THE SIREN´S SONG
My childhood´s landscape was forests, meadows and lakes. The sea low farther away, though I was at least so well acquainted with it that I cannot recall the first time I saw its vast expanse. Maybe it was in the Stockholm archipelago I experienced together it together with my grandparents? I don't know if there are any genes left in me from my maternal Grandpa's father. He was a skipper from the coastal town of Varberg and sailed across the North Sea towards England, and in the Baltic Sea towards Finland and the Baltic states. In my Grandpa’s library there were several books about the sea and seamen. Every year he contributed to some fund for needy seamen and Swedish Seamen’s Churches abroad.
Sometime in the early seventies, I went with my youngest sister and some friends by ferry from Gothenburg to North Shields, just outside Newcastle. I assume there is an old Super 8 film hidden away somewhere showing the storm that hit us out on the open North Sea. While most of the other passengers were lying and vomiting in their cabins, I sat up in the restaurant and looked out through the panoramic window, watching how huge waves crashed against the bow, which time and again disappeared under the water masses. I was proud and amazed by the fact that I was not seasick at all.
I wonder how many times skipper Kaspersson sailed along the same route with his schooners, which according to my grandfather carried pit props, barked round timber of pine and spruce that were used as support in the mine galleries of Durham's and Northumberland's coal mines. When I together with my youngest daughter a few years ago visited a mine north of Durham, I naturally wondered if some of its props had come across the Atlantic on my ancestor's schooners. If I am not mistaken he had three of them and they were all wrecked at sea. I keep his sea chest at home in Bjärnum.
Well, even if I have not been a seaman this has not hindered me from being fascinated by water. As a drink – how wonderfully cool icy spring water spreads along my throat on a hot summer’s day. Or how I may float around on my back during a midsummer night in Bjärlången, the lake below our house in Göinge, feeling the water against my body and looking straight up, into the endless firmament. I have friends who pant heavily as they rapidly swim back and forth through lakes or out in the open sea, competing with themselves and others. A behaviour completely alien to me. I prefer to float around, or quietly swim across a water surface that reflects clouds and sky while water rings spread around me, or follow a moon-striped path across the lake, while a loon cries in the distance.
I also like to be immersed in the hot water of a deep bathtub, relaxing and closing my eyes, or reading a good book. Am I a water creature? In my youth, I did with fascination read Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape, where I first learned that we humans may have evolved in connection with water.
Is water adaptation in humans the explanation to why we differ from our closest relatives; chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, none of whom are fond of water? Our more streamlined bodies and our, in general, relatively slender and upright posture make it easier for us to effectively move through and under water.
Body hair, where it remains, also distinguishes us from other apes. It the back it points diagonally backwards, towards the spine and thus follows the path water currents take across the rear of a swimming creature. In addition, during their fifth to seventh months, human embryos are covered with lanugo, thin hair with a swirling pattern reminiscent of how water moves over a swimming body. It has been demonstrated that infants have spontaneous swimming skills and if they are under four months of age, they are endowed with a respiratory-inhibiting reflex setting in as soon as their faces meet water, something that allows for human babies to be born under water.
Water-dependent mammals, such as beavers, otters and several seal species have retained their fur, while others – like whales and sea lions – have lost their. We humans seem to belong to the latter group. Unlike our relatives the apes, we have a relatively thick layer of subcutaneous fat, an insulating substance comparable to the fat of whales and seals. The theory of man as an aquatic being may also find support in the fact that we have sensitive, efficient hands and fingers that can more easily than other apes grasp what we find underwater. We also dive as well as beavers and otters
Unlike apes and most terrestrial mammals, humans are provided with downward-pointing nostrils, which allow us to swim under the surface of lakes and sea without water flowing into our respiratory system. In women, water has difficulty getting past the hymen, due to a curvature of the vagina and large, outer labia. This is common in several aquatic mammals, but lacking in apes. Our human blood also indicates water adaptation. Like in many aquatic mammals, it has less red blood cells and more haemoglobin than is the case with terrestrial mammals.
Humans and other mammals are endothermic, which means that unlike fish and reptiles we can regulate our body temperature. We give birth to live children and women breastfeed them. We are animals; multicellular organisms that are mobile and get their energy through food. We have muscles, nervous systems and internal cavities where food is broken down. However, our brain has a hard time accepting that we actually are animals and thus an integral part of nature and highly dependent on it.
Man is a contradictory being. We have a mysterious and deep connection with our animal nature, but such an insight might also cause a feeling of exclusion. We may think that life is strange and often we do not really feel at home within our own existence. Our excessively abstract thinking, our ability to express ourselves in languages and symbols, has contributed to the development of complex, ever-changing societies. Religion, science, technology and art have created a unique, human world, which slowly but surely are changing and even devouring nature. However, this does not prevent us from remaining animals. Our imagination have reflected this dual situation by creating various fictional creatures. The mermaid is such a dual creature, a being between water and land, a mixture of human and animal.
During one of my visits to my youngest daughter, who was studying at the University of Durham, we drank a couple of beers in the pub of the University College, which had been housed in Durham Castle since 1837. The construction of this impressive fortress began six years after Wilhelm the Conqueror had defeated the Anglo-Saxon troops at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The castle was intended to be a permanent stronghold after the Harrying of the North, massacres and abject destruction suffered by the districts of Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and Lancashire. Over the course of a year, an estimated 100,000 Anglo-Scandinavians were killed, their villages were burned down while grain was removed and livestock slaughtered, so their owners would not survive the harsh winter. Three quarters of the area's indigenous population died or fled.
Durham's castle and fortress were built by forced labour under the leadership of William Walcher of Liege, bishop and lord of Durham. The oldest preserved part of the castle is the Norman chapel, completed in 1078.
Now my daughter and I were sitting in the castle's almost empty pub, we emptied our glasses and left the room. It was a mild summer evening. When we got out into the courtyard we saw light coming from a stairwell by an entrance we knew led to the castle’s chapel and we could not help but looking inside. We went downstairs and found that the chapel was open and dimly lit. We entered cautiously, no one was there and we were taken by the slightly thrilling feeling of adventure emerging from sneaking into an ancient, mysterious place. In the faint light we searched for the stylized pillar that I somewhere had read would be the first representation of a siren with a fishtail, i.e. a mermaid.
There she was – a primitive, rather rough-hewn mermaid who had probably been cut by an Anglian or Danish prisoner of war. She would be followed by thousands of representations of mermaids in churches and cathedrals. Perhaps it was true that she was the first representation of a mermaid with bare breasts, long hair, outstretched hands and a fishtail – which soon would become her standard representation throughout Europe.
However, she was not the first medieval image of a female sea creature – such could already be found in book manuscripts. For example in a Merovingian manuscript, Sacramentaire de Gellone from the 8th century where the Virgin Mary holds up a cross to ward off a female creature without arms but with several breasts and a fishtail. She is apparently an evil creature since the Virgin seems to want to keep her at bay with the help of the cross, just as it has in old vampire films been used to subdue the Devil's servants, or the Most Evil One himself.
