The Mermaid of Churchdown, Gloucestershire

Would now be a good time to rehabilitate the mermaid as a feminist icon? In Medieval Western Europe they were often described as evil, lustful creatures, intent on luring sailors to their doom. But surely the male attitude in the Middle Ages said more about the fears and insecurities of the patriarchal society that gave birth to such misogynistic readings? During the period, women of a lower social class were often looked down upon and those attitudes remained so – with little nuance – up until the late 19th century. Social mobility and financial independence was out of reach for most. So, what about a new discourse which interprets the image as a celebration of femininity and feminine sexual power?The image of the mermaid can be tracked through the millennia from depictions in Assyrian art (c.1000 BC) through to the Greek Legends of the first century BC. The earliest carving of a mermaid in England is said to be found in the chapel of Durham Castle of Saxo-Norman date. Elsewhere, mermaids were viewed in more favourable terms; in Russia they were believed to represent the souls of young women who had died a violent death (more often than not at the hands of men); those of the Isle of Man were viewed as beneficent; whilst the Melusine of France was credited with magically constructing the castle at Bock rock in Luxembourg. The quaint example of folk art pictured below has been carved onto the door jamb of the north porch at St Bartholomew, Churchdown Gloucestershire. Although a fairly crude representation, there is much detail including the fish scales of the tail and an anchor. However, the image may be something of a stereotype, as she holds the comb in her left hand and the mirror in her right as does the famous ‘Mermaid of Zennor’ depicted on a 15th century pew carving known as the ‘Mermaids Chair.’

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