The bestiaries of the Middle Ages included fantastic beasts such as unicorns, mermaids and dragons but popular belief in such creatures did not entirely die away after the Age of Enlightenment. Along Brittany’s wild coastline, stories of sailors and seashore gatherers encountering mermaids remained commonplace well into the 19th century.
In May 1636, the Duke de Retz, Marquis of Belle-Île, reported the presence of a merman seen seated on a rock near the Pointe des Poulains on his island’s north coast; the creature’s “body appeared to be the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with hair, very big and rather white. His beard was similar and went to his stomach. His eyes were very big and rough.” Credible witnesses claimed “they could not see whether the legs and feet were of a man or of a fish tail, although some assure the latter,” and that “the arms and hands were very well proportioned, for the hands which he had were extraordinarily large and white on the inside and the arms a little short.”
The following day, boats were sent out to try and capture the creature; it broke the pursuers’ nets without any difficulty and even overturned one of their vessels. Eventually caught in a net, the merman managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places around the island’s north coast. It was shot by an arquebus but no one was sure whether the creature was wounded as it plunged under the waves and was never seen again.
The poet Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, who was then staying on the island, also related this episode but described a creature with green eyes, azure hair and a body covered in scales. Having added further poetical flourishes such as a mother-of-pearl horn, coral plumes, pearl scarf and amber perfume, Saint-Amant’s account sadly owes more to his imagination than anything seen by genuine witnesses.
The same summer that the creature was sighted off Belle-Île, fishermen and merchants travelling from there to the south coast city of Vannes, on the Breton mainland, reported something similar on rocks near the Chaussée du Béniguet: “he had no beard and very long hair, and assuredly, instead of legs, he had two fish tails shaped like a salmon.”
Off Brittany’s west coast in 1725, the thirty-two man crew of a ship from Brest reported that for two hours their vessel was taunted by a merman some eight feet long, who possessed human ears, black hair and webbed hands and feet. However, the sighting might have carried more weight if the creature was not also said to have been overly enamoured by the ship’s figurehead of a shapely woman.
In June 1761, a respected physician announced the beaching of a mermaid on the shore of the Île de Noirmoutier just six miles off the south coast of Brittany. He recounted that two local girls had been collecting shellfish when one came across an “animal in human form” lying in a small cave. The November 1761 edition of Mercure de France noted that: “As soon as it saw her, it stood straight and leaned on both hands. She called her companion, who being armed with a dart, pushed it into the heart of the beast, which made a moan similar to that of a person. Both girls cut off its hands, which had well-formed fingers and nails with fins between the fingers. The island’s doctor was called and he reported that this sea monster was the size of the biggest man we can imagine; that its skin was white, of a colour like the flesh of a drowned man; it had a very well formed female breast, a flattened nose, a large mouth whose chin was adorned with a species of beard formed of delicate scales and that it had similar scattered clumps all over. Its tail was that of a fish and at the end there were a kind of feet.”
A few years later, in January 1763 a naval officer from Brest reported a stranded merman near the west coast town of Le Conquet and in the following year a naval doctor from the same port described two “sea monsters” discovered stranded near Brest which he described as the “devil of the sea.”
Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage dans le Finistère (1799) noted: “There are few sailors on this coast who do not say they have heard the wail, the cry of the mermaid.” He also recounts a tale of the mermaid of the Pointe du Raz that an ill-advised fisherman from Douarnenez tried to capture. Seeing him approach with nets, she rushed into the sea and immediately invoked a terrible storm that threw twenty broken boats ashore.
The rocks lying off the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast were said to be a preferred haunt for mermaids as late as the end of the 19th century. The Breton ethnographer Hyacinthe Le Carguet reported the first-hand testimony given to him by a fisherman in 1886: from the cliffs of Kerbesquerrien, he had seen with his own eyes a mermaid frolic not far from shore, disappear and then reappear again. She let her long hair float on her back and from time to time uttered a veiled call as a song. He assured Le Carguet that he had been able to observe the creature for a long time over two days before it disappeared, heading north towards the Basse-Jaune reef.
Le Carguet tried to convince the fisherman of another explanation for the phenomenon; the maritime authorities had recently reported that a buoy topped with a foghorn had broken its chain and carried by the current, must have drifted into the bay before being caught by the ebb. The mermaid’s song was the muffled sound of the foghorn and a mass of entangled seaweed, her hair. Unfortunately, Le Carguet’s scepticism displeased his interlocutor, who, like many at the time, believed in the existence of mermaids.