Similar creatures appear in Irish manuscripts from the same period. As in a marginal painting from The Books of Kells, which a monk once had drawn in a monastery on the remote island of Mull by the west coast of Scotland.
In such books androgynous sea creatures generally appear as representatives of evil forces. They stand for chaos, the disorder that constantly threatens the laws of God and His Creation, monsters opposed to the peace reigning inside the Church's holy enclosures. Sin is nothing but an attempt to upset God's order – everything to me, nothing to anyone else. I have come to earth to satisfy my appetites, constantly striving for sex, power, food and drink, an attitude that has been humanity´s constant scourge by creating a fatal imbalance between those who have and those who have not.
For the Christian monk on his mist-covered island far up in the distant north, where he sat deeply engaged in his writings and/or ceration of lavish illustrations, he felt safe from nature’s dangerous capriciousness. Within the walls of his monastery he was also protected from the dangerous allure of women. Disciplining his body's animalistic lusts with the help of the Bible, strict routines and prayer. However, out there among the dark waves of the mighty, living sea, were plenty of incomprehensible and treacherous forces, in its depths were unknown beings, just like the tantalizing images and thoughts that lurked deep down below in the monk's subconscious mind.
When he created his sea creatures, which were both human and fish, the monk conceived images of man's true being – the unfortunate mixture of animal instincts and human reason. Maybe it was, after all, one and the same? Maybe life was a struggle to harmonize animal force with orderly reason? Take advantage of the opposite poles, positive and negative charges, Yin and Yang, thesis and antithesis.
There is an allure in animalistic instints – the wild and strong, devotion to the moment, violent action. Norse berserkers were maybe among the Vikings who by the end of the 9th centurty raided the monastery of the Isle of Mull. These were warriors who had sworn allegiance to Odin and at the moment of battle became endowed with the temperament and strength of ravenous beasts.
Shamans often claim to have non-human companions, spirit animals who lead them into and through the spirit realm, or who through dreams, in trance and visions, provide them with insights that people are unable to travel between different worlds are lacking. Some shamans are considered to be shapeshifters, they can turn into animals in the sense that they enter an animal's body and see the world through its eyes. The shaman's totem animal can be a strong or cunning predators, like a bear, a wolf or a fox, but just as often an animal that is able to move between different elements. For many shamans, seabirds are the ideal companions and shapes. They travel with ease in water and on land, they can fly high and far, but also dive deep into the sea and lakes. Among the Siberian Selkups who reside around the northern Ob river, sea ducks are the ideal spirit companions.
The connection between animals and humans seems to be as old as Homo Sapiens. Among the oldest representations of a ”human” creature is the so-called Lion Man, who was discovered in 1939 in the German cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel and believed to have been carved from a mammoth tusk 40,000 years ago.
Significantly later is a cave painting called The Sorcerer which was discovered in 1914 in the Cave of the Trois-Frères in French Ariège. Inflowing air has almost completely obliterated the image, though a watercolour made shortly after its discovery by a certain Henri Breuil shows a human being who in himself unites different species of animals, probably a shaman who lived 13,000 years ago.
The balance between man and animal can be delicate and is noticeable in words such like ”human”, which stands for tolerant, compassionate, kind-hearted and polite, while ”bestial” refers to such things as low-standing, raw, brutal and driven by lusts and primitive urges.
A thought-provoking and quite thrilling story revolving around these opposites is H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau from 1896. It addresses themes connected with pain, violence and cruelty, moral and scientific responsibility, as well as human identity, desire for power and how far we can go when it comes to upsetting natural order.
After a shipwreck, Edward Prendick ends up on a tropical island. It turns out to be inhabited by the ingenious scientist Moreau and his assistant Montgomery, as well as a motley crew of strange creatures upon whom the two doctors carry out their research. The creatures seem to be a kind of hybrids between humans and animals – dog people, hyena people, leopard people and more. To his horror, Prendrick finds that Moreau is a world-famous scientist who several years ago was found missing and probably dead after a live, skinned dog had escaped from his laboratory. It turned out that Moreau on the secluded island was creating human-like creatures by exposing animals to various forms of cruel surgery. Part of Moreau's method was to operate on his victims without anaesthesia, because the doctor considered pain to be an animal instinct that could be overcome by human thought.
Prendick finds that Moreau has created beings who have acquired human intelligence and can express themselves throughspeech and actions, though the tranfer from naimal to human was not entirely consummate. Moreau's creations eventually returned to their animalistic state of mind and he had therefore imposed draconic laws governing his beastly subjects by forbidding them to kill, eat meat and behave like animals. Moreau's godlike, dictatorial powers over the creatures' minds soon falls apart. Violence and anarchy spread when a cougar man tears himself loose during one of Moreau's vivisections and kills the mad scientist. To calm them down Prendick manages to convince some creatures that Moreau is still alive and is like God is watching over them from his Heaven, wishing them to follow his rules.
Finally, Prendrick manages to escape the island's ever worsening hell. However, after his return to England he finds it impossible to adapt to a ”normal human” existence. Conflicting emotions tear at him, while he lacks the trusting loyalty and selfless devotion he had enjoyed from some of Moreau's creatures, he become increasingly frightened by the numbness and cruelty he watches spreading among people around him. He perceives England as a society which citizens are relentlessly retarding to an animalistic state, though completely devoid of the respect for others that Prendrick had found among some unhappy creatures on Moreau's island. His contemporary compatriots appeared to him as a most unfortunate mixture of the worst in animals and humans. Prendrick leaves London, isolates himself in the countryside and engages in peaceful studies of chemistry and astronomy, though in constant fear of his neighbours.
A much quieter depiction of the symbiosis between animal and human is the Italian short story The Siren. A dreamy and erotically charged story by an elusive and enigmatic writer – the eleventh prince of Lampedusa and twelfth duke of Palma de Montechiaro, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957). He may seem to have been an atavism in his time; an obviously wealthy, independent scholar, who quietly spent most of his time reading poems and novels. He mainly studied, wrote and read about his admired Marie-Henri Beyle, known as Stendahl.
Like Marcel Proust, di Lampedusa was a Mamma’s Boy. He was the only child, a sister of his had died at the age of three. The father was a distant figure, while his mother read books to the precocious boy and taught him French. Mother and son went on several joint trips across Europe, with the most comfortable trains and accommodated in the finest hotels. In addition to his mother tongue, di Lampedusa was a fluent reader in French, English and German, though he spoke these languages with an almost incomprehensible accent. Despite his isolated and privileged upbringing, di Lampedusa was not completely out of touch with the world. During World War he was mobilized as an artillery lieutenant, but in the aftermath of the disastrous battle of Caporetto he was captured by the Austrians. However, di Lampedusa succeeded to escape from a Hungarian prison camp and returned on foot to Italy.
