Words empty as the wind are best left unsaid.


A picture is worth a thousand words.

~Napoleon Bonaparte

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Sirens and Mermaids

SIRENS, mythical beings who were believed to have the power of enchanting and charming, by their song, any one who heard them. When Odysseus, in his wanderings through the Mediterranean, came near the island on the lovely beach of which the Sirens were sitting, and endeavoring to allure him and his companions, he, on the advice of Circe, stuffed the ears of his companions with wax, and tied himself to the mast of his vessel, until he was so far off that he could no longer hear their song (Hom. Od. xii. 39, &c., 166, &c.). According to Homer, the island of the Sirens was situated between Aeaea and the rock of Scylla, near the south-western coast of Italy. Homer says nothing of their number, but later writers mention both their names and number some state that they were two, Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia (Eustath. ad Hom. p. 1709); and others, that there were three, Peisinoë, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia (Tzetz. ad Lycoph. 712), or Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia (Eustath. l. c. ; Strab. v. pp. 246, 252; Serv. ad Virg. Georg. iv. 562). They are called daughters of Phorcus (Plut. Sympos. ix. 14), of Achelous and Sterope (Apollod. i. 7. § 10), of Terpsichore (Apollon. Rhod. iv. 893), of Melpomene (Apollod. i. 3. § 4), of Calliope (Serv. ad Aen. v. 364), or of Gaea (Eurip. Hel. 168).

Odysseus bound to the mast of his ship listens to the deadly song of the Sirens. One of the bird-shaped maidens, casts herself from her perch in despair. ca 500 - 480 BC

Homer, Odyssey 12. 39 ff (trans. Shewring) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
"[Circe warns Odysseus of the dangers of the journey ahead:] ‘You will come to the Sirens  first of all; they bewitch any mortal who approaches them. If a man in ignorance draws too close and catches their music, he will never return to fine wife and little children near him and to see their joy at his homecoming; the high clear tones of the Sirens will bewitch him. They sit in a meadow; men's corpses lie heaped up all round them, moldering upon the bones as the skin decays. You must row past there; you must stop the ears of all your crew with sweet wax that you have kneaded, so that none of the rest may hear the song. But if you yourself are bent on hearing, then give them orders to bind you both hand and foot as you stand upright against the mast-stay, with the rope-ends tied to the mast itself; thus you may hear the two Sirens' voices and be enraptured. If you implore your crew and beg them to release you, then they must bind you fast with more bonds again. When your crew have rowed past the Sirens [you reach the Wandering Rocks & the straight of Scylla and Charybdis].’"

Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship (not shown) listens to the music of the Sirens. The bird-maidens stand on a rock, one singing, while the others play double-pipe and lyre. ca 525 - 475 BC

 Detail of a Siren playing castanet, from a scene of the Sirens and Odysseus. 340 BC

The Sirens are also connected with the legends about the Argonauts and the rape of Persephone. When the Argonauts, it is said. passed by the Sirens, the latter began to sing, but in vain, for Orpheus rivaled and surpassed them ; and as it had been decreed that they should live only till some one hearing their song should pass by unmoved, they threw themselves into the sea, and were metamorphosed into rocks.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 892 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"Lovely Terpsichore, one of the Muses, had borne them [the Sirens] to Achelous, and at one time they had been handmaids to Demeter's gallant Daughter [Persephone], before she was married, and sung to her in chorus. But now, half human and half bird in form, they spent their time watching for ships from a height that overlooked their excellent harbor; and many a traveler, reduced by them to skin and bones, had forfeited the happiness of reaching home."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 141 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"The Sirens, daughter of the River Achelous and the Muse Melpomene, wandering away after the rape of Proserpina [Persephone], came to the land of Apollo, and there were made flying creatures by the will of Ceres [Demeter] because they had not brought help to her daughter. It was predicted that they would live only until someone who heard their singing would pass by."

Funerary statue of a siren in Pentelic marble, found in the Necropolis of Ceramics at Athens.

 Siren. Russian, 10th century

 1659, Coat of arms Old Warsaw on the cover of an accounting book of the city.

Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, Sirin (left) and Alkonost (right) – Birds of Joy and Sorrow.

 John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens

 Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens

The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria, ca. 1000 BC. The goddess Atargatis, mother of Assyrian queen Semiramis, loved a mortal shepherd and unintentionally killed him. Ashamed, she jumped into a lake to take the form of a fish, but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. Thereafter, she took the form of a mermaid-human above the waist, fish below—though the earliest representations of Atargatis showed her as a fish with a human head and arm, similar to the Babylonian Ea. The Greeks recognized Atargatis under the name Derketo. Prior to 546 BC, the Milesian philosopher Anaximander proposed that mankind had sprung from an aquatic species of animal. He thought that humans, with their extended infancy, could not have survived otherwise.

