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.




God Ares/Mars, Venus and Amazons

ARES  (Roman god Mars), the god of war and one of the great Olympian gods of the Greeks. He is represented as the son of Zeus and Hera. (Hom. Il. v. 893, &c.; Hes. Theog. 921; Apollod. i. 3. § 1.) A later tradition, according to which Hera conceived Ares by touching a certain flower, appears to be an imitation of the legend about the birth of Hephaestus (Roman god Vulcan), and is related by Ovid. (Fast. v. 255, &c.)

Athena represents thoughtfulness and wisdom in the affairs of war, and protects men and their habitations during its ravages. Ares, on the other hand, is nothing but the personification of bold force and strength, and not so much the god of war as of its tumult, confusion, and horrors. Ares loves war for its own sake, and delights in the din and roar of battles, in the slaughter of men, and the destruction of towns.

 Mars and Minerva 1773–1780

Homer, Iliad 5. 699 ff :
"[Zeus to Ares:] ‘To me you are the most hateful of all the gods who hold Olympos. Forever quarrelling is dear to your heart, wars and battles.’"

Homer, Iliad 2. 401 ff :
"Each man made a sacrifice to some one of the immortal gods, in prayer to escape death and the grind of Ares [war]."
 Bartholomeus Spranger, Mars 

Aeschylus, Fragment 282 (from Papyri Oxyrhynchus) (trans. Lloyd-Jones) :
"Hera has reared a violent son [Ares] whom she has borne to Zeus, a god irascible, hard to govern, an one whose mind knew no respect for others. He shot wayfarers with deadly arrows, and ruthless hacked . . (lacuna) with hooked spears . . he rejoiced and laughed . . evil . . scent of blood."

 Diego Velazquez, Mars

Ares was the god who presided over the emotions that lead to violence: hatred and rage. He was also invoked by those who wished to control their violent impulses.

Homer, Iliad 5. 699 ff :
"Violent Ares, that thing of fury, evil-wrought."

 Roman copy from a Greek original—this is a plaster replica, the original is now stored in the Museum of the Villa.

Tintoretto, Minerva Sending Away Mars from Peace and Prosperity

Ares was the god of manliness and courage and the opposite qualities: fear, terror and cowardice.

Pindar,Pythian Ode 8 str3 (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"Like Ares shall he be in strength of arm."
Aeschylus, Suppliant Women 749 ff :
"A woman abandoned to herself is nothing. There is no Ares [i.e. manly spirit or courage] in her."

 Mars, Paris

 Jacques-Louis David, The Combat of Mars and Minerva‎

 Joseph-Benoît Suvée, The Combat of Mars and Minerva


The sacred groves of Ares at Thebes in Boiotia (Central Greece) and Kolkhis (on the Black Sea) were both protected by guardian Dracons. The first of these was slain by Cadmus, who had to serve Ares for eight years as penalty. The second protected the Golden Fleece, and was perhaps slain (or simply put to sleep) by Jason and the Argonauts.

Ares portrayed as a standing stern-expression youth, nude, holding a spear and coiled serpent, and crowned with a helm. Late Classical

Ovid, Heroides 12.39 ff :
"The condition is imposed [by King Aeetes] that you [Jason] press the hard necks of the fierce bulls at the unaccustomed plow. To Mars [Ares] the bulls belonged, raging with more than mere horns, for their breathing was of terrible fire; of solid bronze were their feet, wrought round with bronze their nostrils, made black, too, by the blasts of their own breath."

The sacred island sanctuary of Ares founded by the Amazons off the coast of their land in the Black Sea was guarded by a flock of arrow-shooting birds.

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 30 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"On the island of Mars [Ares] . . . Birds which shoot their feathers out as arrows."


I) BARN OWL (Greek "aigolios"); EAGLE-OWL (Greek "buas");
VULTURE (Greek "gups"); WOODPECKER (Greek "ipne")

Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 21 (trans. Celoria) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Zeus loathed them [the giants Agrios and Oreios] and sent Hermes to punish them . . . But Ares, since the family of Polyphonte [mother of the giants] descended from him, snatched her sons from this fate. With the help of Hermes he changed them into birds. Polyphonte became a small owl whose voice is heard at night. She does not eat or drink and keeps her head turned down and the tips of her feet turned up. She is a portent of war and sedition for mankind. Oreios became an eagle owl, a bird that presages little good to anyone when it appears. Argios was changed into a vulture, the bird most detested by gods and men. These gods gave him an utter craving for human flesh and blood. Their female servant was changed into a woodpecker. As she was changing her shape she prayed to the gods not to become a bird evil for mankind. Hermes and Ares heard her prayer because she had by necessity done what her masters had ordered. This a bird of good omen for someone going hunting or to feasts."

II) SERPENT (Greek "drakon")
The poisonous serpent was sacred to Ares. In ancient art he was often shown holding a serpent, or with a serpent-device on his shield.