In 1932, he was in Riga married to the psychoanalyst Alexandra Wolff von Stomersee and moved with her to his beloved Sicily, though Alexandra could not stand di Lampedusa´s domineering mother and for most of her life the couple lived apart. However, there are more than four hundred letters preserved of their correspondence and in the later years of di Lampedusa's life they lived together in Palermo. In spite of increasingly scarce circumstances the couple managed to maintain a glow of aristocratic elegance and was surrounded by a small, exclusive circle of associates. di Lampedusa´s mother died in 1946 and he then began to discreetly open up to his surroundings, accepted private students and socialized in literary circles in Rome and Milan. Between 1954 and 1956, di Lampedusa wrote his masterful The Leopard and three short stories, which constitute his literary legacy, apart from some essays about Stendahl and a history of English literature written for his pupils. The Leopard was repeatedly rejected by various publishing houses and was not published until after the author's death, when it became a worldwide success and an immediate classic.
The Master and Margarita and The Leopard are among the few novels I have read several times. di Lampedusa's short stories were published out shortly after The Leopard had become internationally noticed and widely apprciated. The first of these short stories, Childhood Memories, provides the reader with a world seen through the eyes of a lonely and imaginative child ”who appreciated loneliness, who liked to be with things more than with people.” It is a stylistically exquisite depiction of the palaces where di Lampedusa spent his childhood – Palazzo Filangeri di Cutò in the small Sicilian town of Santa Margeherita di Belice and Villa Lampedusa just outside of Palermo, the latter was completely destroyed in a U.S. air strike in 1943. di Lampedusa wrote ”first of all things, she was our home. I loved her with absolute conviction. And I still love her, now that she's no more than a memory for twelve years.” The short story is imbued with the same quiet, detailed nostalgia as his historical novel The Leopard, which takes place during Garibaldi's war against the Roman central power. An atmosphere of magical realism that also characterizes the short story The Siren, an exquisitely written fantasy, told as if it described a real event.
The story begins in Turin in 1938. The young Paolo Corbera di Salina, a mediocre journalist at La Stampa, a womanizer and grandson of Don Fabrizio, the main character in The Leopard, visits alone after work a café in an effort to escape his irritation after a failed love story. In the café, he notices a man in elegant but worn-out clothes. At first the old man gives a rather bad impression, for example, he spits again and again into a spittoon at his feet. To his great surprise, Corbera learns that this is Rosario La Cuira, a well-known professor emeritus in classical Greek and also a senator. The curious Corbera approaches the initially grumpy and quite sarcastic La Cuira. Their Sicilian origins and love for the islan mean that the professor gradually takes a liking to the young journalist. Despite the great difference in age, education and interests, they share a certain romantic disposition and above all an intense fascination with the food, the landscape and antique roots of their beloved Sicily. During long walks in a wintry and foggy Turin that turns into spring and summer they converse with each other and soon visits their respective homes.
The evening before he is about to take the train to Genoa and then a cruise ship to a conference in Lisbon, the professor finally tells Corbera about an event that has marked him for life. When he was twenty-four years old La Cuira did during the long hot summer of 1887 prepare himself to apply for a lectureship in Greek at the University of Pavia. A friend lent him a small stone house by a beautiful, secluded beach outside the village of Augusta, between Catania and Syracuse.
La Cuira spent most of the hot days studying while laying on the bottom of a rowing boat he had anchored in the shadow of a rock. Early one morning, when he comfortably rested in his boat while declaiming Greek poetry he felt that it suddenly dipped on the right side, as if someone had gripped it in order to climb in. That was how he met the mermaid Ligeia, immortal daughter of the muse of history and epic tales, Calliope. She told him: ”I heard you speaking by yourself in a language like mine. I like it. I am yours. […] Don't believe the fables that are told about us: we never kill anyone, we only love.” Thus began an intense romance that lasted for three weeks. Since it was my re-reading of di Lampedusa's short story that made me write this essay, I provide a longer quote from the strange story:
As I´ve already said, Corbera, she was an animal – and at the same time an Immortal. It´s unfortunate that human speech cannot express all the times this syntheisis in the way she expressed it, with utter simplicity, in her own body. And it wasn´t just in carnal intercourse that she showed a joyfulness and delicacy entirely alien to the dark urgings of an animal in heat. Her way of speaking had a force and directness that I have only found again in a few great poets. Not for nothing was she Calliope´s daughter. She was entirely uncultivated, knew no wisdom and dismissed any moral restriction with scorn – neverthelss, she was part of the source from which all culture, all learning, all morality springs, and she could express this primeval superiority in words of unardoned beauty. ´I am immortal, beacuse all deaths – from that of the cod I ate earlier to that of the great Zeus himself – flow into me and are gathered together in me, no longer as single determinate lives, but freely now as part of universal life.´ Then she´d say: Ýou are young and handsome. You should come with me to the sea. That way you will never know sorrow or age. You would live where I live, under the high sea mountains, dark and still: their native silence is so profound that we who live there are not even aware of it. If I have loved you: remember when you are tired, when you feel you cannot go on anymore, all you need to do is to come to the sea and call me. I will always be there, because I am everywhere, and your longing for sleep will be satisfied.
The next day, Corbera waived goodbye to the old professor as he boarded the train at the station at Porta Nova to catch the cruise ship at the port of Genoa. The day after the professor's departure, La Stampa's editorial staff received a phone call announcing that Senator La Cuira during the night had fallen into the sea from Rex's deck, lifeboats had immediately been put in the water but the professor's body had not been found.
It was from the legendary luxury cruiser SS Rex that La Cuira ”fell” into the Mediterranean. The ship was the pride of Fascist Italy. It was called The Floating Riviera and had conquered the coveted Blue Riband as the fastest passenger ship across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the memory of this magnificent ship is nowadays mainly established through a magical scene in Fellini's masterpiece Amarcord.
Ligeia had a divine origin and several significant deities have like her a dual nature. Like the Hindu God Vishnu, the human-friendly and helpful deity, they can assume a physical form that unites man and animal. For example, several of Vishnu's forms of revelation, avatars (from ava, ”down” and tŗ, ”to cross over”) take the form of such double beings – Kurma, the Turtle, Varaha, the Wild Boar and Narashima, the Lion-man. His connection with water is manifested through his appearance as Matsya, the Fish. Vishnu appeared as this creature when he warned Manu of the approaching Deluge. In is shape as Matsya, Vishnu is often portrayed as a merman, as a human being whose lower part is a fish and in this form he is invoked as protector for seafarers.
Other deities are permanently manifested as double beings, like West Africa's powerful creator god Olòókun, the originator of all wealth, especially in the form of children. He is the owner of the sea, which also is the origin of all springs and rivers. Under the river delta in the land of the Edo people, in present-day Nigeria, lies Olòókun's paradise, filled with the happy laughter and lively conversations of his wives and servants. All the children of earth have their origin in Olòókun´s kingdom, but in order to be born among humans, they must cross over the World Ocean.
The great gods often share their powers with their spouses, or daughters. and over time, several of them have been overshadowed by their female peers. Such is the case with Olòókun, who is worshipped as a female deity further inland, where he is not regarded as the mighty god of the often violent ocean, but more as a gentle mother goddess living among springs and rivers. In several other places, Olòókun is dwarfed by his daughter, Yemoja, who is often imagined as being married to Ogun, the powerful and temperamental blacksmith/war god.