Other witnesses, whose sincerity cannot be doubted, also claimed to have seen mermaids, most often in the classic pose of sitting on a rock, combing their golden hair. One account collected in the 1950s recounts how, in his youth in 1890, the Dean of Goulien was in a rowing boat, sea-fishing with friends when deteriorating weather forced them to return to port. As they were doing so, a mermaid approached and swam around their boat. The young men first tried to catch it but succeeded only in antagonising the creature who then became threatening, diving several times under the boat as if to capsize it. The fishermen tried to strike her with their oars and the waves picked-up markedly thus making it impossible to access the cove that served as their harbour.
The mermaid followed the boat for more than an hour as the men struggled against the waves to bring their vessel into another anchorage. “I saw it well, she had a fishtail and her upper body was like that of a woman; a beautiful woman with red cheeks and black hair that floated on the water,” described the Dean who was unable to report on the creature’s chest and hands because they remained constantly submerged.
This account corresponds to the well-established belief once widely held by the fishermen of western Brittany, that before a storm, mermaids were often sighted; foreshadowing a drowning. It is, of course, likely that the creature the men encountered was a seal but the power of the imagination, coupled with popular tradition, evoked in them the image that custom dictated they should see: a mermaid. The authentic flavour of the story comes from their efforts to reconcile the reality that was before their eyes with the ready-made image conjured by the tales they had grown-up with.
In Breton folklore, mermaids (sirènes in French) are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures well-versed in the dark arts of magic and evil spells. Like the sirens of antiquity, their songs were said to possess the power to bewitch any man that heard them and they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. These traits appear little changed from the many descriptions noted in the bestiaries of medieval Europe where mermaids symbolised lustful, faithless women.
Richard de Fournival’s mid-13th century Bestiary of Love noted: “There are three types of mermaids, two of which are half-woman, half-fish and the third is half-woman and half-bird. All are musicians: one plays the horn, another, the harp, and the last sings with a female voice. The mermaid’s melody is so pleasant that there is no man who can hear it, no matter how distant, without being compelled to come to her but when he draws near, he falls asleep and when the mermaid finds him, she kills him.”
Writing at about the same time, Dante’s guardian and tutor, the philosopher Brunetto Latini, claimed they were “harlots who deceived travellers and reduced them to poverty. If history says that they had wings and claws, it is to symbolize love, which flies and strikes; and if they dwelt in the water, it is because lust is born from the wet.”
Clearly, physical descriptions of mermaids have varied over time; the one depicted in the 12th century Cambridge bestiary possesses a fish’s tail, the talons of an eagle and a skirt of bird feathers and fish scales. However, the 7th century Liber Monstrorum or Book of Monsters, says that “from the head to the navel they have a maiden’s body and are most like the human form but they have the scaly tails of a fish which they always hide in the sea.” This image of the mermaid is the one most commonly found in Breton lore into the 19th century when “the sailors of Trégor assure that they have seen it sometimes and more often heard it: it has the head and breast of a woman, the rest of the body is a fish.”
Just as described in the seventh century, Brittany’s mermaids were believed to use their beauty and enchanting songs to lure hapless men to their destruction and damnation. Calling out to the men aboard the vessels at sea, the mermaids were said to sing so marvellously that no mortal could resist the temptation to join them in their undersea domain; inevitably resulting in shipwrecks and the deaths of sailors. Their beauty and fatal sensuality personified not so much the wantonness of women but the allure and dangers of the sea itself.
In Breton lore, mermaids were rarely encountered in the open sea; they were believed to prefer staying close to the coast, particularly near the mouths of rivers or the entrance to grottos. Breton sailors claimed that the appearance of a mermaid always announced bad weather. In western Brittany, it was believed that it was enough to see a mermaid, or even to accidentally touch one, to start a fierce storm. On the coast of Finistère, mermaids were often known by the name of Mac’harit an gwall amzer or Margaret Foul Weather; their voice was said to possess the power to make the sea rage or to reduce the wind to dead calm. An old proverb warned that: “When Mac’harit starts to sing, the sailor starts to cry.”
Legends from the south east of the region tell of mermaids’ warning men not to touch their hair; to do so would risk calamity and death, while other legends equated the mermaid’s touch with certain death. As a creature that had rejected God’s word, the touch of a mermaid was sometimes thought enough to condemn a man to suffer the saddest fate faced by a Christian; condemned never to rest in the troughs of the waves and with the mark of baptism forever effaced from his forehead. Never would the unfortunate know the joy of resting in holy ground; never would he have a grave where his loved ones might come to pray for his salvation.
