Vikings in ‘A Viking Moon’

In ‘A Viking Moon’- the first of Sarah’s adventures – our heroine is transported back in time to Viking Denmark.  The story itself is set in roughly the mid 800s AD, a time of great change throughout Europe.  The following is a brief overview of the Vikings as encountered by Sarah.  For those who would like a lot more detail, my apologies but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on Vikings.  There are some great sources of information out there on the internet or even in your local library.

Sarah’s story begins when she comes into contact with a Viking rune stone.  There are large numbers of rune stones throughout Scandinavia (some 3000), their name deriving from the runes written upon their surface.  Runes were a form of lettering used by the Vikings.  Rune stones were erected between the 4th and 12th Centuries and can be found anywhere the Vikings went.  They served mainly as a memorial to the deceased but were also used to mark territory, explain inheritance, boast and bring glory and to tell of important events.

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An example of a rune stone.

During the first twenty years or so of the 9th century, Danish politics were characterized by constant infighting and changes in kingship.  Often kingship was held jointly as was the case in 812/13 where Harald Klak and Reginfred ruled jointly but only until the sons of Godfred (an earlier king who died in 810) turned up and promptly exiled them both.  Harald and Reginfred then recruited an army but failed to win back the crown.  By 819 Godfred’s sons were bickering amongst themselves and all goes to seed until finally Horik remains and manages to hold onto power until 853 when he was overthrown by a rebellion within his own family.  It is during the reign of King Horik that Sarah finds herself and just prior to the civil war that was about to erupt.

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Map of Viking Denmark.

Kings during this early period were not the most powerful, because most communities were loyal to their local chieftain.  A king had to conduct religious rituals and lead his subjects into battle.  He was expected to keep a force of fighting men and ships to protect his people and their property from attack.   But when a king died, a new king would be chosen from the members of the reigning royal family.  A person’s age, health, reputations and popularity were all taken into account.

The steading of Geir is situated in the southern part of the island of Zealand or Sjoeland as it was known at the time.  One of the greatest concerns at this time were the raids from lands across the sea.  It was not just the Danes, Norse and Swedes who raided their neighbours. In Sarah’s story the Kurlanders/Kurshes were often considered a great threat.  Kurland (Courland) was situated in the north west corner of what is modern day Latvia.  In reality the situation got so bad that in 853 the Danes launched a campaign against the Kurlanders, there was a major sea battle and the Danes were defeated.  Another contributing factor to the brief civil war in Denmark that wiped out many of the contenders to the throne and ended Horic’s rule.

Geir was once a ‘styraesman’ or ship commander who through many successful raiding trips accrued enough wealth to buy land and a steading.  It was possible using wealth and ambition for any man to become a member of the aristocracy and so it was for Geir who by the time Sarah turns up is referred to as a Jarl or Lord.  Apart from kings society was divided into three main groups Jarls, Karls and Thralls.

Jarls were often the wealthiest and most powerful people, owning and ruling large tracts of land.  A Jarl would usually have a small band of household warriors to fight for him if needed.  The second tier of society belonged to the karls.  They were free men and women who sometimes owned their own farmsteads or rented from the landowners.  In Viking times the eldest son would inherit his father’s land, younger sons would need to make their own way either by joining raiding parties, become professional warriors or merchants.  Some could become hunters, fishermen or crafts men.  The poorest landless karls were servants or farm workers.  At the very bottom of Viking society were the Thralls these were slaves who had no rights and were bought and sold like any other piece of property.  Most slaves were captured during raids or battles, some were karls who had lost their freedom after going bankrupt or committing a crime.

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Reconstruction of a Viking woman spinning using a drop spindle. Photo by P van der Sluijis via wikimedia commons.

Viking women enjoyed far greater respect and independence than many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world.  They were allowed to own land and property and sometimes a daughter would inherit a share of her parents’ wealth.  However, a women’s status varied according to her position in society.  Thus, Astrid as wife of the Jarl would have considerably more freedom and authority then the wife of a farm worker.  When a woman’s husband was away either trading or raiding, she was responsible for the smooth operation of the business or farm in his absence.  A noble woman such as Astrid would be expected to make decisions and organise protection of the steading should it be necessary.