After following the slave ships across the Atlantic, Yemoja did in the Caribbean obtain several names and avatars – Yemanjá, Lemajá, Janaína, Mãe de Água, Anacaona, Mami Water, Maman Dlo, Iara, Aycayia, La Sirene and not the least Filomena Lubana or Santa Marta La Dominadora.
Yemoja is motherly and caring, she cares for all her children, comforts them and delivers them from grief and evil. She is said to be able to cure infertility in women, and like Olòókun, she can provide security and wealth. Yemoja rarely loses her great patience and docile temperament, but her anger can take terrible expressions when it turns into hurricanes and flooding.
Yemoja generally manifests herself as a mermaid, though she is also associated with snakes and the phases of the moon. She is primarily the patroness of women, something that is expressed through the fact that she can dominate, subdue and humiliate men. She is femininity incarnate; beautiful and fertile. She produces children and fosters vegetation, provides love and healing. Yemoja is everyone's mother and as such, in Catholic countries, she often lends her features to Virgin Mary – who as the Mother of God in front of His Heavenly Throne acts as intercessor for the human sinners, pelading with him to forgive them. She is the seafarers' Our Lady of the Waves, who brings wind to the sails, save drowning sailors and calm the storms. She is the guiding star of the oceans – Stella Maris.
Under the dark northern expanses of the oceans lurked another manifestation of the mighty sea mother – Ran, wife of the sea god Ägir. He was a mainly benevolent deity who became insatiably rich by raking in wealth from sunken ships. In his palace under the sea the loaded Ägir held lavish parties which both the Æsir gods and the giants happily participated in. Ran had a gloomier state of mind than her husband and during stormy nights she swam up to the sea surface and spread her huge net over the troubled waters to catch drowning sailors, whom she brought down to her underwater kingdom where they served as her slaves. Ran had a violent temper and was disturbed by the slightest commotion on the part of people living by the sea shores. If on dark nights it became crowded and noisy in secluded fishing villages, she might send up the ghosts of her dead sailors to haunt the annoying human creeps and, if possible, drag some of them down to her gloomy underwater kingdom.
The Arctic waters house another, more multifaceted goddess – Sedna of the Inuit, mighty goddess of the sea and its inhabitants. She was the Inuit equivalent to the farmers' Mother Earth. Just as farmers depend on the crops the Earth produces, the Inuit people depend on the yields of the sea – fish, seals and whales.
They imagined Sedna either as an ancient woman, or a young beauty. Like other beings who divide their time between different worlds, Sedna has different shapes, but she is generally imagined as a ”seal woman”, or a kind of mermaid.
Nevertheless, Sedna is generally negatively inclined towards the human race, though she can take a liking to one or another individual and help her/him, especially by sharing the wealth and fertility of the sea she has at her disposal. Sedna's ambiguous attitude towards humans can possibly be traced to her background. She is said to have lived on earth when a water deity became dazzled by her beauty and abducted her. He led her to his underwater realm and there she was turned into a sea creature. Like a seal, Sedna can live both on land and in the sea. On dry land she becomes a young, beautiful woman and in that shape she returned to her parents' home. However, her family could not come to terms with her supernatural nature and drove her away. Something that made Sedna maintain her forlorn urge to be accepted by the human race, while she is well aware that she is, after all, a goddess with power over both sea creatures and humans.
Sedna's long, free-flowing hair is the epitome of the waves' play, ocean currents and abundant fertility. However, human sins and blinding self-interest makes Sedna´s hair tangled, infesting it with pests and make it fall off. The shaman Uitsataqangitoq, The Blind One, learned about this when his people no longer found any prey and asked him to, accompanied by his totem animals, descend on the perilous journey down to Sedna's underwater abode. There he went into close combat with her. The angry goddess wanted to throw Uitsataqangitoq into the abyss that opens behind her bed. Uitsataqangitoq took a firm grip on Sedna's waist and managed to maintain his grip despite the fact that Sedna, in the manner common to many sea deities, constantly changed shape. Finally, Uitsataqangitoq managed to whisper into the furious goddes´s ear that he only wanted to comb her hair. Then Sedna calmed down and gave Uitsataqangitoq her comb. With great effort, the shaman managed to sort out the tangled hair and remove the pests and debris human transgressions had brought there. When Sedna’s thick, wavy hair finally swelled and floated freely in the ocean – bears, foxes, woodpeckers, seals, walruses, narwhals and all kinds of birds quickly spread across the Arctic expanses.
All too often, Sedna loses patience with the human creeps, in particular she resents their predatory exploitation of the sea's riches and thoughtless abuse of her beloved creatures. When she lets her supernatural anger strike individuals and entire societies nothing can resist her power and anger.
People who live close by the sea and for their welfare are dependent on it are over time becoming well acquainted with its vastness, immense power and reckless anger. The Taínos who lived on the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, disappeared from the earth some twenty years after the arrival of the Spaniards. However, all over the island the memory of them lives on. Most of all, the Taínos feared Guabancex's anger. She was a cemí, god, who also went by the name She whose anger destroys everything in its path. Guabancex's home was the sea, where she ruled over winds and ocean currents, both the benevolent ones who brought coolness and fertility, as well as those she stirred up through her reckless anger, as she rose across the expanses and wildly began to swing her arms to create a huge maelstrom. The winds lifted the seawater into the sky and then forcibly threw it towards land causing misery and devastation. The Spaniards called Guabancex El Huracán, probably under the influence of the name of her male equivalent by the Mexican coast – Hunragan, The One-legged.
The Native Indian water goddess lives on in a much more benevolent manifestation as she resides below Hispaniola’s' various waterways; its springs, streams, rivers and lakes. The peasants told me that when the Taínos had been enslaved and fiercely attacked by the Spaniards they retreated to caves and under the water, where they still live on as misterios, spirits, who watch over the fertility of their ancient lands. In the source of La Agüita rests Anacaona, an Indian queen who lives under its crystal clear, life-giving waters. The first time I visited the spring, it was shaded by a grove of tall mango trees. A jet of water rushed forward from a cairn and fell into a man-deep pond, which in its cool basin could accommodate up to five adults. It was surrounded by high, corrugated iron sheets. In order to enjoy the sacred power of the water, you have to immerse yourself naked in its coolness. On my way there, I was followed by a bunch of curious little boys. When I asked them where their enthusiasm came from, they replied that it would be exciting to ”see a white man naked for the first time.”
