I've been looking at various mermaid myths recently and while doing this, started looking at references in Robert Graves' "The White Goddess". I am not sure how widely disseminated this is, but thought it worth sharing. Anyhow it's very interesting to me, being Suffolk based (where M.R. James based 'Oh Whistle'), and offers some intriguing connections between M.R. James, Graves, as well as further interpretations of the story, and some nice cinematic doubling.
To summarise, in a chapter of "The White Goddess", called "Gwion's Heresy", Graves discusses winnowing feast mysteries and makes mention of a Majorcan artefact of this harvest festival. It is called the xiurell, and is a white clay whistle, decorated in red and green. The whistle is handmade and cast in various shapes such as a mermaid, a coiled serpent, or a full skirted woman rocking her baby in her arms. According to Graves the whistle figured in an ecclesiastical festival that took place on 12th of September. The festival entailed the villagers of Bonanova, near Palma, perambulating up the hill, presumably blowing these whistles. The object of the whistle, posits Graves, "must originally have been to induce the North-East winnowing winds which, according to the local almanack, begin to blow at this season and which at the end of the month summons rain clouds from the Atlantic Ocean to soak the winter wheat planted earlier in the month."
Graves says that the mermaid, locally called a 'siren', evidently represents Aphrodite (also represented by the woman and baby shaped whistle). The serpent is represented by the wind (presumably denoted by the coiled serpent whistle). He maintains that "this is the only time when the wind is welcomed by the Majorcans, who... fear the sirocco as they fear the devil". The whistling is not heard in the island except in the xuirell season. Then most curiously Graves injects the following non sequitur:
"The ploughman sings as drives his mule and the schoolboy as he runs home from school; for the rest furbis, flabis, flebis - 'whistle shrill, weep long' ".
The fur fla fle bis, is of course, one of the inscriptions on the whistle excavated in M.R. James' tale. I am not sure what to make of this. Were James and Graves drawing from a similar Mediterranean custom, or was Graves merely injecting James' story into his mythopoesis - which is an interesting insight into the mechanics of his creativity. I haven't read any accounts of Graves studying James' stories. It also adds another aspect to 'Oh Whistle'. I've always considered to the story to have strong succubal or incubal overtones, as well as being a quite strong evocation of sleep paralysis, but it could be drawing from Greek mythology too, though Jacqueline Simpson in her essay on folkloric elements in M.R. James draws on Jutland customs to possibly explain the roots of the story.
As well as Graves' account of the harvest time ritual, there's also a festival in the municipality of Llubi on Majorca, which takes place on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. It's called the "Fiesta of the Xiurell" and during the ceremony a giant xiurell or demon-shaped whistle is burnt. Presumably this is to mark the beginning of the agricultural year.
I also wonder whether there is a connection between the film "The Shout", which came out in the late 70s, and "Oh Whistle". "The Shout" was filmed in Devon among the dunes and starred Alan Bates. He plays a madman who infiltrates a couple's lives, seduces the wife and plays mind games which her husband, played by John Hurt. Hurt's an electronic music composer and Bates claims to have learned from aboriginal shaman how to kill with a shout. The coastal location and the demonic use of the shout bare some resemblance to M.R. James' "Oh Whistle", but most interestingly, "The Shout" is based on a Robert Graves short story. In a weird twist of cinematic fate, John Hurt was recast as Parkin in the recent TV remake of "Oh Whistle".
In Graves' story the husband and wife begin to experience telepathic dreams in which the husband is seen walking on the sands with a strange man who is discussing the whereabouts of the soul. The woman in her version of the dream runs from these figures. Graves' "The Shout" is quite clearly also a conceit for his preoccupation with the story of the poet, muse and wyrd. But there are certainly some intriguing overlaps between the folkloric roots of Graves' and James' research.