Mermaids here were also widely believed to have the power to take their victims to the depths of their underwater lair by a single touch; even the slightest touch of a part of her body was thought enough to force a man to rush irresistibly into the sea. It was this magical ability that explained how the mermaid of the Pointe de la Latte was able to abduct a large number of young men: as soon as she had managed to touch only one of them with the tip of her finger, they could not avoid following her into the depths.
An 11th century account of the life of Saint Tudual tells of religious students walking along the banks of the Tréguier River, when the last of their group, who was remarkably beautiful, stopped talking mid-sentence. When his companions turned around, they could see no trace of him. Having searched in vain, they invoked Saint Tudual and a moment later the young man emerged from the water, his right foot tangled in a silk belt.
Once calmed, he explained: “Mermaids seized me and dragged me under the waves of the ocean. Although taken by them far away, I still heard your voices. Then before me, a venerable figure, dressed in priestly garb, appeared. With a mighty arm he tore me from them and through the mighty waves he brought me back to the shore. When they saw him, the mermaids fled but one of them forgot to unfasten the belt she had wrapped around me; it is here as proof of my abduction.”
It was said that an inaccessible sea cave on Brittany’s west coast, near Crozon, was once home to a group of mermaids. One evening, a local lord was travelling home along the cliff-top path above this cave when he came across a baby girl, seemingly abandoned in a basket. He took her home and he and his wife raised the child as though she had been their own. However, the girl was a mermaid and often, at night, disappeared from the crib where she had been laid, without anyone knowing what had become of her.
When she reached her teenage years, the people of the castle often heard, at dusk, the sound of a horse in the courtyard; it was a folgoat or water horse calling the young mermaid who seemed to answer its cries with a dazzling light before disappearing, sometimes for weeks on end. Those who had raised her tried in vain to hold her heart to theirs but one day she left and did not come back. According to legend, she still lives in the cave at Crozon; home to the last mermaid.
On Brittany’s north coast, the mermaid of La Fresnaye was said to have preferred spending her time in the little cove watered on each side by the two rivers that flow into the sea there. It was in that spot that, on the rising tide, one could see her gliding on the waves and hear her soft voice floating over the water; wherever she passed, the sea shone like sunshine. One day, having fallen asleep, rocked by the waves, the mermaid was floating a short distance from shore when she was captured by a clog-maker. She was the size of an eight year old girl; on her head floated golden hair and her polished white body resembled that of a woman but instead of feet she had fins and a fishtail. Ignoring her pleas to be returned to the water, the clog-maker took his prize home to his wife who was minded to eat the poor creature.
After reminding the clog-maker’s wife of the instant death that befell anyone who desecrated the flesh of a mermaid, she again pleaded to be put back in the ocean and offered to grant the family their hearts’ desire, for she possessed the power of the fairies. The clog-maker and his wife eventually carried the mermaid back to the sea and soon their wish for food, good clothes and gold was granted. After a year, the gold had all been spent and the clog-maker once again asked the mermaid for a full purse, which she duly granted before forever leaving Brittany for India. Another legend tells that a once stranded mermaid gave a flute to a fisherman as a reward for returning her to the sea; whenever he played this magical instrument, the mermaid would appear and deliver whatever aid she could.
Another tale tells that two women of Ouessant were collecting shellfish when they encountered a mermaid drying her treasures in the sun, spread out on two beautiful white cloths. The curious girls reached her without being seen and the mermaid, surprised to see that the girls were gentle, gave them each a gift wrapped in her fine cloth, on condition that they did not to look at them until they had returned home. One of the girls, too impatient to discover what she believed to be some marvellous treasure, unwrapped her cloth and found only horse dung. The other girl went home and opened her gift before her parents, to discover fine pearls, precious stones, gold and rich fabrics. The family became fabulously wealthy and it is said their descendants still live on the island in comfort today, thanks to the mermaid’s treasure.
Some Breton tales tell that mermaids are grateful to mortals who return any stranded beauties to the sea, offering favour and fortune to those who have shown them consideration and kindness. The mermaid saved by the mother of the Breton hero Rannou had given her, for her son, a conch shell filled with a magical potion; thanks to her gift, Rannou became the strongest of all men. However, in the folklore of western Brittany, such benevolent mermaids are exceptional; most tales represent them as treacherous, evil or cruel creatures.