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A depiction of two female warriors of royal birth participating in a sea battle. From Olaus Magnus’ History of 1555.

Some women had other jobs apart from being wives and mothers.  There were female skalds (storytellers), carvers, merchants and others who played a part in the religious ceremonies.  Certain women were thought to be prophetesses who could tell the future and give people advice in their daily lives.

 

Messing about in Boats

Actually the Vikings were highly skilled shipbuilders, producing some of the finest ships of their time.  They were essential to the Viking way of life.  They built vessels of many different shapes and sizes.   In 1962 five ships were excavated near to the city of Roskilde in Denmark.  There was a ‘knarr’  an ocean going trading vessel, with an open hold amidships, and only needed 6-8 men to crew; a ‘skeid’ or ocean going warship which was 30m long and 4m wide with space for 60 oars or a crew of 65-70 men; a ‘byrding’, a small trading or transport vessel only needing a crew of 5-8 men, wind powered and perfect for the Danish and Baltic coast; ‘snekke’, a small warship built for speed and maneuverability only needing a crew of 30men.  The last vessel was rowing/sailing combo probably used for fishing or seal hunting.

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The oarsmen did not have seats instead they would sit on their sea chests (wooden chests that would contain their personal belongings).  If a vessel had need of a sail it would most likely have been made from wool with leather reinforcing strips.  Another feature of most vessels would have been the steering oar – this was positioned on the right hand side at the rear and gives rise to the English word ‘starboard’ coming from the Norse word ‘styra’ or ‘to steer’.  The vessels themselves were clinker built meaning that the planks of timber that made up the body would be overlapping each other and then the spaces between would be filled with moss, wool or animal hair drenched in tar to ensure water tightness.  The decks would be open with little or no protection from the elements, at the best an oilskin tarpaulin was rigged up bivouac style.

The most famous type of vessel is the ‘drekar’ or dragon ship, the name derived from the wooden carvings on the front of the ships.  They were the finest of all warships, very ornate and well built.  A common misconception is that warships would sail with the shields over the oar ports – it is unlikely this happened unless in port as it would be far too easy to lose a valuable shield overboard.

The Vikings used the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate but they would also use the depth and temperature of the ocean to judge their position.  They also used their knowledge of the habits of seabirds and mammals to guide them.

 

The Gods

There are a great many books and internet sites that deal with the plethora of Viking gods, goddesses and all things otherworldly.   Viking deities were divided into two groups the Vanir who came before and were a race of peaceful gods, Freya and Frey being examples and then there is the Aesir who came later and deposed many of the Vanir.  They were a warrior race of gods and include gods such as Thor and Odin.  The following is a brief (and probably unsatisfactory) account of those that Sarah encounters in ‘A Viking Moon’.

The first goddess to turn up is Freya an indigenous goddess who is being held hostage by the Aesir to maintain spiritual peace.  She is very powerful and her areas of expertise include love, sex, fertility, magic, witchcraft and death.  Her priestesses are called ‘volvas’ and are greatly feared by the general population.  In later times she is labelled the ‘Queen of the Witches’ by Christian priests and her followers were heavily persecuted.  Cats are also special to Freya, her chariot is drawn by two huge gray cats called Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber).  To be kind to cats was to invite Freya’s blessings.  In the story Astrid offers a prayer to Freya but at the same time she is spinning wool.  Spinning has a magical quality about it and was once associated with divination, the magical art of transformation and the cycle of life.  But it is also associated with the goddess Frigga, Odin’s wife.

 

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Freya and her spindle – from ‘A Book of Myths’ by Helen Stratton (1915).

Later in the story Sarah has an encounter with a ‘volur, women who were believed to have prophetic powers.  These women would travel around the countryside staying at the halls of local leaders, interpreting dreams and predicting the future.  During the ceremony the chief prophetess would sit on a platform or special chair whilst her companions would chant sacred songs and she fell into a trance.  It was believed that her soul left her body and soared over the earth giving her great wisdom and insight.  The ‘volur’ would carry a wand of alder to signify her power as a representative of the goddess.