Anacaona is related to the vodún cult´s Santa Marta la Dominadora. As a deity surrounded by snakes she is the special patroness of women. Being a daughter of Baron Samedi, the god of the dead, she also has her dark depths. She is gifted with the Seven African Forces and can thereby dominate and humiliate men. Her dual character as benevolent and dangerous, attractive and destructive, is signaled by the presence of the snakes. On vodún altars Santa Marta is represented by a print depicting an Indian snake charmer, originally a German circus poster from the beginning of the last century. Rarely does any of her worshippers know that. They invoke Santa Marta as a female deity who masters all elements. Attractive and knowledgeable, she is women’s support and assistance in their eternal struggle against male dominance.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Santa Marta la Dominadora´s equivalent is Maman Dlo. Half attractive woman, half a huge anaconda snake she dwells by springs in the depths of the forest. There she deceives her victims, whom she attracts through her wonderful singing voice and seductive speech, only to suffocate them to death and pull them down into her nest below the water. Like so many other water creatures, Maman Dlo is endowed with a dual nature and is a shapeshifter. In the alleys of Port of Spain, she manifests herself as an attractive lady with high-heeled shoes, a tight-fitting dress and dark glasses. There she seduces unsuspecting tourists and sailors, making them accompany her into the depths of the forest to suffocate them by heir source. However, Maman Dlo can sometimes act as a sensible, older lady, willing to give good advice, gifts and skills to the women, exclusively women, who worship and respect her.
How does Maman Dlo behave to attract men? She is beautiful, exotic, completely different from any other woman her victims have ever met. She represents the allure of the unknown – unrestricted adventure. What seduces us is generally not the well-known, the dull and ordinary, but something completely new and to a high degree unknown. What could be more adventurous and alluring than meeting a beautiful woman (there are for certain also attractive male water beings who are able to seduce women) from a completely different realm of existence? A creature who unites different elements, as well as the known with the unknown.
Like Ligeia in di Lampedusa's story, mermaids are linked to language, song and fantasy. They are the daughters of Calliope, the eloquent muse, whose voice and singing evoke an ”ecstatic harmony”. The song of the sirens is enticing and unbelievably beautiful, far beyond the monotonous melodies of our everyday world.
In his The Consolation of Philosophy written in 423 in one of Theoderic's dungeons, the innocently condemned Boethius awaited to be tortured and bludgeoned to death. His reflections begin by telling how he tries to keep his mind attached to beautiful thoughts, in an effort to dispel the anxiety created by stifling premonitions about his upcoming fate. Around the author's solitary bed, goddesses of music and poetry gather - the consoling Muses. Then the serious Philosophy enters and chases away these beautiful incarnations of soothing entertainment.
”Who,” she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, ”has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no medicines to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very creatures who slay the rich and fruitful harvest of reason with the barren thorns of Passion. […] Sirens is a better name för you and your deadly enticements: be gone!”
It is these enticing, singing sirens/mermaids who ever since one of them adorned a capital in Durham's Chapel during the rest of the Middle Ages can be found in Europe’s castles and cathedrals. There they served as a reminder of the threat that the Devil’s deceptive tunes pose to a pious Christian. As Goya wrote below one of his etchings: ”The sleep of reason creates monsters.”
When Dante exhausted falls asleep while hiking up the mountain of Purgatory, he dreams of how his imagination transforms reality into a treacherous chimera. He experiences how the transforming power of art and fantasy turns a dull and even ugly reality into the enticing presence of a sweet singing female being – a siren:
… before the dawn
along a path soon to be bathed in light,
there came into my dream a woman, stuttering,
cross-eyed, stumbling along on her maimed feet,
with ugly yellow skin and hands deformed.
I stared at her. and as the sun revives
a body numbed by the night´s cold, just so
my eyes upon her worked to free her tongue
and straighten out all her deformities,
gradually suffusing her wan face
with just the colour Love would have desired.
And once her tongue was losened by my gaze,
she started singing, and the way she sang
captured my mind – it could not free itself.
”I am,” she sang, ”the sweet Siren, I am,
whose song beguiles the sailors in mid-sea,
enticing them, inviting them to joy!
My singing made Ulysses turn away
from his desired course; who dwells with me
seldom departs, I satisfy so well.”
Early on, the mermaid/siren became associated with various forms of seduction, temptation. Her voice, song and stories had no equivalent. Her sensualism and beauty defied all description and she did everything to cultivate her allure. She is often depicted with a comb and a mirror, with bared breasts and long hair. In addition - she is an alien creature with characteristics we humans lack. Already the Etruscans endowed her with both wings and fishtails, making her an integrated part of earth, air and water.
Fish Tails? They, too, are parts of her seductive arts. The mermaid is an erotic creature, ready to couple with a mortal man and give birth to his children. Her two fish tails emphasize this quality – even she is a fish from the waist down this does not hinder her from copulating with a man.
The two-tailed siren appears throughout history at the same time as the fish-tailed mermaid, who already appeared among the Egyptian Copts and thereby made her entrance into Christian symbolism.
During the Middle Ages, we soon find the two-tailed temptress almost everywhere. Already a few decades after the portrayal of her one-tailed sister in Durham's chapel, the two-tailed temptress appears in an almost equally rough-hewn shape in the Cividale del Friuli in northern Italy.
Soon this imagery had spread and over time it became increasingly refined. The two-tailed siren had just a few years after her appearance in Friuli reached the cathedral of Otranto, situated on the southern heel of the Italian peninsula, where we find her on its sumptuous mosaic floor.
From Italy, the two-tailed mermaid enters churches throughout Europe, constantly portrayed as a dangerous, seductive and monstrous creature, and as such she enters the art of the Renaissance and Baroque.
In modern times, mermaids continue to be erotically charged, but they have gradually lost much of their threatening nature. They can now be portrayed as innocently ethereal and playful girls, like the slender sea creatures in Axel Ebbe's charming sculpture group On the Diamond Cliff , which fascinated me in my childhood's small town of Hässleholm, before stupid and aesthetically numb men of the Municipality destroyed the City Park by slicing it up through a noisy, stinking transport infrastructure. Thus, they got rid of the music pavillion and made the amiable sculpture almost inaccessible, forever destroying the peace and quiet of the small town’s green lung. O Sancta Simplicitas!
Significantly more robust and erotically charged creatures than Hässleholm´s slim sea creatures are the robust, naked matrons of Teutonic symbolists like von Stuck, Klinger and Böcklin. The latter's Playing in the Waves depicts how voluptuous sea ladies tumble around among the waves while a frustrated centaur tread the water in a hopeless pursuit of the alluring mermaids and a plump lady equipped with fishtail and with a slightly worried look is carried away by a lasciviously smiling, bearded old triton.
Slightly more eerie is the same artist's Calm Sea where a lush, red-haired mermaid rests on a rock slab surrounded by sea terns, while a snake-tailed triton with a terrified look slowly and impotently sinks into the depths of the sea.
Böcklin's mermaids have only one fish tail, but the two-tailed variant lives on, for example as the global café chain Starbucks’s logo. This successful company was in 1971 established in Seattle. Since the city is located on the edge of the mighty Pacific Ocean, the founders of Starbucks searched for a name and a logo with a sea connection, which at the same time would sound sophisticated and mysterious. They choose the name Starbucks, first mate on Captain Ahab's legendary whaling ship in Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. Melville got the name from the uninhabited island of Starbuck, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Without salt water, surrounded by treacherous coral reefs, it rises only five meters above sea level and soon became known as one of the world's most dangerous and treacherous places, where several ships have been wrecked and their surviving crew members have perished without fresh water and any hope of rescue.