Some of the more famous myths featuring the god include:-

His adulterous affair with Aphrodite in which the pair were trapped in a net laid by her husband Hephaestus;
The slaying of Adonis, his rival for the love of Aphrodite, in the guise of a boar;
The transformation of Cadmus of Thebes and his wife Harmonia into serpents;
The murder of Hallirhothios to avenge his daughter's rape and his subsequent trial in the court of the Areiopagos;
The arrest of Sisyphos, an impious man who kidnapped the god Death;
The battle of Heracles and Kyknos in which the god intervened in support of his son;
His support of the Amazons, warrior daughters of the god;
His capture by the Aloadai giants who imprisoned him in a bronze jar;
The Trojan War in which he was wounded by Diomedes in battle with the help of Athena.


The Anacreontea, Fragment 28 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric II) (C5th B.C.) :
"One day Ares came in from the battlefield brandishing a strong spear and began to make fun of Eros’ weapon. Eros said ‘This one is heavy: try it and you will see.’ Ares took the javelin, while Aphrodite smiled quietly; and with a groan he said, ‘It is heavy: take it back.’ ‘Keep it,’ said Eros [and so perhaps bound Ares and Aphrodite in love.]."

 Mars and Cupid by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Museo Thorvaldsen, Copenhagen

Jacques-Louis David, Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces

 Paulo Veronese,  Mars and Venus United by Love 

 Paris Bordone, Venus and Mars with Cupid

 Rubens, Allegory on the Blessings of Peace


After his birth, Hera cast the crippled Hephaestus from heaven in disgust. When he grew up, he sent gifts to Olympus, including a golden throne for Hera. But when the goddess sat upon it she was bound fast. Hera offered the hand of Aphrodite in marriage to the god who could release her. Ares attempted to bring him Hephaestus back to Olympus by force, but was driven back by a flaming volley of metal shards. Dionysus later suggested that Hephaestus return willingly and claim the prize of Aphrodite for himself.
Neither Ares nor Aphrodite were pleased with this outcome, and were forced to engage in their famous adulterous affair.

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 148 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"When Vulcan [Hephaestus] knew that Venus [Aphrodite] was secretly lying with Mars [Ares], and that he could not oppose his strength, he made a chain of adamant and put it around the bed to catch Mars by cleverness. When Mars came to the rendezvous, the together with Venus fell into the snare so that he could not extricate himself. When Sol [Helios the sun] reported this to Vulcan , he saw them lying there naked, and summoned all the gods who saw. As a result, shame frightened Mars so that he did not do this. From their embrace Harmonia was born, and to her Minerva [Athena] and Vulcan [Hephaestus] gave a robe ‘dipped in crimes’ as a gift. Because of this, their descendants are clearly marked as ill-fated."

 Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan. 

 Tintoretto, Venus, Mars, and Vulcan 

 Luca Giordano, Mars and Venus Caught by Vulcan

Luca Giordano, Venus, Cupid, and Mars

Rubens, Venus, Mars and Cupid 

Ares was identified with the Roman god Mars, the Egyptian god Anhuris-Onuris, and the war-god of the Scythians.
Ares was also one of the three major gods of Thrace, the others two being Sabazios (a god identified with Zeus and Dionysus) and Bendis (a goddess identified with Artemis, Selene and Hecate). Unlike these there was little apparent difference between the Greek and Thracian Ares.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2. 989 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"The Amazons of the Doiantian plain were by no means gentle, well-conducted folk; they were brutal and aggressive, and their main concern in life was war. War, indeed, was in their blood, daughters of Ares as they were and of the Nymph Harmonia, who lay with the god in the depths of the Akmonion Wood and bore him girls who fell in love with fighting."

Penthesilea or Penthesileia was an Amazonian queen in Greek mythology, the daughter of Ares and Otrera and the sister of Hippolyta, Antiope and Melanippe. Penthesilea had killed Hippolyta with a spear when they were hunting deer; this accident caused Penthesilea so much grief that she wished only to die, but, as a warrior and an Amazon, she had to do so honorably and in battle. She therefore was easily convinced to join in the Trojan War, fighting on the side of Troy's defenders.

 Penthesilea (1862), by Gabriel-Vital Dubray (1813-1892). East façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre palace, Paris

 "Penthesilea accidentally killed her sister Hippolyte while hunting", by Emil Wolff at the Hermitage.

In the Pseudo-Apollodorus Epitome of the Bibliotheke she is said to have been killed by Achilles, "who fell in love with the Amazon after her death and slew Thersites for jeering at him". The common interpretation of this has been that Achilles was romantically enamored of Penthesilea (a view that appears to be supported by Pausanias, who noted that the throne of Zeus at Olympia bore Panaenus' painted image of the dying Penthesilea being supported by Achilles). Twelfth-century Byzantine scholar Eustathius of Thessalonica postulated a more brutal and literalist reading of the term loved, however, maintaining that Achilles actually committed an act of necrophilia on her corpse as a final insult to her.

 Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Achilles and Penthesilea

 Rubens, Battle of the Amazons 

 Franz von Stuck, Wounded Amazon

 Franz von Stuck, Amazon and Centaur