In the final chapters Sarah meets Thor and Aegir (sort of).  Thor was and is a very popular Viking god and as such much has been written about him.  He is the god of thunder, lightening, wind, rain, physical strength, good weather and crops.  As such he was very popular among the farmers of the Viking countryside.  His hammer was called Mjollnir, archaeologically his popularity can be attested to by the significant numbers of hammer pendents found.  He was regarded as a straightforward and reliable god even if he was not the sharpest knife in the draw.  Aegir is regarded as the god of the sea and fishing and would be well known to the sons of Geir.  It is not unusual for sudden and violent storms to sweep across the Baltic, sometimes it is even possible to think that have been sent by the gods…

A Thor hammer pendent (modern design by Hayman Celtic Jewellery).thors-hammer

 

On a final note, sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were common.  The kind of sacrifice made would very much depend on what you wanted.  They could range from a simple offering of food at a field-side shrine for a good harvest to the death of an prize animal or even in some cases a person perhaps in exchange for success in battle.  It went without saying that a simple prayer to deity was not enough, there must be payment if you wanted them to listen.

 

 

Character Back Stories

 

Every storyteller knows to get the attention of their audience the characters need to be believable, to have an realism.  It is not unusual to hear people say, “I know someone like that” or “Gosh, doesn’t that sound like Aunty Mabel?”  For the characters to be believable the storyteller will give their main characters a history.  Their history might not be obvious or told to you directly within the story but it is there all the same.

Below is the back story or histories of several of the main characters in the Sarah Tremayne series.  

Sarah Tremayne

Sarah is the only child of Michael and Julia Tremayne, born on the night of a full moon at the beginning of May 1999.  Her memories of her early years are ones filled with laughter and love until disaster struck.  At the age of eight years her mother was killed in nasty car accident on the A30.  Sarah remembers that day well, it was the day her happy, innocent world came crashing down around her ears.  Her father, in his grief forgot he had a daughter, retreating into the past and his work.

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By the time Sarah was ten her father in his wisdom decided running wild over the moors and cliffs of Cornwall was not the best education for a young lady, so he sent her to boarding school.  St Bridget’s School For Young Ladies was nothing like any of the stories Sarah had read about.   It was, in her words, ‘stuffy, pretentious, stuck up and full of girls’.  Not being the girly girl sort Sarah had very little patience with those who were more concerned with hairstyles, who’s wearing what and what shade of nail polish goes best with the orange tank they just bought at Top Shop.

Perhaps it was a personality thing, Sarah didn’t like the school and the school (and just about everyone in it) didn’t like Sarah.  Apparently she has an independent (or should that be stubborn) streak which did not please people.   Her lack of conformity made her enemies among almost all the girls and her lack of toeing the line made her enemies among all the staff.  However, as with all good stories there was Rose among these thorns – Rosie – Sarah’s lifeline and best friend.   Why they were such good friends was anyone’s guess, Rosie was the opposite to Sarah – calm, quiet, studious and rock solid.  It was Rosie that made life bearable at school. But (and there is always a but) all that changes when Rosie’s father loses his high paying job in the City taking the family – Rosie included – back to his family home in Orkney.

It wasn’t long until things went horribly pear shaped for Sarah and a run in with the school bully found Sarah walking calmly out the school gates and to the nearest train station.  Heading for the place of her heart – Cornwall, Zennor and Nan.

 

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Map of Cornwall fom 1785

 

Nan

Nan is the mother of Michael Tremayne (Sarah’s Dad).  She lives in the little hamlet of Zennor on the north coast of West Penwith in the county of Cornwall.  Living in the cottage she was born in and her mother was born in and her mother before her.

 

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The village of Zennor (by R Hughes – geograph.co.uk)

 

 

Nan is a small bird-like woman with eyes that see more than they should – don’t try to lie to her, she will know!  Her two great loves are her herb garden and her dog (Brad the dog).  It is not unusual to hear her chatting away to the giant yellow Labrador whilst tending her garden.  Considered eccentric by those too young to know better she is Sarah’s safe haven, her arms and heart giving lots of hugs and love when it was needed most.

