I paid a fleeting visit, the other day, to our late Holy Father Pope Benedict XIV in Ashmole, and we had our usual discussion about the State of the Church. He liked most of the recent comments of his Current Successor about the European Union, except for that ungallant, rather less than gentlemanly, rhetorical trope of criticising Europe ... by comparing her to an infertile grandmother!! "Ineptum infacetum insipiens invenustum" were the kindest of his comments about that. Prospero Lambertini is nothing if not a true gentleman. But then he gave me a useful tip. "Vade ad dexteram spectatum iocalia nuperrime a Michaele Wellby huic Museo benignissime data." To me, a papal nod is as good as a pontifical wink; so I went to look at a selection of some fifty splendid silver and gold pieces in a case in the room to the Pontiff's right. Next year, the entire splendid collection will have a splendid gallery of its own. Michael Wellby has joined that coruscating band of collectors and benefactors who have enriched this fantastic museum (England's oldest), going right back to the gift of the Arundel Marbles.
My eye was caught by a German tankard, circa 1655, Augsburg, ivory with silver-gilt fittings. It is spectacular (oh dear ... there I go again ... I'm sorry to be encumbering the ground with so many superlatives ... but go and get an eyeful yourself, and, believe me, you'll utter nothing but hyperbole for a fortnight). The carver has represented a marine scene, as such scenes used to be in happier days when fabulous creatures were a little less shy about displaying themselves. Merhorses, monsters, Tritons (you remember that even that old bore and spoilsport Wordsworth retained a furtive, ashamed affection for this sort of thing) and ... mermaids. One mermaid, with well-carved gluteal features, has two scaly tails wriggling beneath her in the sea.
It got me thinking. Most of the mermaids, nice girls, whom I have known personally in the past ... in Zennor Church on a bench end ... in Exeter Cathedral on a boss ... on misericords here and there ... have had but one single tail (and they seem always to be holding some sort of object in front of them just like modern girls endlessly taking Selfies). I rather wondered whether this meant that there are different species within the genus ichthyoparthenos, ... Anglica (gothic) and Germanica (baroque), perhaps? Catholic and Lutheran mermaids? Or had mermaids, under the tuition of Mr Darwin and perhaps assisted by Dr Dawkins, significantly evolved between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries? Would this possibility represent a significant blow to Creationism?
I returned to the Holy Father, and put all those questions to him. "Habes doctos in tuo blogo lectores et praesertim avias doctissimas quarum nonnullae totam hanc rem in lucem palam adducent", was his rather buck-passing reply. So here I am passing the same buck on to you ... with an invitation to supply answers to the questions in the last paragraph; open, despite Pope Francis' rhetoric, to both 'fertile' and 'infertile' readers of any age. Answers in either English or Latin. (And what, incidentally, would be the Latin for a 'Selfie'?)