Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  English Folklore  Index  Previous  Next 


MORVA OR MORVETH (Sea-daughters).

You dwell not on land, but in the flood,
Which would not with me agree.'
-- Duke Magnus and the Mermaid.--SMALAND

THE parish of this name is situated on the north-west coast of Cornwall, - the parish of St Just being on its western borders, and that of Zennor on the east, between it and St Ives. The Cornish historian Tonkin says, "Morva signifies Locus Maritimus, a place near the sea, as this parish is. The name is sometimes written Morveth, implying much the same sense."

The similarity of this name to "Morgan," sea-women, and "Morverch," sea-daughters, which Mr Keightley has shown us is applied to the mermaids of the Breton ballads, is not a little curious. There are several stories current in this parish of ladies seen on the rocks, of ladies going of from the shore to peculiar isolated rocks at special seasons, and of ladies sitting weeping and wailing on the shore. Mr Blight, in his "Week at the Land's End," speaking of the church in the adjoining parish, Zennor, which still remains in nearly its primitive condition, whereas Morva church is a modern structure, says--"Some of the bench ends were carved; on one is a strange figure of a mermaid, which to many might seem out of character in a church." (Mr Blight gives a drawing of this bench end.) This is followed by a quotation bearing the initials R. S. H., which, it is presumed, are those of the Rev. R. S. Hawker, of Morwenstow: -

"The fishermen who were the ancestors of the Church, came from the Galilean waters to haul for men. We, born to God at the font, are children of the water. Therefore, all the early symbolism of the Church was of and from the sea. The carvure of the early arches was taken from the sea and its creatures. Fish, dolphins, mermen, and mermaids abound in the early types, transferred to wood and stone."

Surely the poet of "the Western Shore" might have explained the fact of the figures of mermaids being carved on the bench ends of some of the old churches with less difficulty, had he remembered that nearly all the churches on the coast of Cornwall were built by and for fishermen, to whom the superstitions of mermen and mer-maidens had the familiarity of a creed.

The intimate connection between the inhabitants of Brittany, of Cornwall, and of Wales, would appear to lead to the conclusion that the Breton word Morverch, or mermaid, had much to do with the name of this parish, Morva,--of Morvel, near Liskeard,--and probably of Morwenstow, of which the vicar, Mr Hawker, writes--"My glebe occupies a position of wild and singular beauty. Its western boundary is the sea, skirted by tall and tremendous cliffs, and near their brink, with the exquisite taste of ecclesiastical antiquity, is placed the church. The original and proper designation of the parish is Morwen-stow--that is, Morwenna's Stow, or station; but it has been corrupted by recent usage, like many other local names."

Next: Merrymaids and Merrymen