 

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The inspiration for Brad the Dog.

 

Nan’s personal history is one of non-conformity (it might be genetic), at the age of eighteen she found herself pregnant and without a husband.  To this day no one knows who Michael’s father was and many are sure that Nan herself doesn’t know either.   Bringing up her son on her own in the face of the gossips resulted in a personality that tells it like it is – woe and betide any who don’t agree.

Professor Michael Tremayne

A professor in archaeology, currently living and working in London.  His love of archaeology stems from a chance find on the slopes of Zennor Hill, that looms over the hamlet of Zennor.  His second great love was his wife Julia.  They met by chance (?) on a lonely path that winds itself along the high points of West Penwith, she stumbled into his arms twisting an ankle on the uneven surface.  The rest was history.

For the Professor life was never quite the same after Julia had her accident.  Although his mother encouraged him to face the world again for the sake of Sarah, every time he looked at his daughter he was reminded of Julia.  He retreated to London sinking ever deeper into his work leaving Sarah to be brought up by his mother.

The night before Sarah’s thirteenth birthday he had a dream.  He remembered the day she was born and how happy he had been, he remembered Julia’s words, “be there for her, always, no matter what, promise me”.  Waking up he realised that he had not kept that promise.  It was too late to fix the past but he made the decision that all would change and that very morning he got into his battered old jeep and headed for Sarah’s school.

Julia Tremayne

Not a lot can be said about Julia, she arrived at Zennor with a twisted ankle and never left until the day she was killed in a car accident on the A30.

Unbeknownst to her new family she was one of an ancient group called the Mhyres an Loor or Daughters of the Moon.  Very little is known about the Daughters as they hold their secrets very close (and I don’t want to spoil things for the readers of future books).

 

There is a lot to be said for a mysterious mother figure…

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Some Megaliths From Brittany

There is a bit of a story behind this trip to Brittany…      

It is possible to catch an overnight ferry from Plymouth (Devon, UK) to Roscoff (France).  You arrive in France at about 5am and then you get to spend the day exploring the local environment before catching the ferry back to Plymouth at around 7pm that night.

For my hubby and I this was always a bit of an adventure and a chance to stock up on wine and cheese.  Regardless to say this was in the time before children.

Well it just so happens that on one trip I convinced my hapless other half to drive just a ‘wee’ way down to Brittany to see the stones at Carnac.  Anyway, the drive was longer than expected and I wish we had more time, it was quite literally a flying visit, as there was a very real possibility of us missing the ferry back to the UK.

The sites I visited were the stone alignments at Kerzerho and Le Menec as well as the Giants of Kerzerho.

Le Menec

Probably the most popular of all the stone alignments in this part of France, it is certainly the one everyone thinks of when talking of Carnac.  The alignment consists of 12 lines of some 1100 stones.  The orientation begins southwest – northeast and then about halfway makes a minor adjustment to its direction and ends in the east.  The stones have an average height of one metre although the tallest stones are found at the western end standing at three metres and the shortest stones are at the eastern end measuring 1.5 metres.

The remains of a stone enclosure can be seen at the western end amongst some farm buildings.  There was once a similar enclosure at its western end.

Kerzerho Alignments

These have a similar layout to Le Menec and cover almost two kilometres.  Today there are several hundred stones but it is believed the original number at least 1100.  The alignment  runs east to west and is intersected by a road and a village.

Kerzerho Giants

Two huge standing stones sit nestled in forest, they are six metres high and weigh approximately 40 tonnes between them.  They are aligned north to south and are thus perpendicular to the Kerzerho alignment.

The following are the few photos I managed to take.

 

Useful websites include:

www.megalithes-morbihan.com

Megaliths of Carnac

Megalithic Portal – Guide to Brittany

 

Megalithic Malta

In 1999 I visited the fascinating island of Malta with my then boyfriend (now husband), dragging the poor lad around more archaeology than he had seen in all his life…

Whilst there is a huge amount of archaeology in Malta, from all periods in time, it was the megalithic monuments which caught my attention during this trip.  Not to mention we only had a week on the island and you would probably need a whole lot more time to visit all the archaeological sites Malta has to offer.

