Or of Passions Perilous and the Mythopoeic Nature of Water
Every now and then, it is with gratitude and delight that I can announce a guest writer for this newsletter. (Not only does this spare me the temptation born of desperation of posting some dog’s breakfast riddled with spelling errors and ill-made phrases at the eleventh hour, but that writers and friends and colleagues who take their writing seriously be willing to share it here enchants me to no end.)
Imola Unger falls into all three of the above categories, and has graciously sent a few well-chosen words on sirens and sea nymphs. While mermaids and their kin are so popular as to be no longer even questioned as part of our general culture, for Melusina in her myriad forms evokes everything Little Mermaids and coffee vendors, the deeper implications are well worth considering philosophically, irrespective of Fortean eyewitness reports and their pseudo-scientific explanations, which, while they are entertaining in a puerile way, tell us very little about ourselves.
After a newsletter dedicated to thoughts lost in the beauty of waves, and a short encounter with Jenny Hanivers, here are a few well-chosen words about the creatures that inhabit the seas of our unconscious, as wholly as they inhabit our imaginations. Nor are they any easier to seize than the waves themselves, as you will see.
Of Sirens & Sea Nymphs
Homer fell under the enchantment of the Sirens’ song and condemned us all to the same fate. The winged women of damnation soaring above the seas embody a dangerous fascination. In the Middle Ages they were believed to lure unwary sailors to their destruction, and since then they have become the symbol of bringing perdition onto men. Even their name, Siren, derives from the name of a sly creature, an imaginary snake, sirena (Lat.) or seiren (Gr.). This mysterious sea dwelling half-woman tickled the fancy of many a storyteller and painter, and her aquatic cousins bore no smaller influence on our consciousness today.
John William Waterhouse: Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)
Herbert James Draper: Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)
Women in the water – bathing virgins, elusive mermaids, sirens of doom – embody a dangerous attraction, an archetypal image, a cipher of beauty that we all recognize and decode. Our waking mind is barely even aware of these ubiquitous sightings. Mythical creatures, classical paintings, Disney movies, and advertisements repeat and replay this scene wherever we look. Origin myths from all parts of the globe unite the woman and the water as the crib of life. When seen through the lens of ration, the water is suddenly enclosed into a womb or it becomes an element of spiritual cleansing and rebirth. However, my gut sense tells me (don’t ask where it came from, it’s pure intuition) that our subconscious knows more about what it is in this alluring image that forbids and forebodes.
Rembrandt van Rijn: Susanna and the Elders (1647)
Sir John Everett Millais: Ophelia (1850)
Paul Gauguin: In the Waves (1889)
Now, trying to crack the subconscious and instill rational meaning into an archetypal ur-image certainly seems like a task worthy of Sisyphus, and it is in all likelihood no less destined for success than his incessant toil. Still, that pesky gut feeling keeps nudging and promises that a little time submerged, not too far below the surface, will open up the mental gills. Their nascent gurgling may send up bubbles of something worthwhile from the depths we humans are supposed to share.
The water resonates with all humans in an unalienable way: the proto-memory of the maternal womb is the Freudian explanation that naturally lends itself to linking the woman to the water. The female, especially when (partially) naked, is a symbol of fertility. From here it is not a big leap to add that biologically, all life comes from the water, et voilà! The mystery is revealed.
Or is it? What is the reason behind this obstinate reoccurrence, why the irresistible attraction? What is it about the water exactly that makes it so unnoticeably part of the female image? Very often, magical creatures in legends and myths stand for an actual but inexplicable phenomenon of human nature. Their magical features, in turn, are allegories for our fears and desires. What kind of angst, what wish is translated into these beautiful creatures of lakes and seas? And most importantly, why is water the catalyst in this fusion?
Although transparent or at best translucent, water is not always as revealing as we would naturally assume. The darkest depths of the sea are comprised of the same molecules as the crystalline liquid in a glass cup. The water disguises, transforms, and hides all bodies submerged in it. The transparency takes on colors of diverse hues ranging from the lively blue of large waters beneath open skies, to the foreboding gray of stormy lakes. The water’s total embrace washes away the borders between the body and its surrounding element, offering a glimpse into another dimension alien to our everyday world. It slows down the motions to an unearthly grace, it draws fantastical tattoos of light onto the human surface, and it flows hair into magical formations never seen in our world of air. The swaying of the limbs is akin to the smooth swimming of fish; the voice becomes altered, muted or even stilled.
