Last week, I got an email from a young woman named Erin, who is a Grade 4 student at All Hallows Elementary in North River.
Erin is one of the participants in the Heritage Fair program, a great project which encourages students to explore their heritage in a hands-on manner. Students make storyboards to tell stories about local heroes, legends, traditions and places, and then present their work at a public exhibit at their school. Select students then go on to represent their schools in regional fairs across Newfoundland and Labrador.
Erin decided to do research on the folklore of mermaids in Newfoundland, and asked me for some advice on mermaid stories.
While we have a long maritime history in the province, we do not have a lot of mermaid stories. Erin already knew about the most famous, the story of Capt. Richard Whitbourne, who described meeting a mermaid in his book "Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland."
Early one July morning in 1610, Whitbourne spotted a strange creature which he called "a marmayde" swimming in St. John's Harbour. As Whitbourne tells it, the mermaid swam swiftly towards him, looking carefully at his face.
The water maiden had a beautiful and well-proportioned face, and she had blue streaks on her skin instead of hair. The creature was about 15 feet in length, and her tail was proportioned "like a broad hooked arrow."
The mermaid tried to climb into a boat owned by William Hawkridge. Hawkridge was not impressed with the creature's attentions, so he hit her on the head with an oar, and she swam off.
While the mermaid has not been spotted recently, her legend has achieved a certain amount of immortality, and for many years she was depicted on a mural by Helen Gregory on the north side of Harbour Drive. What also persisted for many years, apparently, was Hawkridge's method of dealing with merfolk.
Horace Beck's "Folklore of the Sea" was originally published in 1973 by the Mystic Seaport Museum. It contains a few references to Newfoundland mermen, including one encountered by a fisherman who was hand-lining by himself in a dory just off the Newfoundland shore.
"At noon, he stopped fishing and started to eat his lunch, when much to his surprise and annoyance he discovered a merman about to climb into the boat," writes Beck. "He tried to shoo it away with no success, so he grabbed the fish gaff and bashed it on the fingers, after which it acquired a lively interest in other things."
Another of Beck's Newfoundland tales involves a second merman, seen in the same area around the same time. When two men were out hunting, they saw a strange creature in the water and shot at it.
"Whatever it was sank," describes Beck, "but a short time later a dead merman with a black beard and hair washed ashore nearby."
Not all of Beck's Newfoundland merfolk stories end badly. In one, a mermaid actually helped a Newfoundlander caught in a storm.
"On still another occasion a man was caught in a small boat in a heavy gale. When the situation became most critical a mermaid appeared, climbed onto the gunnel and conned the boat safely through the breakers to shore."
One other mermaid story from Labrador has a happy ending. In an Inuit legend, an orphaned boy rescued a mermaid who had become grounded on the rocks. The grateful mermaid gave the boy a hat with a fancy broach as a reward. Visiting sailors recognized the broach as belonging to the King of England, who in turn gave the boy a hefty sum of money for its return.
Here's hoping young Erin does well on her heritage fair project, and good luck to all the other heritage fair students across the province.
Storyteller and author Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.