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ligeia Siren

 Herbert James Draper, Water Baby 

 John Collier, The Land Baby 

A popular Greek legend turns Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, into a mermaid after she died. She lived, it was said, in the Aegean and when she encountered a ship, she asked its sailors only one question: "Is King Alexander alive?" , to which the correct answer was: "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" . This answer pleased her so she calmed the waters and wished the ship farewell. Any other answer would spur her into a rage. She would raise a terrible storm, with certain doom for the ship and every sailor on board.

Lucian of Samosata in Syria (2nd century AD) in De Dea Syria ("Concerning the Syrian Goddess") wrote of the Syrian temples he had visited:
"Among them – Now that is the traditional story among them concerning the temple. But other men swear that Semiramis of Babylonia, whose deeds are many in Asia, also founded this site, and not for Hera Atargatis but for her own Mother, whose name was Derketo"
"I saw the likeness of Derketo in Phoenicia, a strange marvel. It is woman for half its length, but the other half, from thighs to feet, stretched out in a fish's tail. But the image in the Holy City is entirely a woman, and the grounds for their account are not very clear. They consider fish to be sacred, and they never eat them; and though they eat all other fowls, they do not eat the dove, for she is holy so they believe. And these things are done, they believe, because of Derketo and Semiramis, the first because Derketo has the shape of a fish, and the other because ultimately Semiramis turned into a dove. Well, I may grant that the temple was a work of Semiramis perhaps; but that it belongs to Derketo I do not believe in any way. For among the Egyptians, some people do not eat fish, and that is not done to honor Derketo."

 Edward Burne-Jones The Depths of the Sea

Arnold Böcklin
The Norman Chapel in Durham Castle, built around 1078 by Saxon stonemasons has what is reputed to be one of the earliest artistic depictions of a Mermaid in England. It can be seen on a south-facing capital above one of the original Norman stone pillars.
Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens – both foretelling disaster and provoking it. Several variants of the ballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships; in some, she tells them they will never see land again, and in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. Mermaids can also be a sign of approaching rough weather.
Some mermaids were described as monstrous in size, up to 2,000 feet (610 m)

 Knut Ekvall The Fisherman and The Siren


In some ancient fairy tales of China, the mermaid was a special creature whose tears could turn into priceless pearls. Mermaids could also weave an extremely valuable material, translucent and beautiful. Because of this, fishermen longed to catch them, but the mermaids' splendid singing could simply drag them down into a coma.
In other Chinese legends, the mermaid is wondrous, but brainless and easy to trap. The legend said that mermaids were born with purple tails that smelled of happiness, but if sadness or death occurred during the mermaids' lifetimes their tails would turn red, and smell like sadness. So fishermen longed to catch mermaids in order to sniff their purple or red tails.
Lord Frederic Leighton,  The Fisherman and the Siren 

 John William Waterhouse, the Siren

 John William Waterhouse, A Mermaid

 Franz von Stuck, Mermaid 

Franz von Stuck, Faun and Nixe

Claimed sightings of dead or living mermaids have come from places as diverse as Java and British Columbia. There are two Canadian reports from the area of Vancouver and Victoria, one from sometime between 1870 and 1890, the other from 1967. In some of the earliest accounts of Blackbeard's sail logs in the BBC documentary Pirates, he instructed his crew on several voyages to steer away from charted waters which he called "enchanted" for fear of Merfolk or mermaids, which Blackbeard and many members of the crew reported seeing and documenting. These sighting were often recounted and shared by many sailors and pirates who believed the mermaids were bad luck and would bewitch them into giving up their gold and dragging them to the bottom of the seas.
In August 2009, the town of Kiryat Yam in Israel offered a prize of $1 million for anyone who could prove the existence of a mermaid off its coast, after dozens of people reported seeing a mermaid leaping out of the water like a dolphin and doing aerial tricks before returning to the depths. The prize has not yet been awarded.

Stone mermaid outside the Guild of Students, England.


 Place de la Concorde, Paris.

 Detail from San Filippo Neri Church, completed in 1770 on a project by Giovanni Vermexio, in Syracuse (Sicily). . Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto



 Mermaid statue at the Laem Samila beach, Songkhla, Thailand.