Is this transformation the supposed female magical power simply showing in its entire glory? Many a sailor tormented by the unfathomable mystery of the woman certainly thought so. The wind-blown cry of a seagull, the chirping of a dolphin, the sight of a disappearing fin or tail gave way to fantastic imaginations. An all-men crew naturally tried to inhabit the monotone, desert-like prison of the sea with the materialization of the longed-for woman on their voyage.
But alas, the haunting beauty of the female body in the water, as all unearthly pleasures, evoked the fear of godly punishment in man. They attributed the fear to the mystery creature, the cause of desire, and vested evil into it. (Confusion between desire and object of desire is a constant human trait, as is the metamorphosis of love into hate, transforming the often unsuspecting object into a victim who somehow is thought to deserve the punishment so suddenly and irrationally meted out.)
The desire for the half human, half animal creature can be also understood as a transgression of the norm, a longing for what is (sexually) forbidden. The physical attraction between human and animal, termed bestiality, might sound shocking and inappropriate in connection with fairy tales. But on a second thought, the mermaid is unquestionably a mixture of human and fish, while other similar creatures are a cross between lifeless substance and human beings (see nereids below). In fairy tales marriage between young virgins and wild boars, bears or wolves is also not uncommon. (Though to be fair, they turn back into human form at the end of the day; something the mermaids and sea sprites never quite manage to accomplish.) If we accept that we project our struggles onto the screen of mythology, we have to acknowledge that this desire is woven somewhere along the many layers of the psychology of the image. It is another of those “dark aspects” of the human nature that may not be dealt with in waking life, and may only be uttered in the subconscious worlds of myths.
However, it is not only the physical side of this bonding that is frowned upon and therefore tucked safely away in the dark realms of the unconscious. A brilliant contemporary fantasy writer exposes the mental side of the coin in her bestselling series. In the Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb portrays the mind sharing relationship between animals and humans in the most objective way possible. First she presents the connection from the point of view of the young boy who seeks solace in the company of animals. Feeling abandoned and forsaken by his kindred, the child discovers he can “quest towards” animals and thus share in their senses and thoughts. To the boy this relationship is natural and innocent, and he is deeply confused when an adult calls it filthy and unhealthy. It is for this transgression of social norms that in tales, there is always a special condition attached to the union of mortal and fay. Something precious has to be sacrificed (a soul), the beast occasionally must secretly transform (Melusine), and when the promise is broken (it is always broken), the man brings damnation upon himself.
John William Waterhouse: Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)
Frederic Leighton: The Fisherman and the Syren (c. 1856-58)
John William Waterhouse: The Naiad (1905)
John William Waterhouse: The Siren (1900)
Fred Appleyard: Pearls for Kisses
Howard Pyle: The Mermaid (1910)
“I flow” is the meaning of the word Nereid, blurring the boundaries of existence, denying the qualities of the human body. It embodies a creature neither liquid nor made of solid flesh. Apart from the physical mystery of this fantastic being, its name also suggests the inexplicable and the fleeting. As if saying, “I enchant you with my beauty and lure you close, but as soon as you would touch me, I volatilise.” A female attitude so familiar to many men, perhaps sought to be explained with the water simile.
Who would be // A mermaid fair, // Singing alone, // Combing her hair
Under the sea,// In a golden curl // With a comb of pearl, // On a throne?
Alfred Lord Tennyson: The Mermaid
The mermaid has been a favorite sign of taverns since the early 1400s. That is presumably the place where sailors first went after unloading the ship, sharing dark and enchanting stories of their voyage and their catch. To seek a connection between the hydration-ensuring establishment and the water-dwelling creature seems very far-fetched; however, there must be an underlying link that made this metaphor so widespread. In vino veritas, goes the saying, and indeed, alcohol allows glimpses into the bare soul. Surprising truths come to the surface when the heart is liberated from the mind, and the mermaid happens to be a creature associated with the soul. In Andersen’s fairy tale the little mermaid “has not an immortal soul” unless loved by a human, while in other versions of the romance the mermaid takes the man’s soul down into the depths. The amphibian, elusive nature of the human soul is a good enough explanation for this link.
