October 25th – The Festival of Saint Bertasy; Mermaid Day

If you are from Litancha and visiting the City, today’s festival might not be quite what you expect. Similarly, if you tell a Buentoillitant about Litancha’s depiction of mermaids, they will be equally perplexed; these saccharine cartoons of girls with beautiful, sparkling fishes tails are nowhere to be found in Buentoille. Take one trip to the fish market, take a look at the bulging eyes, spiny backs and hideous teeth of some of the fish there, and you will be getting a better idea of how Buentoillitants view mermaids. It is another world underwater, where the very firmament threatens death, and who knows what darkling horrors wait in the inky depths of a deep pool?

As is the way with old stories, the tale of Saint Bertasy has changed somewhat over the years. At one point he was thought to be a fairly pedestrian figure in the Chastise Church canon, and garnered little more than the official recognitions during church services on this, his festival day. It continued this way for many years, until Eauna Cause drowned in the pool that borders the Church of Saint Morstead. She’d become tangled in some weeds growing at the edge of the pool whilst playing nearby with her friends, dying, tragically, at the age of seven. The priest of the Church, now known as the Church of Saints Morstead and Bertasy, Helenia Walthemsore, was devastated. She ordered the pool cleaned of its weeds, and even considered filling it in, but then she had a better idea.

In Buentoilliçan folklore, the mermaid is not some beautiful maid of the sea, but a terrible monster that haunts pools of stagnant water, with awful grasping hands and a rapacious desire for the flesh of children. There are, of course, some disagreements over the exact origin of the creature, but it’s generally agreed that it first appeared in Traccea’s Maid’s Lament, in which a vain young woman becomes convinced that she has been turned ugly because when she goes to the pool (or ‘mere’) to see her reflection, she sees a ‘meremaid’ waiting beneath the surface instead. Having previously built her entire self-worth on her good looks, she throws herself into the pool and drowns in the meremaid’s embrace. Whilst Traccea presumably intended the meremaid to be a creature symbolic of the maid’s internal ugliness of character, it became a monster in its own right, dropping an ‘e’ and being used by parents across the City to scare their children away from playing at dangerous bodies of water.

By Walthemsore’s time, the early seventeenth century, the mermaid-as-warning had begun to slip from common usage, and this is what the priest saw as the driving factor behind Cause’s death. Had she grown up in a time (as Walthemsore had) when pools like the one by the Church were fearful places, full with monsters waiting to grab you, then she would not have drowned in it. This at least was the argument that the priest put forward to herself, and was the reasoning behind the creation of today’s festival. Walthemsore remembered reading about Saint Bertasy long ago; he had gained his sainthood by Attuning to the rocking motion of his fishing boat, and had used this attunement to foresee the drowning of a similar young girl, who he saved. In order for the Church authorities to approve the festival that the priest had in mind, she had to connect it to a saint in some way. The answer, of course, was to bend the story of Saint Bertasy to her ends.

Today, by that same pool, a parishioner will dress up in a gruesome outfit, adorned with pond weeds and fish scales, and will wrap up some of the local children in long weeds, generally terrorising anyone who comes near. This ‘mermaid’ will at times submerge themselves in the pool, and then burst forth menacingly when people walk past. Then, after some time, she will begin to drag some of the wrapped children toward the water. It is at this point that Saint Bertasy (or rather, another parishioner playing him) appears, casting their fisher’s net over the horrid creature and slaying her with a golden sword (this last detail seems to have been added in more recently) and setting the children free. The actor will then proceed to give a short lecture on the dangers of water, and what any children should do if they or their friends get into trouble whilst playing in or by it. ‘I won’t always be here to save you,’ they say, ‘so be careful, or a mermaid might get you!’

Other festivals happening today:

  • Hammer and Tongs Day
  • The Questioning of Hermod Festival