Unfortunately at the time of our visit the Hypogeum or Hal Saflieni was closed for some desperately needed love and attention – much to my disappointment.

It is believed the first human inhabitants of Malta came from Sicily in the Neolithic.  This early phase is named for the site that epitomises this time – Ghar Dalam, a cave site in the south of the island.  This early phase begins approximately 5000BC and ends with the first temples being built around 4100BC.  The Temple Period is divided into four phases.

Zebbug – 4100-3700BC

Mgarr – 3800-3600BC

Safliene – 3300-3000BC

Tarxien – 3150-2500BC

The temples for which the first two phases are named have now disappeared either under the urban sprawl of Valetta or as is the case of Mgarr subsumed into the backstreets of the town itself.  The Safliene phase is characterised by Hal Safliene (Hypogeum), a subterranean temple carved out of the limestone bedrock to accommodate 7000 dead.

The final Tarxien phase is the one visitors to Malta will be most aware of.  The temple complexes of Tarxien, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim on Malta and Ggantija on Gozo constitute the climax of the temple building phase.

Although the temples complexes span quite a period of time they do have some common features in terms of the architecture.  To begin each will have a oval forecourt bounded by the temple facade constructed of large stone slabs.  The doorways all consist of two large uprights topped with an equally large lintel.  The passageways are always paved.  Once inside the complex, the visitor finds themselves in an open area which then  gives way to a series of D-shaped chambers or ‘apses’.

The main variation from one site to another is the number of ‘apses’. Often the walls of the temples are decorated with carvings in relief of spirals and naturalistic forms of plants and animals.  Cup marks are also a popular form of decoration.

Here are some of the photos of this trip.

Further sources of information:

Sacred Sites Webpage

The Megalithic European by Julian Cope

Visit Malta Webpage

Megalithic Temples of Malta – Wikipedia

 

The Place I Call Home

For the majority of the time I will be blogging about either New Zealand or Cornwall and if you read the page which tells you about me, you’ll know why.  But as a first post I thought I would share a little of the early history of the place I call home.  I live in a small suburb on Auckland’s North Shore – Birkdale.  Wedged between the greater suburbs of Birkenhead and Beachhaven it tends to be forgotten a little or included into the either of those other suburb and to be honest, the story of Birkdale is inextricably tied to the stories of both Beachhaven and Birkenhead.

Early History

The isthmus of Auckland (Tamaki Makau Rau) is thought to have been first settled around 1350.  A combination of fertile soil for horticulture and two harbours with abundant resources resulted in a thriving population.  On the volcanic peaks (Mt Eden, One Tree Hill etc) which dominate the Auckland skyline there is ample evidence of these early settlements.

The area of Birkenhead, Beach Haven and Birkdale was densely forested and as a result not as heavily populated but it was the sea which drew people to the area.  The sea provided an abundance of resources for Maori from flounder in the Kaipataki Inlet, shellfish from Oruamo Creek and the shark fishing grounds just below Kauri Point.  Evidence for this can be seen in the form of coastal shell middens found all around the coast.

 

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Traces of a shell midden.

Occupation sites are difficult to pinpoint but there is some evidence from oral histories and archeologically of an important pa (hillfort) called Te Matarae a Mana in the area of Kauri Point/Quarryman’s Bay during the 1700s.  In addition it is believed there is at least two other headland pa in the area, although all trace of these no longer remain.

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This headland seen from the beach at Kendalls Bay is thought to be the site of an important pa (defended settlement).

 

The musket wars of the 1800s decimated the local populations of Maori and by 1844 the area of Beach Haven was sold to the new settler government and became deserted.  Eventually, European settlers began to arrive hoping to carve out a new life for themselves.  One of the first families to arrive was the Gruts from the Jersey Islands in 1857.  But life was much harder than many anticipated, the heavy clay soils and dense bush took its toll.

Although the city seems so very close to this part of the North Shore, back then before the harbour bridge the only way to market was by ferry/boat as the overland route was long and arduous.  The first ferries ran from what is now downtown Auckland to Birkenhead in 1854 and remained a vital lifeline for people up until the Harbour Bridge was completed in April 1959.

