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 people involved | time:2023-11-30 03:46:51

This mermaid's cap has contributed its quota to the superstitions of witchcraft. An Irish story tells how Red James was aroused from sleep one night by noises in the kitchen. Going down to the door, he saw a lot of old women drinking punch around the fireplace, and laughing and joking with his housekeeper. When the punchbowl was empty, they all put on red caps, and singing

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"By yarrow and rue, And my red cap too, Hie me over to England,"

envelope, and from it drew out several sheets of green

they flew up chimney. So Jimmy burst into the room, and seized the housekeeper's cap, and went along with them. They flew across the sea to a castle in England, passed through the keyholes from room to room and into the cellar, where they had a famous carouse. Unluckily Jimmy, being unused to such good cheer, got drunk, and forgot to put on his cap when the others did. So next morning the lord's butler found him dead-drunk on the cellar floor, surrounded by empty casks. He was sentenced to be hung without any trial worth speaking of; but as he was carted to the gallows an old woman cried out, "Ach, Jimmy alanna! Would you be afther dyin' in a strange land without your red birredh?" The lord made no objections, and so the red cap was brought and put on him. Accordingly when Jimmy had got to the gallows and was making his last speech for the edification of the spectators, he unexpectedly and somewhat irrelevantly exclaimed, "By yarrow and rue," etc., and was off like a rocket, shooting through the blue air en route for old Ireland.[92]

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[92] Kennedy, Fictions of the Irish Celts, p. 168.

In another Irish legend an enchanted ass comes into the kitchen of a great house every night, and washes the dishes and scours the tins, so that the servants lead an easy life of it. After a while in their exuberant gratitude they offer him any present for which he may feel inclined to ask. He desires only "an ould coat, to keep the chill off of him these could nights"; but as soon as he gets into the coat he resumes his human form and bids them good by, and thenceforth they may wash their own dishes and scour their own tins, for all him.

But we are diverging from the subject of swan-maidens, and are in danger of losing ourselves in that labyrinth of popular fancies which is more intricate than any that Daidalos ever planned. The significance of all these sealskins and feather-dresses and mermaid caps and werewolf-girdles may best be sought in the etymology of words like the German leichnam, in which the body is described as a garment of flesh for the soul.[93] In the naive philosophy of primitive thinkers, the soul, in passing from one visible shape to another, had only to put on the outward integument of the creature in which it wished to incarnate itself. With respect to the mode of metamorphosis, there is little difference between the werewolf and the swan-maiden; and the similarity is no less striking between the genesis of the two conceptions. The original werewolf is the night-wind, regarded now as a manlike deity and now as a howling lupine fiend; and the original swan-maiden is the light fleecy cloud, regarded either as a woman-like goddess or as a bird swimming in the sky sea. The one conception has been productive of little else but horrors; the other has given rise to a great variety of fanciful creations, from the treacherous mermaid and the fiendish nightmare to the gentle Undine, the charming Nausikaa, and the stately Muse of classic antiquity.

[93] Baring-Gould, Book of Werewolves, p. 133.

We have seen that the original werewolf, howling in the wintry blast, is a kind of psychopomp, or leader of departed souls; he is the wild ancestor of the death-dog, whose voice under the window of a sick-chamber is even now a sound of ill-omen. The swan-maiden has also been supposed to summon the dying to her home in the Phaiakian land. The Valkyries, with their shirts of swan-plumage, who hovered over Scandinavian battle-fields to receive the souls of falling heroes, were identical with the Hindu Apsaras; and the Houris of the Mussulman belong to the same family. Even for the angels,--women with large wings, who are seen in popular pictures bearing mortals on high towards heaven,--we can hardly claim a different kinship. Melusina, when she leaves the castle of Lusignan, becomes a Banshee; and it has been a common superstition among sailors, that the appearance of a mermaid, with her comb and looking-glass, foretokens shipwreck, with the loss of all on board.

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