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The Mermaid Chair

Updated on August 17, 2012

The Legend of the Mermaid of Zennor

The legends of Zennor speak of mermaids, love and the magical sea. Big tales for a small parish village situated on the north coast of Cornwall, England - but then, there is something very special there which has inspired countless tales, songs and poems ever since.

Have you heard of the Mermaid Chair? You might have come across it in Cornish legend, or perhaps in the book of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd. Or perhaps you have seen it for yourself?

Whatever image the Mermaid Chair conjures up for you, why not dive deep with me and discover the legends, the mermaids, and the magical chair itself...

Photo Credit: Mermaid Chair - Image copyright of the author (c) 2009

This work is the copyright of the author, MissMerFaery (c) 2012. All images are copyright of the author (c) 2009 unless otherwise stated.

Unearthing The Mermaid Chair

The Mermaid Chair in Zennor - Image copyright of the author (2009)
The Mermaid Chair in Zennor - Image copyright of the author (2009)

I took this photograph on holiday in Cornwall in 2009. I was six months pregnant, and had just spent most of the day traipsing around the wilds of Cornwall looking for the sacred stone circles of Penwith. We arrived in Zennor on a windswept afternoon, and were met with the sight of the fabled church of St Senara, which held within a chair that had inspired legends.

Upon first glance, this crumbling church pew doesn't look like much. But then, that's the wonderful thing about history. Uninspired eyes might look at this, see a pretty blue fish design and battered wood, and walk away.

But there is so much more to this 600-year-old magical seat! For if we move to the side, and further inspect the wooden panel, we will find a carving of Zennor's famous legend, who has gone on to inspire poems, songs, stories and the hearts of bards and artists alike. Here, in St. Senara's Church, you will come face to face with the real Mermaid of Zennor...

The Mermaid Chair of Zennor - the 600-year-old original carved bench end

The Mermaid Chair of Zennor - the 600-year-old original carved bench end
The Mermaid Chair of Zennor - the 600-year-old original carved bench end
St Senara's Church, Zennor. Image copyright of the author (2009)
St Senara's Church, Zennor. Image copyright of the author (2009)

On Coming to Zennor

So what led me to the mysteries of Zennor? What compelled me to make the journey here, to this church on a grey, windy day, despite a long and exhausting (but altogether magical) tour around Cornish stone circles?

I have been enchanted by mermaids ever since childhood. A lifelong fascination with all things faerie and mer, coupled with a deep love for the enchantment of Cornwall, meant that Zennor, home of the most famous English mermaid legend, was a must-visit for me.

Two key elements drew me in - the legend itself, and another tale inspired by the legend.

The Legend of the Mermaid of Zennor

The Mermaid of Zennor - Image licensed from JupiterImages Corporation
The Mermaid of Zennor - Image licensed from JupiterImages Corporation

Photo Credit: Fairytale Illustration licensed from JupiterImages Corporation.

The 600-year-old mermaid chair of St Senara's Church is thought to be the inspiration behind the most famous of mermaid legends - the Mermaid of Zennor. It is widely thought that folklorist William Bottrell created the tale after visiting the church and being inspired by the seat's carving. His book, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, is the earliest known source for the legend.

The legend itself goes that a beautiful woman made regular visits to St. Senara's Church, and that a local parish singer, Mathew Trewella, became utterly captivated by her. One day he followed her down to Pendour Cove and neither are seen again. It is said that she turned into a mermaid and he dove into the water to be with her.

One Sunday, a captain was approached by a mermaid asking him to raise his anchor, for it was blocking her door and she needed to attend her children. The tale spread and the villagers believed that the mermaid in their cove was, in fact, that same beautiful woman who enticed Mathew away and that they now had a family beneath the waves.

Many works of poetry, prose and song have since been inspired by the legend. You can find out more about the legends and the subsequent adaptations on this page about The Mermaid of Zennor.

The Mermaid of Zennor takes her love into the sea

The Mermaid of Zennor takes her love into the sea
The Mermaid of Zennor takes her love into the sea

Zennor Mermaid - Legend or Truth?

Do you believe in the tale of the Mermaid of Zennor?

See results

The Mermaid Chair - by Sue Monk Kidd

The other reason I so wanted to see the Mermaid Chair was this book by Sue Monk Kidd, author of the Secret Life of Bees.