 

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The view to the city and harbour bridge from Birkenhead wharf.

Strawberries

In the 1870s several families had a breakthrough in the form of growing fruit trees, and by the 1880s some thirty orchards were recorded in the area around Zion Hill in Birkenhead (then known as Woodside) with more being established towards Beach Haven and the present day Birkdale.  During the late 1800s it was discovered that strawberries grew particularly well in the area.  Strawberries and fruit in general, quickly became a major part of the economy.

The whole community were involved in the strawberry picking – Birkdale Primary School was known to be lenient about homework during the picking season.  The strawberry fields became so well known that people would ferry over from the city at the weekend for strawberry afternoon teas and in 1898 the Thompson family began making jam in Birkenhead which eventually became New Zealands largest jam company of Thompson and Hills.

This prosperity encouraged even more people to settle the area and in 1888 Birkenhead (which then still included Beach Haven and Birkdale) became a borough and its first mayor was elected – Charles Button.

Gumdiggers

One of the most impressive features of the North Shore bush is the magnificent Kauri (agathis australis) trees.  Around the roots of these trees it is possible to find a resin called Kauri gum. This gum forms when the resin leaks out of the cracks in the bark, it hardens when exposed to air and lumps will fall from the tree eventually fossilising.  In appearance it looks very similar to amber.

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There are still some impressive groves of the mighty kauri standing in the area.

Maori had many uses for the gum, fresh it could be used like chewing gum (kapia) and as it is highly flammable it made a good firestarter.  When it was burnt and mixed with animal fat it became the dark pigment in moko tattooing.

For the European colonists the export of Kauri gum was of major importance, for Auckland as a whole it was the main export for most of the second half of the 19th century.  Between 1850 and 1950 some 450,000 tons were exported to England.  Its principle use was as a varnish.  Kauri gum when heated mixed easily with linseed oil and at lower temperatures and by the 1890s some 70% of all oil varnishes in England used Kauri gum.

The people who harvested the gum were often transient living in rough huts or tents, it was hard work and not very well paid.  Even so, in the 1890s 20,000 people were recorded as being engaged in gumdigging throughout Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel.  At one point digging for Kauri gum even became a weekend activity for the city side dwellers of Auckland with many catching the ferry to Birkenhead to dig for gum around the suburb.  It became such a problem with roads being potholed and private farms dug into, that local authorities brought in special measures to control the matter.

As it was the quality of the gum in Birkenhead was not as high as elsewhere and eventually the gum ran out, the last permit was issued to a Mr Wheeler of Verran’s Corner in 1931.

From this point on the history of the area now becomes one of entreprenurial settlers, families and a sugar factory.

A Cornish Mermaid

“The village of Zennor, about a quarter of a mile distant (from Morvah), lies in a wild and stony district.  Within the very interesting church are some quaint bench ends, one which depicts a mermaid…” (The Cornish Riviera 1911)

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The pub and the church – two essentials in any village.

Zennor is a small but perfectly formed village nestled into the rugged landscape of west Penwith.  It has an air of having been around since the beginning of time and a quick survey of the surrounding landscape would seem to confirm this.  The ancient past is all around you in this part of Cornwall, whether it is the stone walls that snake across the land, the portal dolmens dating back to the Neolithic or the remains of circular huts with dates in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

But perhaps the most well known aspect of Zennor is its connection with mermaids.  In the church there is an ancient oak bench, which at one end has carved into it a mermaid holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other (the mirror is sometimes referred to either as a quince or a pomegranate).  As with all matters in this land of stories there is a legend attached to the chair.

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The mermaid chair.

 

“One Christmas morning, long ago, so the local tradition runs, the mermaid came to the church, attracted by the marvellous singing of the squire’s son, a handsome youth, who considered by the ladies of Zennor the most desirable “future husband” in the district.  Moreover, so the story goes, the mermaid changed herself into a beautiful human maid wearing a gown of woven silver filament, which gave off a bright incandescence, and sitting beside the squire’s son she cast a spell on him.  Suddenly a terrific storm raged around the church and several flashes of lightening zigzagged at the windows, filling the church with a blinding glare.  The storm only lasted a few moments, and when it had abated the mermaid had vanished – and so had the squire’s son.” (Cornwall by R. Thurston Hopkins date unknown).

