David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Mermaids: Parshat Chukat

Not too long ago, almost everyone believed in merfolk, from philosophers and scientists, to clergymen and rabbis
Robert Stephen Hawker in 1864. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Robert Stephen Hawker in 1864. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

If you imagine Britain as a fuzzy teddy bear reaching out to hug Ireland, Cornwall would be the foot. If you set out by car from London, it would take you five or six hours of driving southwest along the M4, M5 and A30 to reach the historic county.

Although Cornwall is part of England, the Cornish people have their own unique language, culture and traditions. You may see Saint Piran’s Flag, a white cross on a black background, flying proudly as a symbol of the region.

Cornwall has nearly 700 kilometers (over 400 miles) of coastline, where many a ship has run aground or been waylaid by pirates. The peninsula is battered by the strong winds of the Atlantic Ocean. The northern shoreline faces the Celtic Sea, while the English Channel lies to the south. The eastern border, where Cornwall meets Devon, is marked by the River Tamar.

Cornwall within England. (CC BY-SA, Nilfanion/ Wikimedia Commons)

The unofficial anthem of Cornwall, which you will hear sung at sporting events and elsewhere, is “The Song of the Western Men,” more commonly referred to as “Trelawny.”

The lyrics to this anthem were composed by Robert Stephen Hawker, a 19th century priest, poet and antiquarian; a colorful character, known to his parishioners as Parson Hawker.

Hawker was born on 3 December 1803, in Plymouth, Devon. He was the eldest of nine children. When he was about 10 years old, his father, Jacob Stephen Hawker, left his family to become the curate of Altarnun, in Cornwall. Hawker and his siblings were raised by their grandparents.

When he was a 19-year-old undergraduate in Pembroke College, Oxford, Hawker married Charlotte Eliza I’ans. She was aged 41 at the time, one year older than Hawker’s mother. Despite the age difference, they seem to have been well suited. Until her death in 1863, when Hawker was 60 years old, she supported her husband in his work, running the finances of the parish and looking after those in need. The couple had no children.

Robert Stephen Hawker 1869. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A year after Charlotte’s death, Hawker remarried, to a 20-year-old Polish woman named Pauline Kuczynski. The couple had three daughters together, Morwenna Pauline Hawker, Rosalind Hawker and Juliot Hawker.

In 1834, at the age of 31, Hawker became vicar of Morwenstow, and remained in that position for the rest of his life. Morwenstow is in the north of Cornwall, abutting Devon and the River Tamar. When Hawker arrived in the parish, he was the first vicar to live there in over a century.

In an accompanying note to his poem “The Western Shore,” first published in 1836, Hawker described the rugged, beautiful landscape:

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.

In his book, “Footprints of Former Men in Far Cornwall,” Hawker wrote of his parishioners: “My people were a mixed multitude of smugglers, wreckers, and dissenters of various hue.”

Morwenstow Vicarage. (CC BY-SA, Stephen McKay/ Wikimedia Commons)

Not long after his arrival, Hawker was woken early one morning to news that there were dead men on the shore. He rushed from his vicarage and described the scene he witnessed: “The bay was tossing and seething with a tangled mass of rigging, sails, and broken fragments of a ship.” There were two dead sailors on the beach, and more bodies floating in the waves.

Hawker took it upon himself to try to save those whose boats were dashed upon the rocks. And he would bring the bodies of the sailors who drowned for burial in his churchyard. Previously, the corpses had been simply buried in the sand or thrown back into the sea. Hawker described the cemetery:

Along and beneath the southern trees, side by side, are the graves of between thirty and forty seamen, hurled by the sea, in shipwreck, on the neighbouring rocks, and gathered up and buried there by the present vicar and his people. The crews of three lost vessels, cast away upon the rocks of the glebe and elsewhere, are laid at rest in this safe and silent ground.

Hawker’s Hut. (CC BY-SA, Humphrey Bolton/ Wikimedia Commons)

On the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, Hawker built himself a small hut out of driftwood. Often, he would sit there alone writing letters or poems.

When I wrote that Hawker was a colorful man, I mean that quite literally. When you think of British clergymen, you probably envisage them as wearing dark, somber colors. However, in his 1876 biography of Hawker entitled “The Vicar of Morwenstow: Being a Life of Robert Stephen Hawker, M.A,” Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould described him rushing to save shipwrecked sailors:

First, the vicar of Morwenstow in a claret-coloured coat, with long tails flying in the gale, blue knitted jersey, and pilot-boots, his long silver locks fluttering about his head. He was appealing to the fishermen and sailors of Clovelly to put out in their lifeboat, to rescue the crew of the Margaret Quail.

