Mermaids in Cornish Folklore

Mermaids have become a powerful symbol for the LGBTQ community and specifically for transgender people, so much so that the biggest trans charity in the UK is called Mermaids

As a county with such a close relationship to the sea, oceanic folklore is a popular aspect of Cornish tales. No creature features more heavily than mermaids; from the mermaid of Zennor to the Doom Bar mermaid of Padstow – mermaids are endemic in our folklore. But why are these mythological beings linked with queer naratives? Mermaids, unicorns, and indeed many magical folkloric beings can be seen in popular culture as embedded within the LGBTQ community. 

Mermaids are a popular allegory for transgender stories not only due to their mythological nature as transformative beings, but also due to the fact that they are considered women despite no visable genetalia. Like mermaids, trans women often grapple with people’s disturbing curiosity with their genitals. Like mermaids, trans women are often viewed as half-women, half-other. Like mermaids, trans women are often accused of seducing men and seen as a threat, (which has been documented as a factor in the high rate of unsolved and under investigated murders of transgendered women of colour). And just like mermaids, trans women are beautiful and worthy of celebration. 

You can see why some transgender people consider mermaids to be a suitable allegory for their lives.  

The Mermaid of Zennor is popular within Cornish folklore, with the first tales written by folklorist William Bottrell in 1873, however the links of Zennor with mermaids dates well before that. n St. Senara’s Church in Zennor you can see a benchend dated to around 1400-1500 featuring a mermaid, demonstrating these mythical creatures have been linked with the Cornish coast for hundreds of years. 

A 3D copy of the Mermaid benchend is currently on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in their ‘Monsters of the Deep’ exhibition.