This track has haunted me for years. It’s from the fascinating CD, Songs of Witchcraft and Magic compiled by the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall. The delicate shifting harmonies of the two women’s voices seem to mimic the shimmering silver mackerel darting in the sea, or the twisting bulk of the worm or serpent that was once a boy. In the Northumbrian version of the story, the wyrm is a cursed girl named Margaret and she is saved by her brother’s kiss. He has come to slay the serpent that has menaced his people when at the last minute he recognizes his sister as the creature and saves her with a kiss.
But in this version the serpent sings of his transformation and that of his mackerel sister Maisry– so close to misery, and strung out in the ballad as a three-pearl-syllable. The mackerel consols the wyrm every Saturday at noon– in this verse they have knees and comb each other’s hair, suggesting at that one moment they may be human again. The witch who has transformed them is as usual a wicked step mother. Once caught, she calls the mackerel with a silver horn and all the fish in the sea come to her (what an image!). But the mackerel refuses to obey, and stays a fish. “No more will I be changed by thee!” It cries.
The song closes with the terse couplet–the father goes to the “merry green wood” to gather hawthorn to build a “good bonfire to burn his lady in”.
I highly recommend this CD not only for its rousing strangeness but for the intelligently written booklet with lyrics and notes.
Even though the Museum of Garden History is closed for refurbishment, one can still sit meditatively in the Elizebethan knot garden and contemplate life south of the river.
The museum is in a church whose yard holds some fascinating relics which push all kinds of archetypal buttons. For instance, the oruborous egg urn. Or the sarcophagus of John Tradescant the Elder, the naturalist, collector and traveler who built the “Ark,” a cabinet of curiousities and one of the first museums open to the public.
The text of Tradescant’s sarcophagus, penned by John Aubrey, is a lichen-covered whisper to those willing to tip-toe to read it:
Know, stranger, ere thou pass, beneath this stone
Lie John Tradescant, grandsire, father, son
The last dy’d in his spring, the other two,
Liv’d till they had travelled Orb and Nature through,
As by their choice Collections may appear,
Of what is rare in land, in sea, in air,
Whilst they (as Homer’s Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut,
These famous Antiquarians that had been
Both Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen,
Transplanted now themselves, sleep here & when
Angels shall with their trumpets waken men,
And fire shall purge the world, these three shall rise
And change this Garden then for Paradise.
It is interesting to note that only the father, son and grandfather are included in this resurrection (“…these three shall rise..”). The two women also buried in the tomb are presumably unawakened by the angelic brass.