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Hiding in Plain Sight: Medieval Mermaids in Church buildings

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Why would an historic, folkloric, however non-Biblical, character corresponding to a mermaid discover its means into so many medieval European church buildings? And may such mermaid imagery and symbology be correlated with the extra overt pagan symbols of the Inexperienced Man and Sheela na gig?

14th-century mermaid bench-end at St Mary’s church, Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire (Picture: Courtesy John Vigar )

Frequent Pagan Symbols in Church buildings

There are quite a few stone sculptures and wooden carvings in European medieval church buildings that depict what might seem like non-Christian imagery. Most mentioned are these of the Inexperienced Man and the Sheela na gig, which have discovered varied interpretations, from pagan symbols present surreptitiously inside Christian sacred areas, to easy ornamental adornments, created by masons and carpenters with the implicit approval of the Church.

Sheela na Gig, Llandrindod Wells Museum (Celuici / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sheela na Gig, Llandrindod Wells Museum ( Celuici / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Not like lots of the extra simple carved photos of animals and therianthropes in church buildings, the Inexperienced Man and Sheela na gig portrayals should not drawn from passages in biblical texts, strengthening the speculation that they’re derived from naturalistic pagan perception methods and folkloric concepts, which continued to function at some degree under the radar of Christian orthodoxy all through the Center Ages. It seems as if there have been a sure ecclesiastical allowance to tolerate these coded populist photos, even when they have been evoking (particularly within the case of the sexually specific Sheela na gigs) a doubtlessly heretical cosmology.

Late medieval mermaid shown in a wall painting at St Botolph’s church, Slapton, Northamptonshire (Image: Courtesy John Vigar)

Late medieval mermaid proven in a wall portray at St Botolph’s church, Slapton, Northamptonshire (Picture: Courtesy John Vigar )

However there’s one other well-liked non-Biblical picture usually present in church buildings of all standing, particularly prevalent in Britain and Eire: mermaids. They are often present in stone reliefs, bench-ends, misericords, roof bosses, and infrequently in wall work in virtually 100 medieval church buildings, often distinguished, generally hidden however most frequently following the same design, which remained largely unchanged between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Mermaids in Mythology and Folklore

Mermaids have been part of the worldwide mythological ontology for hundreds of years. They make their first literary look in Assyria at about 1000 BC, when the goddess Atargatis turns herself right into a mermaid as a self-imposed punishment after by accident killing her human lover. However this rendering of a mermaid creature could also be based mostly on the even earlier custom of the Babylonian God Ea , who was portrayed as a fish with a human head.


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 The creator thanks John Vigar at  https://www.johnevigar.com/  for the pictures.

Neil Rushton    is an archaeologist and freelance author who has printed on all kinds of subjects from fortress fortifications to folklore. His first e-book is   Set the Controls for the Coronary heart of the Solar 

Prime Picture: Tramin (South Tyrol. )Saint James church in Kastelaz: Romanesque frescos (1210s ) exhibiting improbable creatures. ( Public Area )

By Neil Rushton

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