A name had been found, now they had to find a symbol that was at the same time attractive, seductive and exciting – the two-tailed mermaid! We are in the United States, homeland of religious confusion, and of course, fundamentalist Christian warning lights soon went off. What was Starbucks covert intentions? Did they not serve the Devil by choosing a godless temptress as a symbol of their coffee?
In the United States, the country where anything goes, the Christian Right's websites, Facebook entries, and Twitter accounts began to be filled up with laments about Starbucks's pagan crusade. It all reached its peak in 2015 when Starbucks adorned its red coffee mugs, not with a Santa Claus or a Baby Jesus, but with its mermaid logo. Sacrilege! Heresy! A shameless preparation for the arrival of the Antichrist!
A video, Starbucks' War on Christmas, was posted online by the fundamentalist lunatic Joshua Feurstein and soon received 14 million views. The interest was captured by Donald J. Trump's most trusted source of information Breitbart News Network, which published an article under the headline Starbucks Red Cups are Emblematic of the Christian Culture Cleansing of the West. The not yet President Trump, who was in full swing with the successful campaign that brought him to the White House, hooked on to the popular theme:
”Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don't know. Seriously, I don't care. If I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.”
Mermaids can show up where we least expect to them. At the time of writing, I remember a winding road that many years ago led me to mermaids. My Caribbean studies had introduced me to David Nicholls. I do not remember how it came about that I met him and for a couple of years before Nicholls's death in the mid-1990s I was in sporadic contact with him. Nicholls had written an excellent book on the history of Haiti: From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti.
He was pastor of the Parish of St Mary’s Littlemore just south of Oxford and chaplain at the venerable Exeter College, founded in 1314 and having housed renowned students like William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien and Richard Burton. In the early 90s he invited me to give a lecture at the university and I came to live in Littlemore's rectory for a week. Nicholls's wife, who was a paediatrician, was away and we spent the evenings visiting various pubs in the village’s surroundings.
I do not remember much of what we talked about, but it was a nice week. However, I cannot forget Nicholls’s, in my opinion, sophisticated, academic accent. Another thing that has stayed in my mind is the old-fashioned vicarage, Nicholls's large and very talkative macaw parrot, who was called The Archdeacon and lived under the stairs in the hall, and how when I in the morning pulled up the blinds of my room in amazement looked out at a cemetery in front of a typical English rural church. With some pride, Nicolls pointed out that John Newman had been pastor of that church and then lived in the house where I was now staying. Newman? Nicholls was amazed by my ignorance and since then I have been forced to read some by and about Saint John Newman. Nicholls who wrote a lot about Newman, was not particularly found of his predecessor. In his sharp and highly academical manner of expressing himself Nicholls told me he disliked Newman´s ”vacuous, self-indulgent, and unadmitted authoritarianism.”
Before converting to the Roman Catholic faith in 1845, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) had been the spiritual leader of the High Church Oxford Movement. Newman had emphasized the strength of the Church's historical tradition and development. How important it was that the true faith and the original dogma, liturgy, sacraments and mysteries were administered and preserved by a sincerely committed clergy. Newman had been appalled by the flattery, political motivation, and general sloppiness of the Anglican clergy, wishing that all priests could return to the solemn liturgy and mystery of the faith, especially as manifested in the Eucharist. In September 2010, John Newman was by Pope Benedict XVI canonized as a Catholic saint.
I read Newman's acclaimed Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a kind of description of his spiritual development, well written, but far too detailed and boring for my taste. The book can hardly be called a biography because it mainly deals with Newman's readings and polemics, often in the form of long quotations from letters and sermons. This despite the fact that Newman was a true romantic and a good stylist. He has been described as
a creature of emotion and of memory, a dreamer whose secret spirit dwelt apart in delectable mountains, an artist whose subtle senses caught, like a shower in the sunshine, the impalpable rainbow of the immaterial world.
This ironic characteristic comes from the witty cynic Lytton Strachey's portrayal of Newman and his thinking in his excellent and vicious book Eminent Victorians.
When Strachey described Newman's Oxford environment as engulfed by a thick, confined odour of priestly godliness, an atmosphere of ancient, incense-scented tradition, warmed by ecclesiastical authority, he reminded me of how I studied theology in Lund. There, several of my fellow students were pale, pimpled priests' sons who lived at the Laurentii Foundation, where they enjoyed coffee and pastries, as well as the company of like-minded, self-adoring opponents to women priests. Between themselves, and to ”unbelievers” like me, they posed as the last champions of the only, true Religion.
Henry Newman was in books and newspaper articles fiercely attacked by Charles Kingsley, who claimed that the pious man had been a Catholic wolf in Protestant sheep's clothing, a liar who had lured true Christians away from the straight path of salvation. Although the atheist Strachey considered Newman to be a unworldly dreamer, he did in his book defend him against Pastor Kingsley's attacks. Strachey explained that a robust and single-minded priest like Charles Kingsley was not more likely to understand a sophisticated intellectual like John Henry Newman, ”than a subaltern in a line regiment can understand a Brahmin of Benares”. According to Strachey, Kingsley was a stout Protestant, whose hatred of popery was ”simply ethical – an honest, instinctive horror of the practices of priestcraft and the habits of superstition.”
It was obvious that a man like Kingsley was unable to appreciate, or even comprehend, the delicate intricacies and profound literacy that Newman displayed, and thus perceived Newman's intellectual hair-splitting as an unmistakable proof of him being infected by the Vatican's deceitful double standards. Nevertheless, it was hard to imagine a more honest man than John Henry Newman. Betrayal and lies were deeply hateful to him and the reason to why he tried so hard to clarify and refine all arguments for his faith that his ”subtle brain” was able to bring forth.
However, the ”truth” Newman presented in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and other writings was a truth with modification. The possibilities of truth and falsehood depend upon other things besides sincerity. A man like Newman may be scrupulously and impeccably honest and yet not completely reliable. He may like a lunatic, a lover, or an imaginative poet by enclosed by a parallel reality. Nevertheless, Charles Kingsley does not get away so easily either. Strachey’s venomous pen was hurting him as well. Kingsley’s ”robust” Protestantism was not at all as clear-cut and simple as it might seem to be. Beneath Kingsley's sound, patriotic English surface swam well-hidden fish.
Charles Kingsley was a staunch advocate of social reform, a good friend of Charles Darwin, and like Dickens he attacked in his writings, not the least several novels, the English class society and its contempt for the weaker members of that community. However, that did not stop Kingsley from being a patriotic supporter of the English Empire, a misogynist and racist, with a very special contempt for Irish Catholics. Kingsley was an enthusiastic adherent to Muscular Christianity. According to him a ”real man” should reproduce, create a family and enjoy the fruits that God's nature provides us with. Celibacy, sexual chastity, was an abomination to Kingsley, a nasty perversion. He wrote that within Catholicism, with its celibate clergy and monasticism :
there is an element of foppery—even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering, die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement.