On top of his colorful clothes, he wore a yellow poncho.

The only black garments he wore were his socks. His son-in-law, Charles Edward Byles, quoted Hawker in “The life and letters of R. S. Hawker (sometime Vicar of Morwenstow)”

The wool grows on my Black Ewe. It is washed and sent to Wellcombe, where two or three Old Women still turn the Wheel and spin. The yarn is spun large and moderately loose. Then the Children at the School knit from a pattern sock, and my one Ewe will supply me with 21 pair of Socks every year if I needed so many.

Hawker served as vicar of Morwenstow for 41 years. On August 15, 1875, he passed away, a few days after suffering a serious stroke. According to Baring-Gould, the day before his death, Hawker’s wife called for a Catholic priest to visit him. Although Hawker had served as an Anglican minister his entire life, on his deathbed he became a Roman Catholic.

According to Byles, at Hawker’s funeral, “In accordance with the dead man’s taste, purple instead of black was worn by the mourners.”

Among Hawker’s many eccentricities, there are a couple of strange stories about mermaids. Hawker’s parish itself may have been named for mermaids. Robert Hunt, in “Popular romances of the west of England; or, The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall” wrote:

The intimate connection between the inhabitants of Brittany, of Cornwall, and of Wales, would ‘appear to lead to the conclusion that the Breton word Moruerch, 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 — ‘… The original and proper designation of the parish is Morvuen-stovf — that is, Morwenna’s Stow, or station ; but it has been corrupted by recent usage, like many other local names.’

Hawker himself related that he was once asked by a local, named Uncle Tony, about mermaids:

‘Sir, there is one thing I want to ask you, if I may be so free, and it is this, Why should a merry-maid’ (the local name for mermaid), ‘that will ride about upon the waters in such terrible storms, and toss from sea to sea in such ruxles as there be upon the coast—why should she never lose her looking-glass and comb?’ ‘Well, I suppose,’ said I, ‘that if there are such creatures, Tony, they must wear their looking-glasses and combs fastened on somehow—like fins to a fish.’

It seems that the locals were quick to believe in mermaids. According to Baring-Gould (although I admit this story seems unlikely), Hawker once exploited this belief to play a joke on the neighboring parishioners of Bude.

At full moon in the July of 1825 or 1826, he swam or rowed out to a rock at some little distance from the shore, plaited seaweed into a wig, which he threw over his head, so that it hung in lank streamers half-way down his back, enveloped his legs in an oilskin wrap, and, otherwise naked, sat on the rock, flashing the moonbeams about from a hand-mirror, and sang and screamed till attention was arrested. Some people passing along the cliff heard and saw him, and ran into Bude, saying that a mermaid with a fish’s tail was sitting on a rock, combing her hair, and singing.

A number of people ran out on the rocks and along the beach, and listened awestruck to the singing and disconsolate wailing of the mermaid. Presently she dived off the rock, and disappeared.

Next night crowds of people assembled to look out for the mermaid; and in due time she reappeared, and sent the moon flashing in their faces from her glass. Telescopes were brought to bear on her; but she sang on unmoved, braiding her tresses, and uttering remarkable sounds, unlike the singing of mortal throats which have been practised in do-re-mi.

This went on for several nights; the crowd growing greater, people arriving from Stratton, Kilkhampton, and all the villages round, till Robert Hawker got very hoarse with his nightly singing, and rather tired of sitting so long in the cold. He therefore wound up the performance one night with an unmistakable “God save the King,” then plunged into the waves, and the mermaid never again revisited the ‘sounding shores of Bude.’

Hawker himself may have believed in mermaids. Hunt wrote about a Mr. Blight, who described a church near Hawker’s:

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. 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.’

If we are honest, almost everyone believed in mermaids. A century before Hawker, the Royal Society of London discussed the topic. On November 29, 1703, Sir Robert Sibbald wrote to Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Society, about a scientific article he was writing. He said that he had, “added several accounts and the figures of some Amphibious Aquatic Animals, and of some of mixed Kinds, as the Mermaids or Syrens seen sometimes in our Seas.”