On the Île de Groix, the cliff chasm known as Trou de l’Enfer was said to be home to a fierce merman; a thickly furred beast with the head of a man displaying disjointed teeth and fingers of abalone shells. This merman was reputedly the instigator of shipwrecks because his voice allowed him to imitate those of boat captains and give fatal counter-orders to their crews. Thankfully, it was said to be active only between November and March. Further along the coast, the jagged cliffs of Pen Men concealed the lair of a vicious mermaid who crushed children to death against the rocks for her amusement.
In The Mermaid’s Blood (1897), the Breton author Anatole Le Braz tells of a young man’s trip to the Île d’Ouessant to collect the legends of the island. Whilst there, he meets the beautiful and charismatic Marie-Ange and hears tales of the twelve virgins; a colony of mermaids as beautiful as angels but as perverse as demons, who once lived in one of the island’s coves. A local fisherman had caught one in his nets and the unlikely couple fell in love and even married. The mermaid made her husband a commander of the sea and the winds and waves obeyed him, bringing him fish and wrecks aplenty. Alas, the other mermaids, jealous of their sister’s happiness, cursed her and all her descendants. Since then, each girl born of the mermaid’s bloodline would be the most beautiful of her generation but would be cursed to lose her husband to the sea which would never return his body for a Christian burial.
When the folklorist François-Marie Luzel visited the isles of Ouessant and Molène in 1873, he found that the oral tradition of the islands had preserved the memories of mermaids who had once frequented their shores. Interestingly, the people of Ouessant believed that a distinct tribe of merfolk lived, until relatively recently, just a short distance from their island. These creatures were held to have been more benevolent towards humanity than other mermaids and counted both males and females amongst their numbers; the mermen were called morgans, the mermaids morganes – Breton for sea-born. They were frequently to be seen frolicking amongst the seaweeds near the shore or drying beautiful treasures under the afternoon sun. Such marvels could be seen provided only that the onlooker did not move their eyelids, for everything vanished at the first blink of an eye. Sadly, it was said that the increase in the number of strangers visiting the island since the advent of the steam ferry from the mainland, exposed the merfolk to the malice of humanity and since then, they were rarely seen.
The ocean depths around Ouessant were thus home to the morgans; a tribe of merfolk of great beauty. Only Mona Kerbili, a young girl of the island, could equal their beauty and grace. One day, the King of the Morgans, dazzled by her beauty, seized the girl and carried her to the bottom of the ocean. In his brilliant palace, surrounded by magnificent riches, Mona’s beauty shone brightest and the old king fell desperately in love with her.
Unfortunately, the king’s son was also captivated by Mona and begged his father to give her to him in marriage but the king forbade such an alliance and instead forced his son to marry a morganes, daughter of one of his counsellors. While the folk of the palace attended the wedding ceremony, Mona was ordered to stay in the kitchens and prepare the wedding feast but she had been given only empty pots and a promise of death if an excellent meal did not await the party’s return. Having been made aware of Mona’s plight, the groom returned to the palace on some pretext and recited a charm as he touched the cooking pots that soon produced a marvellous meal. The banquet was well liked by all but the king realised that Mona had received aid from some quarter and resolved to be rid of this daughter of the soil.
When the newlyweds eventually retired to their bridal chamber that night, the king ordered Mona to accompany them and to stay near the door, holding a lighted candle in her hand; the death of the light would signal her own. The king stood in an adjoining room and from time to time asked: “Has the candle burnt down to your hand?”
“Not yet,” answered Mona. The king repeated the question several times until, when the candle was almost entirely consumed, the prince said to his new bride: “Take, for a moment, the candle from Mona’s hands and hold it, while she lights us a fire.”
Completely oblivious to her father-in-law’s intentions, the newlywed duly took the candle just as the king again asked: “Has the candle burnt to your hand?”
“Answer yes,” demanded the young prince of his wife, who willing did so. Hearing this, the king burst into the room and threw himself upon the girl holding the dying light and with one mighty blow from his sword, separated her head from her body.
The following morning, the prince told his father that he was now a widower and begged permission to marry Mona. When the king’s anger had abated, he reluctantly consented to the marriage of his son with the daughter of the soil. The wedding duly took place and the young couple lived in happiness in the palace under the waves. The prince treated his wife with kindness and consideration but Mona missed her Breton hearth and begged her husband’s permission to return to the land to visit her family but the prince was reluctant to allow Mona to leave as he was afraid that she would not return to him.
