Of Saints and Mermaids
Today we took a drive through Madron and over the moors to Zennor and then on to St Ives. This is one of the loveliest coastal drives in the area and no matter what the weather the landscape speaks its beauty and often it is the ‘undecided’ skies which convey the deepest of mysteries to the sea.
The little village of Zennor nestles in a dip in the undulating landscape between Morvah and St Ives. A farmstead, a public house and a small scattering of buildings rest withing the shadow of the Church of St Senara.
According to some sources Senara was a Breton princess of Brest originally named Asenora and was described as having a “rather dubious reputation” before her conversion to Christianity, She was married to a Breton king who wrongly accused her of adultery and threw her into the sea in a barrel while pregnant. It is said that she was visited by an angel, whilst floating in the sea off the westernmost end of Cornwall, and gave birth to a son in the waves, who later became Saint Budoc. She was washed up on the Cornish coast, and some believe she founded Zennor and gave her name to the village.
This story bears a striking resemblance to that of the Greek Myth if Danaë.
Danaëas a daughter of King Acrisius of Argos and his wife Queen Eurydice. She was the mother of the hero Perseus by Zeus. She was sometimes credited with founding the city of Ardea in Latium during the Bronze Age.
Disappointed by his lack of male heirs, Acrisius asked an oracle if this would change. The oracle told him that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. She was childless and, meaning to keep her so, he shut her up in a bronze tower or cave. But Zeus came to her in the form of golden rain, and impregnated her. Soon after, their child Perseus was born.
Unwilling to provoke the wrath of the gods or the Furies by killing his offspring, Acrisius cast Danaë and Perseus into the sea in a wooden chest. The sea was calmed by Poseidon and at the request of Zeus the pair survived. They washed ashore on the island of Seriphos, where they were taken in by Dictys – the brother of King Polydectes – who raised Perseus to manhood.
But back to Cornwall...
The church in Zennor is dedicated to Saint Senara has stood on the current site overlooking the sea since at least the 6th century AD, but the current building is partly Norman and partly of the 13th and 15th centuries (the north aisle 15th century). There is a west tower and the octagonal font may be from the 13th century.
It was reputedly founded by Saint Senara on her return from Ireland with her son, who was by then a bishop, when they founded the village of Zennor.
One of only two remaining bench-ends in the church portrays the Mermaid of Zennor,depicted admiring herself in a mirror. This is on the so-called “Mermaid Chair” which also has carvings of fish on the seat, and which is believed to be at least 600 years old.
You can see in the left hand the Mermaid appears to be holding a mirror and in the right a ‘comb’. Mermaids like to comb their long hair. In art, they are often shown with a mirror and a comb. Sometimes they sit on a rock and sing, luring sailors to their destruction.
The Zennor Mermaid ...
Legend has it that many, many years ago a richly dressed and beautiful lady occasionally attended the church at Zennor. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from, but her unusual beauty and lovely voice made her the subject of much discussion.
With such beauty, the lady had no shortage of want-to-be suitors in the village. One of these local men was Mathew Trewella, a handsome young fellow with the best singing voice in the village. He took it upon himself to discover who this beautiful stranger was.
After a service one Sunday, the lady had smiled at Mathew Trewella so he had decided to follow her as she made her way off and towards the cliffs.
He never returned to Zennor.
Years passed and Mathew Trewella’s unexplained disappearance faded into the past. Then one Sunday morning a ship cast anchor off Pendower Cove near Zennor. The vessel’s captain was sitting on deck when he heard a beautiful voice hailing him from the sea. Looking over the side of the ship he saw a beautiful mermaid, with her long, blonde hair flowing all around her.
She asked him if he would be so kind as to raise his anchor as it was resting upon the doorway of her house. She explained was anxious to get back to her husband, Mathew, and her children. For it turns out that the beautiful stranger from the church was in fact one of the daughters of Llyr, king of the ocean, a mermaid by the name of Morveren.
Warey of stories of Mermaids the captain weighed anchor and headed for deeper water fearing the mermaid would bring the ship bad luck. He did, however, return later to tell the townsfolk of the fate of Mathew. It was to commemorate the strange events and as a warning to other young men of the dangers of merrymaids that the mermaid was carved into the church pugh.