In the 17th century, depictions of the mythical mermaid were popular in many cultures including England. Seafarers at the time held many superstitions, and seeing a mermaid or hearing a mermaid’s song could have been a good or bad omen for the journey. To some, mermaids signified beauty and benevolence, and they had the ability to quiet a storm, often why figureheads of ships were mermaids. Others thought a mermaid sighting predicted bad weather ahead or doom for the voyage. Like the sirens’ song heard by Odysseus, mermaids were symbols of humanity’s vanity or temptation, and it was believed that a mermaid’s song would entrance lonely sailors and lead them to drown in the ocean or cause the ship to be steered off course and shipwrecked. The first English translation of The Odyssey was completed and published in London in 1616, perhaps contributing to this 17th century superstition.
This mount is one of fewer than 10 figurative mounts in the collection, and is the only one with the figure of a mermaid. She is depicted brushing her hair with her left arm with the end of her tail curling over on itself and terminating in a trefoil. Four clenched attachment tangs appear on the reverse for attachment to belt or harness leathers. This mount was most likely used as a decorative clothing element rather than a strictly functional mount.
Perhaps this artifact belonged to William Strachey, colony secretary from 1610 to 1611. Strachey was a member of the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen, a social club for Elizabethan era writers that gathered at the Mermaid Tavern near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Notable members including the poet and priest John Donne, playwright and poet Ben Jonson, and possibly even William Shakespeare discussed and debated various topics of the day. Perhaps it was during a meeting of the Sireniacal Gentlemen that Strachey told Shakespeare about his voyage to Jamestown aboard the Sea Venture, interrupted by a shipwreck in Bermuda, influencing Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.