Kingsley seemed to find this, in his opinion, nasty perversion in Newman and his peers, who liked to live within and socialize in a monastery-like community. No, that was not Jesus's message, according to Kingsley and his followers in Muscular Christianity. Being a Christian meant that you had to strive to be strong and in great, physical shape. A Christian knight was a neat, magnanimous macho guy, completely devoid of any trace of ”femininity”. Woman and man were opposites and the woman's task in this world was to act as a mistress, housewife and mother. If a man gave in to the Catholic allure, he ran the risk of ending up in such perverting circles where Newman moved, remnants of a musty, medieval monastic environment where:
they resorted more and more to these arts which are the weapons of crafty, ambitious and unprincipled women. They were apt to be cunning, false intriguing. They were personally cowardly, as their own chronicles declare; querulous, passionate, prone to unmanly tears; prone, as their writings abundantly testify, to scold, to use the most virulent language against all who differed from them, they were, at times, fearfully cruel, as evil women will be cruel with that worst cruelty which springs from cowardice.
But, but, as with many homophobic and misogynist preachers, Kingsley apparently feared and denied his own desires. He associated with men rather than women and was often forced to explain this to his wife, and even in his sermons. Kingsley wrote to his wife when she wondered about her husband's intimacy with the chemist Charles Blachford Mansfeld:
Remember that the man is the stronger vessel, There is something awful, spiritual, in men´s love for each other. Had you been a man we would be like David and Jonathan.
True to his habit, Charles Kingsley referred to the Bible stories of the love between King David and Jonathan, which Kingsley interpreted as being deeply Platonic and in accordance with his view of what Muscular Christianity really meant:
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women (2 Sam.1:26). Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself (1 Sam. 18:1).
As a muscular Christian, Kingsley could not possibly reveal himself as being openly gay, but was forced to hide behind harsh attacks on those he considered to be so. Something that did not stop him from praising the male body in sermons and writings. In a letter to a friend, Kingsley revealed that he had walked 50 miles (ca. 80 km) to see the nephew of a local butcher play cricket. As he watched the well-built youth in action, Kingsley daydreamed about how the young man would look naked on The Judgement Day.
Charles Kingsley had two brothers who, like him, were successful writers, one of whom, Henry, was openly gay, the other was almost constantly on the move and father to the impressive Mary Kingsley, more about her later. But, now it is high time to return to the theme of this essay – namely water and mermaids.
During my book-swallowing youth and childhood, Hässleholm's library was with its creaking wooden floors and seductive scent from its books´ red and blue binders a Paradise. Admittedly, I did during several years long for a yellow library card that would open my way to the Adult Library, but for many years I had to settle for the green card that gave me access to the Children's Department, where I devoured all the books from the publisher Nature and Culture’s Treasury Library, with abridged versions of children's and youth books. Among them I found Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, which I read with great interest.
Was it the same Charles Kingsley who had got into controversy with John Henry Newman? For sure – and like Kingsley’s attacks on this saintly man, The Water Babies gave a split impression. It is occasionally a charming description of English rural nature. With its fresh descriptions of the bustling life in clear streams and rivers, Kingsley's fairytale reminds me of Izaac Walton's The Complete Angler from 1653, in which he unforgettably described an English idyll with larch singing, lush nature, rippling streams, quiet rivers and glittering lakes. In parentheses – The Complete Angler was Tomasi di Lampedusa's favourite book, and he wrote that men like Hitler and Mussolini were certainly incapable of appreciating such a fine little book about the essentials of life.
However, Kingsley sometimes falls into a jarring jargon where he becomes too didactic, naively moralizing and strained inventive. Unfortunately, these shortcomings are mixed with a blatant racism that in an unpleasant manner alludes to the inferiority of Africans and the Irish. From time to time, however, the tale is dramatic, charming and nicely told, the entire compote eventually turns out to be a memorable, original and rather convivial reading experience.
The story tells about little Tom, a victim of one of the cruellest and most ruthless exploitations of children that has ever occurred. He is a chimney sweep, something that meant that small children, generally brought from orphanages, were used to crawl into cramped flues to chop off soot deposits, with all it entailed of unimaginable claustrophobia and a premature death through lung disease and tumors caused by their gruesome occupation.
Little Tom's liberation comes when he is chased out of a large estate and wanders off into the English countryside until he falls into a river and becomes a water baby, a decimetre-sized little naked creature with gills.
Behind the transformation is a group of water nymphs led by a beautiful lady, who when she is on land acts like a beautiful and poor Irishwoman, but who underwater becomes a water nymph who together with her sisters watches over little Tom, who through various adventures demonstrates what a miracle nature really is.
Tom's adventures take place wthin a Darwinian universe with constant threats and dangers, but also filled with a simple lust for life, a feeling of bliss from being part of nature’s great marvel, opposed to the corrupting, circumscribed existense of most humans. Kingsley pokes fun at the unreasonable amount of time devoted to entirely meaningless hair-splitting and the ridiculous sausage stuffing with unnecessary knowledge wihtin a paralyzing school system, which does not teach anything about nature and the good things in life.
But, as I said, pitfalls are numerous – from time to time, Kingsley's didactic Sunday school takes over. The charm of his tail is enhanced by Linley Sambourne's ingenious illustrations. After John Tenniel, Sambourne took over the responsibility as main illustrator at Punch, Britain´s leading satirical magazine. Sambourne´s debt of gratitude to the skilled Tenniel, Alice in Wonderland's illustrator, is apperant in this fantastic rendering of the caretaker of an underwater prison where Tom's despotic and unpleasant former boss, in fact owner, Mr. Grimes is imprisoned.
One of Charles Kingsley's brothers, George, spent many years travelling around the globe and his special interest was religion about which he wrote several books. His greatest admirer was his daughter Mary. When George Kingsley grew older and retired as a private scholar in Cambridge, Mary acted as his secretary and all-in-all. During the last years of their life, Mary’s parents were seriously ill and she devoted all her time caring for them. When both of them died almost simultaneously the thirty years old Mary used her inheritance to realize her dreams and undertook several research expeditions to West Africa.
Mary Kingsley generally travelled on her own, only occasionally in the company of native guides. She was wearing a small capote, long dresses and high-necked blouses; fearless and adventurous, she moved in areas rarely visited by any white people, drastically describing her experiences and findings in her entertaining Travels in West Africa. Mary got lost, fell into traps and rivers, where she banged aggressive hippos and crocodiles with her umbrella. Often she had to pick leeches and other vermin from her body, though she seemed to be in an unfailingly good mood. Only forty years old, she died after contracting typhus while caring for imprisoned Boers in South Africa.
Mary Kingsley's main scientific task was to describe species and map the fish stocks in the Ogowe River in Gabon. Possibly could her great interest in science, Darwinism, water and fish be traced back to her uncle Charles Kingsley. Below a species of a fish named after her – Ctenopoma Kingsleyae.