A beautiful and heartfelt tale, which has since been made into a movie, The Mermaid Chair is about a woman who finds love in the most unlikely of places, but ultimately ends up finding herself. The book is not set in Zennor but was inspired by the legend and the chair.

The Mermaid Chair
The Mermaid Chair

Jessie Sullivan is weary of her 20-year marriage, and when a sudden phone call about the mental state of her mother takes her home to the tiny Egret Island, her awakening is only just beginning.

Inside a Benedictine monastery on the island, there is a mysterious chair carved with mermaids, which legend claims is dedicated to a saint who was once a mermaid. Jessie is drawn both to the chair, and to Brother Thomas, a monk who is months away from taking his final vows.

As Jessie undergoes an erotic, artistic and spiritual awakening, the secrets of her mother's past begin to come to light. The Mermaid Chair is a beautiful story about the feminine soul, the yearning for a soul mate, and the passion of the spirit.

Available in hardback, paperback, audio and Kindle formats.

 

More Tales of Zennor

Aside from the Mermaid of Zennor herself, there are other tales based on this wonderful chair. The popular YA series Ingo by Helen Dunmore was inspired by the Zennor mermaid, and a couple of Helen's books even feature Zennor in the title.

Stained Glass Window of St Senara's Church, Zennor. Image copyright of the author (2009)
Stained Glass Window of St Senara's Church, Zennor. Image copyright of the author (2009)

St. Senara of Zennor

The name "Zennor" is taken from the Cornish name for a local saint, St. Senara, Little is known of her, but legend connects her to Princess Asenora of Brittany, who was thrown into the sea while pregnant and drifted in a barrel all the way to Zennor, where she founded the church and was later honoured as St. Senara. Perhaps this tale is where the carving of the mermaid originated...

St. Senara's Church is a mixture of Norman, 13th and 15th century handiwork, and there are only two surviving original bench ends, one of which is of course the Mermaid of Zennor.

It is a very beautiful little church, with a hanging angel making an impressive sight as you walk towards the altar. The space off to the right is the finest, however, where you will find these mighty stained glass windows watching over a small, white-clothed altar with the Zennor mermaid and Jesus upon it, providing a backdrop to the mermaid chair itself.

Even a small altar in St Senara's Church features the Zennor mermaid!

Even a small altar in St Senara's Church features the Zennor mermaid!
Even a small altar in St Senara's Church features the Zennor mermaid!

Watched over by Angels and Mermaids in St Senara's Church, Zennor. The Mermaid Chair is located off to the right hand side.

Watched over by Angels and Mermaids in St Senara's Church, Zennor. The Mermaid Chair is located off to the right hand side.
Watched over by Angels and Mermaids in St Senara's Church, Zennor. The Mermaid Chair is located off to the right hand side.

Zennor in a Land of Legends

The Mermaid Chair in Zennor - Image copyright of the author (2009)
The Mermaid Chair in Zennor - Image copyright of the author (2009)

If all this talk of mermaids has inspired you to visit Zennor, then here is a little bit more about the area.

The legend of Zennor is, of course, one legend in a land of thousands. Cornwall is undoubtedly the home of my heart, with its magic, mystery and enchantment. Land of King Arthur, Celtic lore and piskies, the Mermaid of Zennor is right at home.

Zennor itself fits right into the magical, rugged coastline of Cornwall, too. North of the village, you can find magical Zennor Head.

Photo Credit: Zennor Head via Wikimedia Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

The cliffs rise up at 60m (200 ft) above the sea, and it's certainly not difficult to imagine mermaids and other legendary happenings taking place upon this enchanted coastline.

Photo Credit: Zennor Head via Wikimedia Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Finally, travel a mile east of Zennor village and you will find Zennor Quoit, a megalithic burial chamber, along with Sperris Quoit which is 400 yards away.

Zennor Quoit, an ancient megalithic burial chamber just west of the village

Zennor Quoit, an ancient megalithic burial chamber just west of the village
Zennor Quoit, an ancient megalithic burial chamber just west of the village

The Mermaid Chair Movie

The Mermaid Chair
The Mermaid Chair

Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd and starring Kim Basinger as Jessie, this film adaptation explores love, legend and the haunting of secret pasts on the tiny island of Egret, as Jessie undergoes an inner awakening and learns what she truly wants from her life.

 

Take a Seat in the Mermaid Chair... - And Leave your Comments and Feedback here!

