Last week we discussed the attributes of the Celtic priestesses who became our “mermaids.” What did these powerful women do when faced with Christianity? Fortunately, our stories show us some tantalizing glimpses…
The Lady of the Lake
As I said last week, I got the idea of mermaid stories having their roots in historical priestesses from Norma Lorre Goodrich’s King Arthur. Although she did not make this connection, the Arthur myths seem to (almost) perfectly capture the transition from priestess to water spirit. One of these women is the Lady of the Lake, who I believe to be a remnant of the undine tradition.
The Lady of the Lake is famous for giving Arthur Excalibur. Our memes tell us that a “strange woman lying in a pond distributing swords is no basis for a system of government;” however, I can’t help but think that back in the day it was a basis of government – and a very valid one at that. The Lady of the Lake captures the tension between the Christian King Arthur and the pagan realities of the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries. These “ladies of the lakes” – or sea women/priestesses – held power. Enough power to sway the tide of politics. And Christian kings realized it.
In fact, the Lady of the Lake has a great deal in common with another Celtic mermaid: Teeval, Princess of the Ocean. In this story, the Irish hero Conchubar finds Teeval, and captures her. As a reward for letting her go, she tells Conchubar to put “her figure” and name upon his shield. When he wore it in battle, his “enemies’ strength” left them and went into himself and his men. Thus, Conchubar became king of Ulster.
Like the Lady of the Lake, Teeval – a “mermaid” – had a great deal of sway when it came to politics.
Overall, the lady of the lake is rather passive – she does not speak for or against Christianity, per say. In general, she is a positive force in Arthurian lore. Perhaps she did accept Christianity, as she backed a Christian king…but we will never know for certain.
However, there is one who was decidedly against Christianity and King Arthur: Morgan le Fay.
Morgan le Fay
Morgan le Fay is generally portrayed as a sorceress and the enemy of King Arthur. In some myths, she is raised in a convent, showing she clearly knew about Christianity. However, the consensus is that she did not accept it, but rather persecuted the Christian King Arthur.
Her “aquatic” connotations come from her name. “Morgan” is the term used in Brittany and Cornwall meaning “sea-women.” These, however, do not seem to be the mermaids; rather, “Morverch” – “sea daughters” are. This is important because here we have a distinction between two types of sea maidens. I know I’m an amateur scholar in this area, but to me it hints at the set up and organization of the priestesses.
Interestingly, there is some historical documentation of these “morgan” and “morverch.” There was a group of priestesses off the coast of Brittany that lived in “perpetual virginity” and could “rouse the seas and the wind by their incantations,” turn into any animal they wished, “cure diseases” and knew the future. Sounds a lot like Morgan le Fay, as well as our mermaids!
Another interesting fact about Brittany: similar water spirits (called Korrigans) were thought to be “ghosts of Gallic princesses, who refused to become Christianized.” Once again, we find the theme of pagan nobility (and possibly religious nobility, too) becoming water spirits.
But not all of our stories show sea-peoples as passive or denying Christianity; some longed for salvation…but were denied it.
The story begins as many of them do: a male water spirit (here called a Neckan) kidnaps a Christian woman. She weeps at her fate, for she doesn’t have a “Christian mate.” In response, Neckan journeys to find a priest so he “might gain” heaven.
But when a priest rides by, he mockingly taunts Neckan, “sooner shall this my staff bear leaves, than thou shalt Heaven behold.” This seems to be the original verdict in the ballad, as Neckan is left weeping over the fact that God has “kindness,” but humans do not.
This is a heartbreaking tale…and yet how many of us deny salvation to others? How many of us Christians judge and mock and scoff when “sinners” long for salvation? Too many, I think.
However, someone later tampered with the ballad. Someone offered the Neckan hope! For, “lo, the staff, it budded! It green’d, it branch’d, it waved. ‘O ruth of God,’ the priest cried out, ‘this lost sea-creature saved!’”
This lost sea-creature saved! That is the power of our God. Despite man’s tendency to fulfill their “questions” in the world, despite Christians’ lack of love, despite every odd imaginable…the most unlikeliest of sinners gets saved! Those who seem un-savable – unreachable! – accept Christ.
What the Mermaid Tales Show
Like all people, the sea maidens of the deep had various reactions to the Gospel. Some were shown Christ and rejected Him, like Morgan le Fay. Some were passive – vaguely supporting Christianity but not embracing Christ outright, like the Lady of the Lake. And some longed to embrace it – but were denied by Christians, like Neckan. This happens in all ages, and all of them are tragedies.
But the last is the most egregious tragedy of them all. But, despite their own worldly power and those of “Christians” around them, there is hope for the mermaid! God always makes a way.
Everyone has “worldly mermaids” in their life. Everyone knows someone who is so wonderfully free…and yet so hopelessly lost. But the mermaid tales show us that there is hope! Our job is to fan the flame of faith, and not to destroy it with judgement and mockery.
God made a way in the ancient world, and He’ll make a way in our own day, too.
 Norma Lorre Goodrich, King Arthur (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986) 163.
 Teeval, Princess of the Ocean taken from Sophia Morrison’s Manx Fairy Tales in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and other Water Spirit Tales, (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011) 297.
 The Mermaid from Sea Fables Explained by Henry Lee, 96 and Morva or Morveth (Sea-Daughters), in Heiner’s Mermaid and other Water Spirit Tales, 319.
 Morva or Morveth (Sea-Daughters), 319.
 Water Sprites and Mermaids, by Fletcher S. Bassett, in Heiner’s Mermaid and other Water Spirit Tales, 119.
 The Neckan by Matthew Arnold, in Heiner’s Mermaid and other Water Spirit Tales, 364.
 Ibid., 365.
 The notes state that “there is perhaps some inconsistency between the new stanzas and the old: after the assurance of salvation…the grief out to have been abated” 365
 The Neckan by Matthew Arnold, 365.
 The Neckan by Matthew Arnold, 365.