I thought we could return to the myths and legends themes for this post; I do seem to have jumped the gun with the previous post of Elizabethan symbols of pelicans, phoenixes and mermaids.
Just to recap, Phoenix Street is said to take its name from the Phoenix cockpit that is also commemorated in Cockpit Alley, the site on which the Drury Lane theatre was later built. Or perhaps it takes its name from a pub.
Mermaid Court in Southwark was once known as Mermaid Alley and also takes its name from a pub, which in turn could have taken its name either from the mythical creature or from the fact that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river, ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.
There is also a Unicorn Passage in the Southwark area, now a pedestrian walkway. The children’s theatre took its name from the passage. Unicorns were also popular in signs for taverns and shops; the mystical powers of the unicorn made it particularly popular with chemists and goldsmiths.
Unicorns, or mentions of them, date back to around 400 BC. In some legends, they had the head and body of a horse, legs of a buck, and tail of a lion; the body was white, the head was red, the eyes were blue, and there was a horn that was white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip. Nowadays, unicorns are generally pictured as white horses with beautiful, flowing manes, and a single white or gold horn.
There is a Scylla Road near to Heathrow Airport, a strange name for a road leading to a major transport hub given that Scylla and Charybdis were the sea monsters of Homer and a danger to seamen. (There is also a Scylla Road in the Peckham area.) Scylla and Charybdis were later objectified as a rock shoal and a whirlpool.
Scylla was a beautiful nymph who caught the eye of Glaucus, a mortal who ate of a strange herb and was turned into a sea-god. The love Glaucus felt for Scylla was not requited so he turned to the enchantress Circe for help. However, Circe took a liking to Glaucus herself and turned Scylla into a revolting monster with twelve feet and six heads, each with three rows of teeth.
Scylla then dwelt on a rock and would grab sailors when a boat sailed too close to her; in trying to avoid her they ran the risk of being sucked into the nearby whirlpool of Charybdis.
Charybdis also suffered from the jealousies of the Greek gods: she was the daughter of Poseidon and aided him in his feud with his brother Zeus. Zeus in turn was angered by Charybdis having flooded large areas of land with water, so he turned her into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.
5 responses to “From Mermaid Court to Unicorn Passage: more myth and legend in London street names”
An interesting mention of Scylla Road. My Mum lived at 76 Scylla Road, Nunhead, SE15, for almost 30 years, until her death in 2012. I still have a couple of friends living in that street, which is physically divided by Consort Road. We held her wake in the Old Nun’s Head Pub, at the very end of the street, on Nunhead Green.
Best wishes, Pete.
Pete, I love your many and varied associations with just about every street I mention 😀. Cheers, E
60 years in a place will tend to do that. 🙂
I’m very much enjoying these posts about my birth city. My late father had a flat in Crawford Mansions, at the corner of Crawford Street & Homer Row. I used to ask cabbies to drop me on Homer row – they unfailingly knew where it was. I just looked up the tiny street and am astonished to see that T.S Eliot (whom I adore) once lived in Crawford Mansions. There certainly was no blue plaque 3 decades ago! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Row
Thank you so much for your kind remarks; I’m delighted that you are enjoying my posts. How exciting that your family has a TS Eliot claim to fame! All the best Elizabeth