To you, my fair ladies, I wish to speak in the name of those who are sometimes your lords and masters but remain always and, especially this evening, your faithful and devoted servants. We are delighted when you are smiling, as we hope to see you happy, and I am afraid to tire you by my speech. You might tell me it is very easy to sing your grace, to glorify your merits with the nice words you like. To each of you, my fair ladies, I would like to whisper in your ear, to tell our thanks for being so pretty to-night, as well as so patient. But even a wonderful troubadour could not find so many rhymes to have a song for each one of you. Besides, you all have a title to our thanks for your grace and, before the end of my songs, I would be very old, while you would have remained always young.
I am on the edge of a dream, but do not be surprised. Men of the sea and of countries by the sea never succeeded to live without women; far from their presence, they have dreamt of them; and from these dreams come all those fantastic stories, sea tales and legends which are told in every land.
I war born in Brittany, a country closely tied to the sea, where many tales and legends are well known since men live there and I would like, my fair ladies, to amuse you by telling you some stories where the Ladies are closely associated to the Sea.
You know the tales of the Greek antiquity and have heard about the feminine beings of the sea; they had various shapes taking something to birds or fishes but always were the most pretty girls we may dream about. My preference is for the mermaids, graceful with their long hair and their fish tail and I must confess I am not sure they live only in our dreams.
A well known Italian writer tells in a delightful novel the meeting of a young Sicilian poet with a lovely mermaid. He was in a small boat along the coast, on a magnificent summer morning; the first rays of the sun were changing into gold and blue the paleness of sea at dawn; he was dreaming, reciting Greek poetry when he felt the boat listing. Two hands had seized the side, two hands delicate and fine, and he saw the most delicious being: a mermaid. She had the smooth face of a young girl; her lips were opened upon fine white teeth; her smile, which expressed a total joy of life, was like a spell. The pearled and brilliant scales of her tail, her unknown fragrance, magic smell of sea, of youth, her perfect body, all her being, were nothing but charm; her voice was a marvellous music. She said:
"Do not believe all the tales invented against us; we do not kill anybody, we only love; you please me; do love me".
He went ashore, took in his arms the scented body of the mermaid and was granted by kisses which were to the kisses of the earth what wine is to water. And they lived marvellous weeks of love. The mermaid enjoyed an immortal youth; she lived happy, free of any rule but those of beauty. She told her lover:
"You are young and fair; follow me into the sea and you will be ignorant of pain and old age; you will live where everything is rest and silence in the dark and silent palace of the eternal waters."
She went away quite often coming back with gifts of the sea: marine shells and purple coral. One day she left for ever; her youth, rich of adventure and light continue eternally.
Mermaids are temptresses, that is well known, and mermaids of Brittany no less than the others. May the seaman be careful not to be fascinated, as he would be led under water.
According to our tales, the seaman is sometimes drowned and the poor mermaid, who had no ill thought, is grieved and can only bury him under coral branches and moving sea anemones. But, an other time, she has the power to keep him living like her and he becomes king of the sea, or occasionnally she leads him quickly into her wonderful castle where fishes bring air in their mouths in order that he may breathe.
Mermaids are often good fairies; the one of a Bay of Northern Brittany was satified singing deliciously. One day she was asleep on the beach; a man passing by seized her but allowing himself to become tender he put her back into the waves; then she gave him heaps of gifts and offered his children a purse which could never be emptied. When our mermaids are wounded and washed ashore, they give their rescuers a flute or a whistle; at the first sound of the instrument the mermaids appear and perform wonders. Their kindness is generous and free, they do kind actions just for their own pleasure, taking care of shipwrecked seamen in their caverns within the depth of the ocean.
Are they evil or wicked? If they attract seamen into the sea, that does not suit the captains, but much less the wives and girl-friends ashore; and that may be the reason why the mermaids are accused of many crimes. Their sole true crime is to have attracted the seamen and to have kept them in their world beneath the sea, with the charm of their voices and the tie of their silk belt.
No, I cannot believe that mermaids are wicked. We have also in Brittany other beings of the sea; they bear names I cannot translate even in my own language and which generally mean "born from the sea". Always fair, eternal, able to live either in the air or under water, they are told to have maintained continuous relations with men ashore. We have a lot of stories about them which generally start from a love between a man of the sea and a woman of the shore, or, of course, the contrary. But the difference comes from the fact that generally men of the sea are fair, full of honour and kindness whilst their feminine counterpart shares their beauty but not their kindness. These women, called in Brittany, Mari-Morgane, are witches, and they bring trouble in their families. But men are so made that they often prefer trouble to peace and follow a beautiful witch rather than stay at home.
Ashore we had also in Brittany, some trouble with women. Maybe the most famous is that princess, daughter of the king of the country of Quimper by whom was submerged the city of Ys. The popular tradition has built, century after century, the legend of that city. One no longer knows where it was, but only that it was built lower than sea level at high tide and protected by strong dikes. Gates were used for governing entrance and flowing out of the waters and the keys of the gates were entrusted to the princess who used to hang them round her neck. But the city, which was the capital of the country, was also the capital of luxury, vice and vanity. Bad example came from the top, as the princess herself led a shameful life. When she took to liking a young man, she gave him a magic mask with which he was able to join her secretly by night, and the day after, when he was taking leave of the princess, the mask contracted itself and he was strangled. One night, during a wild dance, the devil, under the form of a nice young man, succeeded to rob the keys and while the princess and her company continued to dance, he opened the gates of the dikes and the sea invaded the city. The king, informed of the danger, escaped on his black horse with some servants; passing before the house of the princess, his daughter, he stopped for a moment and took her with him, but the horse refused to go ahead and the water was rising. Then the bishop of the city told the king:
"Shake free the sin you have behind you and, with the help of God, you will be saved."
The princess slipped in the sea and disappeared. Her father escaped and when he reached the mainland the city had vanished and in ist place was nothing but a deep bay which reflected the stars.
All these stories, terrible or marvellous ones, that I just told you, are they fables? I cannot believe that entirely, and prefer to give way to my own dream. And you, Gentlemen, did you never hope to meet a mermaid, enchantress being of the sea, and to follow her, forgetting everything, drunk under her charm? Who has never waited for this marvellous being, a mermaid rising from the waves and singing her appeal with so melodious a voice that nobody can resist her attraction?
To-night, Gentlemen, I propose to turn to that beautiful dream. That is so easy. Beautiful, adorned, smiling and charming, our mermaids are with us, ready to draw us into their deep waters; whe shall not complain if they have changed their shape and left their fish tail; even if they are beautiful with their pearled scales, even if their marine body is flexible, whe shall be more comfortable, in a moment, to dance with them in their human shape.
My fair ladies, may I beg you, to-night, to be our mermaids and to dream with us; your charm has already attracted us, and we are only waiting for your smile and your call to follow you wherever you like.
Gentlemen, I invite you to that lovely dream and kindly ask you to rise; let us drink our glasses in honour of the ladies, to their grace, their beauty; and together, let us go away under their charm like seamen following the mermaids.
Version : 06.01.2008 - Contents : Martine Bernard-Hesnard
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