However, seeing his wife grow sadder each day, he eventually relented and promised to lead her back to her father’s house. The prince spoke a magical incantation and immediately a beautiful crystal bridge appeared; a glass arch that led from the bottom of the sea to the land above. Mona’s husband advised her to return at sunset and to take pains to not to let any man kiss or even touch her hand. In the excitement surrounding her return, Mona forgot this one recommendation and the wind soon chased away all memory of everything that had happened since her departure for the land of the morgans. At night, she often heard cries on the wind and during one stormy night, she distinctly recognized the voice of her husband, reproaching her for having abandoned him. Mona instantly remembered everything and found her husband behind the door of her father’s house. She threw herself into his arms and has not been seen by human eyes since that moment.
The tale of Mona and the King of the Morgans presents an image of an alternate world existing on the sea-bed and other tales tells that beneath the waves there lies an enchanted world containing well-tended fields where strange plants grow and long avenues lead to beautiful castles made of mother-of-pearl and crystal; it is so pleasant a place that mortal visitors find that years pass there no longer than days.
Such is the domain where mermaids held their victims; those men that had attracted their fancy or even those who had been shipwrecked at sea. Some tales tell that these men married the mermaid who had kidnapped them and that, apart from the freedom to return to land, they had everything they could wish for; living a long, happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, losing all memory of their earlier lives. Typically, it was men who were held in this enchanted realm because it was believed inhabited only by mermaids; the notable exception to this tradition being the merfolk off Ouessant.
A legend collected on Île Molène, talks of mermaids as eternally young seducers driven to despair by their insatiable passion. Living in rich palaces on the sea-bed, by day they display the splendour of their unveiled beauty while slumbering amid the coolness of grottos. By night, they allow themselves to be lulled by the waves breaking over the rocks. At their touch, sea-foam crystallizes into gems as dazzling as that of her body. By moonlight, they caress their hair with a comb of fine gold and sing a plaintive song whose charm is irresistible. The sailor who listens to it feels himself drawn toward the mermaid, without power to break the charm that pulls him to his doom; his craft is broken upon the reefs: the man is in the sea and the mermaid shrieks in pure joy.
In some Breton legends, the first mermaid was Dahud, the damned daughter of King Gradlon who ruled the city of Is which Dahud had surrendered to the Devil, causing its destruction by the sea. Since that time, the fishermen of Douarnenez Bay often reported seeing, in times of rough weather, the cursed princess sitting on the rocks, exciting the storm. A Breton ballad collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid combing her golden hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was as sad as the waves.”
Dahud’s transformation into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse while escaping the waves, saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This accords with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea, only submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.
In addition to merfolk, other legends of fantastic fish are found in the folklore of Brittany where it was said that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. A tale tells that one evening, a fisherman was walking along the seashore at nightfall when he heard a voice announcing that the Fairy Queen’s feast would take place on the following day and that any man who set his nets that day would be punished. The fisherman ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out and cursed him to forever assume the form of a fish.
The northern coasts of Brittany were once the playground of the Nicole; mischievous nymphs believed to tangle or tear fishermen’s nets and loosen the anchor cables of the men who worked the bays of Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo. It was said that these creatures often waited until the fishermen were about to draw-in their nets before leaping all around them, freeing the fish. They were also blamed for entangling the boats or even moving them whilst the sailors were asleep. Nicole most often displayed itself in the form of a large fish that sometimes appeared above the waves to laugh at the struggles of the fishermen. Some legends say that its name derived from a naval officer who, at one time, commanded a company of conscripted fishermen whom he treated harshly. His brutal reputation had long lingered in these coastal communities who said the troublesome spirit was none other than Nicole, transformed into a fish, who still amused himself by tormenting them.
For others, the Nicole was a lost soul, a former fisherman who had always been too hard on his fellows and who continued to torment them after his death; still others regarded it as the Devil himself. It was in this capacity that he was exorcised by the rector of Saint-Jacut, although some say it was the priest of Saint-Cast, who mounted its back only letting go after having made it sign a pact promising not to torment his parishioners any longer.
Similar to other supernatural beings such as the korrigans and fairies, mermaids once held an important place in the popular Breton imagination; mysterious, magical beings who willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors. Little wonder therefore that some suggest that, like the korrigans and fairies, the mermaids of Brittany might have been the final echoes of ancient water divinities worshipped here in days of yore.