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    • profile image

      antonkas 5 years ago

      I read about this tale when I was a kid and was mesmerized by her beauty

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 5 years ago

      Lovely lens. My eldest granddaughter believes in mermaids, despite my rational cautioning that they do not exist! Looks like a good place to visit. Must see if I can take a trip to Cornwall again some time. Haven't been there for over 50 years.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      You see through inspired eyes and are able to stir that inspiration in others by diving deep with them, I just knew this would be another wonderful journey when I saw the intro picture of your Mermaid Chair on the front page.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Thanks for the fairy tale about the mermaid chair!

    • profile image

      Ruthi 5 years ago

      I so enjoy legends and lore! Thank you for sharing your journey to the St. Senara's Church and The Mermaid's Chair.

    • Dmarieinspires profile image

      Dana Marie 5 years ago from St. Peters, MO

      Very beautiful and interesting!!!! Thank you for sharing...

    • Flowerchild1946 profile image

      Carol Brooks 5 years ago from Florida

      What a beautiful and interesting lens. I read "The Secret Life of Bees" and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now I will have to read "The Mermaid Chair."

    • Missmerfaery444 profile image
      Author

      Missmerfaery444 5 years ago

      @IncomeFromHomeT: Very true - there are lots of wonderful stories from around the world, and several more linked to Cornwall too! Mermaid lore is wonderful

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      What a fantastic chair! Just like @lestroischenes, I loved The Secret Life of Bees and have finally got a copy of The Mermaid Chair - it's next up on my bedside table stack of books, and your story about the mermaid legend has made me look forward to reading the book even more!

    • IncomeFromHomeT profile image

      IncomeFromHomeT 5 years ago

      This isn't the only mermaid legend. My friend, Nelson Jecas, has been tracking them down for many years.

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 5 years ago from France

      Just bought The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. Loved The Secret Life of Bees so looking forward to reading this.

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 5 years ago from France

      Super lens. I can't wait to go to Cornwall now. Never heardof the Mermaid of Zennor.

    • ektacis lm profile image

      ektacis lm 5 years ago

      nice lens... I love it!

    • MizzMary profile image

      MizzMary 5 years ago

      Gorgeous photos of a beautiful building, and yes it did inspire me to visit.

    • Close2Art LM profile image

      Close2Art LM 5 years ago

      very neat page, just watched a doc. on mermaids on Nat Geo, very fascinating..Angel Blessings

    • Ardyn25 profile image

      Ardyn25 5 years ago

      I love this! And bookmarked it so I can come back. Your photos allowed me to visit this remarkable place and legend. And I learned something new about it...thanks.

    • SheilaMilne profile image

      SheilaMilne 5 years ago from Kent, UK

      I thought this was going to be all about the book! I had no idea about the legend or the place. I have really enjoyed reading all about it.

    • randomthings lm profile image

      randomthings lm 5 years ago

      Very interesting information. I had not heard of this before and the pictures are very good! Thanks for sharing your story.

    • IMKZRNU2 profile image

      IMKZRNU2 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Beautiful lens! I wish I was able to take a vacation and go there....maybe someday.

    • ismeedee profile image

      ismeedee 5 years ago

      I live 15 minutes from Zennor... and I just visited the village last week. It's a beautiful place! You've done a lovely job with this lens!

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Great lens. Such an interesting story -- well deserving of a Purple Star.

    • PaulWinter profile image

      PaulWinter 5 years ago

      I really enjoyed reading your lens and looking at the photos. I love Cornwall, its one of the most beautiful counties of England.

    • profile image

      MaggiePowell 5 years ago

      Loved the book, never realized it was real!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 5 years ago from Central Florida

      You've done a beautiful job on this topic. Just lovely.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 5 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      As soon as I saw the title of your lens, I was thinking, I KNOW I read a book that had something to do with a mermaid chair. Then I read your intro and said, yep, that's it! I remember I really liked that book. How cool to see the real thing!

    • siobhanryan profile image

      siobhanryan 5 years ago

      This is a brilliant article--I adore the photo with the angel protecting the chair

    • siobhanryan profile image

      siobhanryan 5 years ago

      This is a brilliant article--I adore the photo with the angel protecting the chair

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      What a wonderful photo and article of this Mermaid Chair! Blessings. :)

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 5 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      The Zennor Mermaid is a lovely legend and that chair is just gorgeous! I love your beautiful photo..one more place I want to go.

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 5 years ago

      Great lens. You should certainly get a purple star for this one.