There are a few variations on this version but the essentials stay the same.  In the official pamphlet from the church at Zennor the legend tells “…how a beautiful young woman in a long dress used to sit at the back of the church listening to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. One evening she succeeded in luring him down to the stream which runs through the village.  Together they went down the stream and into the sea at Pendour Cove, now known as Mermaid’s Cove.  It is said that if you listen carefully on warm summer’s evening you can hear the pair of lovers singing together.”

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Detail of the mermaid chair – the comb and the mirror are recurring themes in depictions of mermaids.

It is believed that the carved chair which commemorates this story dates back to the late Medieval some five to six hundred years ago.  Stories of mermaids go back centuries, the first record of a mermaid tradition comes from the Assyrians and in Ancient Greece the mermaid was the symbol of Aphrodite who was not only the goddess of love but also the sea. Tumultuous and unpredictable, both can be said of the sea and love.  In many stories surrounding mermaids they are both beautiful/kind and ugly/evil – the two sides of the same coin.

It is not surprising then to learn that in the churchyard at Zennor there are many unmarked graves of unknown sailors who died during shipwrecks on this perilous stretch of coastline.  The sea can be both kind and bounteous but can turn in an instant taking life without remorse.

“It is a fact that, to this day, the women of the choir at Zennor sit between the male choristers and the church porch, and this, the village people say, is to protect their menfolk from the wiles of seductive “merry maidens”.” (R. Thurston Hopkins)

During the Middle Ages the mermaid appears in carvings at churches around the UK, becoming a symbol for the evils of lust, the fishy tail reminiscent of the scales on a serpent providing a link to the idea of ‘original sin’.  The mirror and the comb features in many depictions and are sometimes regarded as symbols of the mermaids (and thus female) vanity and it is through vanity that sin occurs.

Throughout time men have gone to sea to make their fortune or simply to provide for their families, it is a fact that some have never returned leaving families behind wondering what had happened to their menfolk.  Perhaps the legend is born from a truth – the mermaid is the capricious sea – a beautiful woman who lures men away often never to be seen again.  Is it not said that the sea is a ‘harsh mistress’?

 Other Point of Interest in Zennor

The Church  itself is dedicated to St Senara  – the earliest record of a church here dates to 1150 AD but the circular shape of the churchyard and the 6th century saints name would indicate that there has been a church here from around the earlier date.  St Senara is often associated with the legend of Princess Asenara of Brittany who married King Goello.  Her stepmother was jealous of her beauty and accused her of infidelity condemning her to be burnt however when it was found that she was pregnant her gaolers nailed her into a barrel and set her to sea.  It is said the child was born in the barrel and named Budoc, eventually the barrel washed up onto the Irish coast and Asenara and Budoc stayed for awhile.  As in all good stories King Goello discovered the truth of the matter and Asenara returned to Brittany with Budoc via Cornwall. Along the way they founded the parishes of Zennor and Budoc (near Falmouth).

Within the church there are two fonts, one is Norman in date and the other is 13th/14th century in date and is still in use today.

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A very degraded stone carving – possibly a saint?

In 1270 the church was appropriated by the Provost and Canons of Glasney College, at this time much of it was rebuilt.  The builders were housed in what is now ‘The Tinners Arms’, the local pub which was built in 1271.  In 1450 the tower and north aisle were added to the church.

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One of several stone crosses to be found in the churchyard. These originally marked the path for the ‘coffin way’.

Apart from all the great scenic walks (‘the coffin way’ to St Ives being one) around the area there is also a working water wheel and local museum – ‘The Wayside Folk Museum’.  This is a private museum of rural and local artefacts with everything from stone axeheads dating from the Neolithic to farm implements from the 18th century.

NB – It has come to my attention that The Wayside Folk Museum has closed and was sold recently (2016).

 

Archaeology, History and a little bit of time travel…