Monday, December 6

The Further Further Adventures of Murgen the Mermaid

From the comments box at Ecclesia Anglicana:
Other saints have been referred to as 'Mermen' in historical literature of the British Isles. Some scholars hold that it meant one who dwelt on the smaller isles off the coast (the same that were the choice of 'desert' for British, Irish, and French monastics.) So, a 'Mer-man' or 'Mer-maid' was someone who lived on the sea. Those small islands like Iona, Caldey, or Skellig Michael were not all that accessible - it was really 'living out upon the sea/in the sea'. The local churches saw these islands as 'halfway to heaven' - they were dangerous, ideal for ascetic labour, and pre-Christian belief was that such were the abodes of the Dead (see the 'Blessed Isles' tradition.) We know archaeologically that many islands off of Britain were used as graveyards for that same reason. No doubt embellishment of the stories mixed with borrowed 'Classical Roman' ideas such as 'half man, half fish' mermaids produced the later form of the stories. St. Murgen, however, I would bet to have been really a castaway on one of those islands: living a natural hermit-like existence.
My friend Steve has a theorem that runs something like this: Life is interesting, and therefore any explanation of it which is not as interesting or even dull is therefore false. Sort of like the anti-Occam's razor (Chesterton's spatula?) While I rather like this maxim, this less romantic explanation of St. Murgen's peculiar legend is nonetheless a little easier to handle for those among us who dislike zoomorphic saints. And it of course has the advantage of not having to rewrite established biology...

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