusine legend by Thuring von Ringoltingen.

Melusine, Thüring von Ringoltingen, 1456, Germany.

She is also often depicted as a two-tailed siren, as this 15th century illustration shows. Look familiar Starbucks lovers?

For a more in-depth read about Melusine, the legends, and etymology of the name, check out this post on the Origins: What Does History Say? blog.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mermaid of the Moment: Nuremberg Bible Mermaids

Noah's Ark, Nuremberg Bible, Biblia Sacra Germanica, 1483

The Nuremberg Bible contains a curious woodcut illustration featuring Noah's Ark surrounded by a mermaid, merman and merdog.

The medieval text was printed by Anton Kolberger, a German goldsmith, printer and publisher, who was the godfather of artist Albrecht Durer

Here's a color version of the same image. (Click on the image to see it larger.)

Noah's Ark, Nuremberg Bible, Biblia Sacra Germanica, 1483

There are so many interesting and odd little details in this illustration--the bare-breasted (gasp!) mermaid holds a mirror and appears to be combing or tending her hair, while the merman seems to be looking at bearded Noah, who is looking at the dove with the olive branch.

And of course this mer-couple must have a pet, a loyal merdog who accompanies them on this adventure, while a standard four-legged dog looks at the mermaid from the Ark's deck.

I'm also guessing that the small orange/red pyramids towards the back of the picture are the tops of towers, now barely visible due to the complete and catastrophic flood which has been ongoing for 40 days.

I love the simplicity and humor of this illustration. And, it may have inspired me to take a closer look at other 15th century mermaids to see what they're doing.

Look for more medieval mermaids to come.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"The Mermaid" Chinese Film (2016) Poster Design

Recently, I watched "The Mermaid", a Chinese fantasy/action film. It was the top-grossing film in China this year, and I was very curious to see it.

The film was an engaging eco-fable with some romance, comedy and action thrown in, but what I want to highlight here are some of the creative poster designs for the film's promotion.

There's a series of posters created in this gold and white-hued design, showing each of the main characters with their hair styled to reflect their personality/character traits. This one shows Yun Lin as the titular mermaid, Shan, who has a sweet, goofy personality and a split fish tail.

This one seems like it may have started as concept art created for the film's design, as there wasn't a scene like this in the finished film, but it's still a beautiful mermaid image.

I think this one may be my favorite. Again, it doesn't reflect a literal scene from the film, but it captures a bit of the mystery and romance that occurs between the two leads, with Chao Deng pictured here as his character Liu Xuan.

If you're interested in seeing the film, it's available on disc from Netflix (that's how I saw it), and Amazon Video and iTunes.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mermaid of the Moment: Mermaid & Captain Peg Dolls

Recently my husband and I received these adorable hand-painted peg dolls from a friend. She has an Etsy shop if you'd like to see some of her past projects.

They stand about 3 inches high. I love how the mermaid holds a book (like my blog logo) and she's wearing glasses very much like my 1960's aluminum cat-eye frames. They are too cute.