Arnold Böcklin: Im Spiel der Wellen (1883)
John William Waterhouse: A Mermaid (1901)
Edmund Dulac: The Liquid Sparkled
Arthur Rackham: The Sea Maid’s Song (1908)
Edward Burne-Jones: The Depths of the Sea (1875-78)
Undines are fairy-like beings or else water spirits inhabiting freshwater. Many a legend and ballad tells of their attempts to charm men into marrying them, for thus they are able to gain themselves a soul, even if it costs them their mortality. But soulless as they are, they curse their lovers or drive them into perishing, most often into their own depths. In some legends they possess a magical voice similar to that of the Sirens. Would this be an allegory for finding a soul mate, a metaphor of how marriage tames the girls into being soulful mates and mothers? Is this curse in fact the woe of men in marriage; the magical, dangerous voice the power of femininity? Again, the subconscious is protesting: not all myths can be stripped down to bare social constructs. This is undoubtedly an aspect of them, but one only. The undine is perhaps a manifestation of our wish to transcend our human boundaries: the negation of being bound to the soil.
Arthur Rackham: Undine and Huldebrandt (1901)
Arthur Rackham: Undine Lost in the Danube (1901)
John William Waterhouse: Undine (1872)
Similarly to mermaids and sirens, the Melusine is a serpent-tailed, sometimes winged water spirit. In the Aarne-Thompson fairy tale classification this tale type is subtitled as “legends about mermaids, water sprites, and forest nymphs who marry mortal men.” This is clearly a tale of transgression, the projection of our desires deemed unfit for a healthy society. All the creatures above fit into that category; however, Melusine is the prototype. Her marriage with a mortal is bound by a condition: that he must never see her on Saturdays. Her mother’s curse transforms her into the double-tailed creature: a scene of immense beauty that drives the husband’s curiosity to spy on her, quickly spiraling into his downfall. She takes the appearance of a dragon and leaves him.
Not only the husband found the sight inspiring. Melusine front and back. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, NY
Julius Hübner: Fair Melusine (19th century)
A modern “tavern” bearing not the mermaid, but Melusina on its sign.
Similar transformations often occur when voyeurism is at play. The image of women taking their baths, especially in a natural lake is like a ritual: pure, sacred, and often associated with virginity. Violating it through voyeurism is a crime worthy of a rapist’s punishment. Folk tales about swan girls abound: when bathing, they naively leave their feathers on the shore. When a spying man steals a feather dress, the girl is bound to him in marriage and can no longer fly. Another instance where the “marriage is a prison” metaphor seems tempting; however, an ancient tale by Ovid reveals that the focus is not on attacking this institution. In fact, marriage is a much later addition to the tale. In Metamorphoses, Ovid digs deep to the roots of the story and retells how the young prince Actaeon spied the bathing goddess Diana. When she noticed his gaze, after the first shock and embarrassment, rage overcomes her:
Surpriz’d, at first she would have snatch’d her bow,
But sees the circling waters round her flow;
These in the hollow of her hand she took,
And dash’d ‘em in his face, while thus she spoke:
“Tell, if thou can’st, the wond’rous sight disclos’d,
A Goddess naked to thy view expos’d.”
This said, the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a deer.
A rising horn on either brow he wears,
And stretches out his neck, and pricks his ears;
Rough is his skin, with sudden hairs o’er-grown,
His bosom pants with fears before unknown.
(From the Garth-Sewell Metamorphoses of 1732)
Giuseppe Cesari: Actaeon (1606)
Now outcast from society, he flees into the woods, but the deer are not his mates either, and his own hunting dogs end up devouring him. Thus did the woman’s curse, provoked by his own curiosity, make him meet his end. By no means coincidentally, Diana uses water to transfer the curse onto her subject. Would this be an allusion to the supernatural powers of the woman and the water? I trust I may leave the question open.
According to the tales above (and many more not numerated on these pages), beholding a woman naked in the water is such a blatant transgression of some law that the transgressor becomes less than human. The impact of this image evokes an admiration so immense it is likened to fear, an attraction so pleasurable it is feared as sin. It is more than the lust of flesh and more than the allure of the transcendent. It strikes the same chords in all of us, even if we are not fully able to grasp the reasons. . Perhaps the alluring voice of sirens is our own; that mysterious sea might very well be storming within. We are reluctant to explore the depths: where mermaids swim, less enchanting creatures might also watch out for their prey. But in home waters they only defend, never attack. Like mermaids, sirens and sea nymphs, they are merely obedient actors of our fears and fantasies. We should not fear to enter the underwater realm, nor refuse the freedom of mental gills, even in those realms of the mind where the kraken waits.
If you are at all amused or tempted by art contests, here is one in which you might enjoy participating. The deadline for submissions is December 10th.
For more information: ARESTAR 2009 CG INTERNATIONAL CHALLENGE
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