Sirens swimming in sea.―Bestiary (Bodl. 764), fol. 74v. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On July 5, 1716, Cotton Mather sent a letter to the Society entitled, “A Triton” in which he expressed his belief in the existence of merpeople. “Now at last my credulity is entirely conquered, and I am compelled now to believe the existence of a triton,” he wrote.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and one of the most influential biologists of the age, wrote to the Swedish Academy of Science in 1749, urging them to hunt a mermaid who had recently been seen in Nyköping. He wrote that, “science does not have a certain answer of if the existence of mermaids is a fact or is a fable or imagination of some ocean fish.”

Although the Academy did not find any merpeople, in 1766, Linnaeus and his student Abraham Osterdam published a dissertation entitled, “Siren lacertina (The Lizard Siren)” in which he detailed a long list of mermaid sightings throughout history.

The truth is that although Linnaeus did not discount the possibility of mermaids, he was unsure how to classify them. Initially, in one of his notebooks, Linnaeus listed merfolk in the category of humans and apes. However, in the 1740 second edition of the “Systema naturae,” which introduced the binomial nomenclature still used today, he placed sirens as one of the taxa of Aminalia Paradoxa.

Table of the Animal Kingdom from Systema Naturæ, 1735 (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Judaism does not use the binomial system of Linnaeus, but does discuss merfolk, and also appears unsure as to where they fit into halacha.

The Talmud (Bechorot 8a) says:

Dolphins procreate like people. What are dolphins? Rav Yehuda says children of the sea.

Nowadays, when we are familiar with dolphins, we understand that the playful mammals are referred to allegorically as children.

However, Rashi explains that they are mermaids. “There are fish in the sea that are half the form of a person and half the form of a fish. In French they are called “Sirens.”

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, the Torah gives the laws of impurity rendered through contact with a human corpse. Uniquely, a dead human body makes everything under the same roof impure, as the verse states, “This is the Torah when a man dies in a tent, everything that comes into the tent and everything within the tent shall be impure for seven days,” (Numbers 19:14).

The Sifra, a third-century halachic midrash on Vayikra, states (in parshat Shemini 11:9), “You might have thought that a mermaid would make a tent impure… the verse teaches, “This is the Torah…” So even though merfolk are half human, they do not have the status that would create impurity like a human corpse.

On the other hand, even though they have scales on half their body, they are not kosher fish either. The verse in Leviticus (11:10) says, “Anything that does not have scales and fins in seas or rivers, from anything that swarms in the water or from any living soul in the water, it is disgusting to you.”

The Sifra explains that “living” refers to animals that live in the sea and “soul” refers to mermaids. Meaning that even though they are not humn enough to impart impurity, they are also not fishy enough to be kosher, despite the fact that they may have fins and scales.

Rabbi Natan Ben Yechiel (c. 1035 – 1106) wrote in his book “Aruch” (Sirena):

They told me that the king of the northern territory, who rules over Denmark and Norway, was passing in a ship near the kingdom of Norway when he saw this creature sitting in the middle of the day on a rock in the sea. Ten years ago, when I stood before him, I asked him about this. The king was silent, and I understood that he was unsure whether the animal he saw was a mermaid or some other animal, because of the distance. Also, when the animal heard the voice of the captain calling ‘My master the king, turn around and see this great wonder’ to the king, who was sitting in the bow of the ship facing the other way, it immediately dove into the sea. However, the captain and the sailors testified that it was a mermaid and that they saw her. They imitated the songs that the mermaids sweetly sing.

In the 18th century, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724 –1806), better known by his initials Chida, discusses mermaids in his book “Midbar Kademot” writes (maarechet 4):

There is a type of fish in the sea called ‘siren.’ The upper half looks like a young woman and the lower half has the form of a fish. They live among the rocks and dangerous places in the sea. When a ship passes, they begin to sing and chant in a very beautiful voice until all the people on the boat fall asleep. Afterwards, they enter, and kill and eat all the inhabitants.

Even more recently, Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908) wrote extensively about mermaids in his halachic book Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 83:10 and 14), explaining why even the fishy half is not kosher to eat.

Nowadays, I expect very few people actually believe mermaids exist. In fact, we know that mermaids are not real because the US Government said so. On the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration it states that, “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.”

But it was not very long ago that almost everyone believed in merfolk. From philosophers and scientists, to clergymen and rabbis.

Isn’t that interesting?

My current series on WebYeshiva and is entitled “In Their Time: The Tannaim.” The next class is on June 27th. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar. Check out my website,
Related Topics
Related Posts