Several of her contemporaries were amazed by Mary Kingsley´s bravery and lack of prejudices. In his play Captain Brassbound´s Conversion from 1900, George Bernard Shaw based one his characters, the missionary Lady Cicley Waynflete, on Mary Kingsley. In a letter to the actress who was going to interpret her during the play’s performance in the U.S., Shaw told her to be inspired by Miss Kingsley, comparing her to the murderous macho men who were running amok in Africa:
contrast the brave woman, with her commonsense and good will, with the wild-beast man, with his elephant rifle, and his atmosphere of dread and murder, breaking his way by mad, selfish assasination out of the difficulties created by his own cowardice.
In his play, Shaw makes the filibuster Captain Brassbone borrow features from Congo´s conqurerer Henry Morton Stanley, servant of the murderous Belgian king Leopold II, while Lady Cisley behaves like Mary Kingsley and among other things observes:
– Why do people get killed by savages? Because instead of being polite to them, and saying Howdy-edo? Like me, people aim pistols at them. I´ve been among savages – cannibals and all sorts. Everybody said they´d kill me. But when I met them, I said Howdyedo? And they were quite nice.
Maybe it was a family trait, but it seems that both Charles and Mary Kingsley sought to escape from the cramped, restrictive Victorian atmosphere, to something completely different. Charles to the water in his fantasies about the carefree water babies and Mary to African rivers and jungles.
It is an old idea that what is above water has its equivalent below the water surface and there are several myths and tales about how humans move away from their mundane, earthly existence to end up in fantastic, parallel underwater worlds. Sea gods have their palaces under the sea, where entire sunken cities can be found, populated by wonderful creatures. Russians believed that Tsar Moskoi ruled over a city under Lake Leman. The Celts believed there was a Land Under the Waves, Tir-fa-toun and fishermen from Brittany thought they occasionally could hear bells ringing in the sunken city of Is. Such cities also existed in the oceans off the coasts of India, China and Japan.
Just as cities had their counterparts underwater, people could find doppelgänger and relatives beneath the water in seas and lakes. Equal, but still alien. It could happen that they met with a sea creature who could even be willing to live upon land, marry them, starting a family, and having children, but such relationships seldom lasted long and often ended tragically.
Mary and Charles Kingsley's interest in freshwater fish leads me to the idea that mermaids' presence is far from limited to the sea. We have already met Maman Dlo who lives close to, or under, Caribbean springs and rivers and almost every European watercourse has since Greek, Roman and barbarian times its ruler and nymphs.
In Nordic countries, there was the violin-playing Näcken, who lured people into lakes and swamps. His female counterpart was the Undine or Sjöfru, who usually appeared naked, beautiful and singing, though just as often she could manifest herself as Bäckahästen, a beautiful white mare who in the twilight or during moonlit nights emerged from a lake. Any peasant or farmhand who saw her could not avoid the temptation to mount her, only to make her gallop into a stream and drown her rider.
There were plenty of such evil water creatures. Most feared was Draugen, who was neither beautiful nor a singer, but the rotten ghost of a suicide who drowned his victims so they could share his misery and thus alleviate his pain and remorse for being denied access to both heaven and hell.
Most of the mermaids and mermen that haunted Nordic waterways were young people who had drowned, or most commonly – committed suicide. The Finnish national epic Kalevala contains the song about Aino, Joukahainen's beautiful sister. In youthful arrogance, Joukahainen had challenged the ”old, wise” magician Väinämöinen in a song contest. Väinamöinen sang with his magic runes Joukahainen down into a bog and to save himself from certain death, Joukahainen had to promise his beautiful sister’s ”hands and feet” to Väinamöinen, something the cunning old man had calculated in advance. However, Aino refused to marry the horny old man and drowned herself to avoid the cruel destiny of becoming his wife. Ever since, she teased and eluded, in the shape of a beautiful mermaid, the old Väinämöinen as soon as he went fishing.
Aino can be likened to a rusalka, who among the Slavonic people was a drowned maid who on various occasions could assume different forms, though in general she appeared as a beautiful, young woman who trhough her irresistible singing lured men into the water depths. The rusalkas were assumed to have their abode under rivers and swamps. They mostly stayed there during winter and autumn and appeared during moonlit nights. During spring and summer they could change shape, became less threatening and hid among leafy treetops.
Most seductive water creatures are associated with enticing, otherworldly singing and this has of course inspired several composers. For example has Antonin Dvořák written an opera about a rusalka in which he used his entire classically steeped and melodic repertoire. Dvořák made his music reflect every conceivable emotional expression, while mixing folk music with an impressionistic timbre.
The story is not very original and on the whole seems to reflect H.C. Andersen's masterful tale about The Little Mermaid and uniting it with de la Motte Fouqués Undine. Dvořák's opera finale is heartbreaking. After regretting having abandoned his faithful rusalka for an earthly woman, the prince wanders around by the lake shore, considering killing himself. The rusalka wants to save his life, but the prince does not want to live, worn out by a life between different worlds. The sea creature floats like a fen-fire above the waters, despairing through the knowledge that she will not be able to give her beloved prince any human warmth. A kiss would kill him and he knows it as well. Nevertheless, the prince desperately asks for a kiss, the rusalka gives one and together they sink into the watery depths.
The swirling, bubbling, flowing water lends itself easily to musical interpretations and if combined with the erotic allure and playfulness of mermaids, their marvellous songs and undulating movements, impressive spectacles may be staged. Like the one opening Wagner's mighty Ring Epic, where, wavy, rising and falling music and song accompany the Rhine Maidens´ playful harassment of the clumsy, disgusting and greedy dwarf Alberich, who lustfully chases the elusive water nymphs before being overwhelmed by the glitter of the Rhine gold and steals it from the snotty and suddenly inconsolable mermaids.
I have never seen Wagner's Ring Cycle and cannot understand how that water dance can be depicted on the stage, without becoming clumsy and ridiculous. In Paris, however, I saw Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande. Like many of his contemporaries, Debussy struggled with Wagner's influence. To modern innovators the great German had shown the way to something completely new. A conservative revolutionary who combined several art forms into something exciting and groundbreaking. Wagner's often heavy and extensive operas had changed and united traditional recitations and arias, transforming the character of the opera as a kind of number revue into something resembling a large, emerging river with streams of leitmotifs. Scenography, libretto, audience and actors, light and movements were united on stage through music into a new art form. Personally, however, I have a hard time getting used to and becoming warmed by Wagner's music. I find Mahler and Bruckner more appealing, although I willingly admit that there are gripping bright spots by Wagner as well.
Nevertheless, his personally constructed mythology is too compact and overpowering for my taste, though I realize its force of attraction and have time and again made valiant attempts to enter into his operatic worlds. I have have quite often listened to his operas, read the librettos and even visited Bayreuth, the Mecca of Wagnerians and there seen the underground vaults that reverently preserve and exhibits Wagner's opera manuscripts, as if they were sacred relics. When I in the dimmed light stood in front of the open manuscript books, I remembered how a few years earlier I in Istanbul had queued for several hours to see pieces of the Prophet’s beard. However, in spite of all this I have not yet become a believer – Wagner has remained too strenuous and complicated for my taste.
It was different with Pelléas and Mélisande with Robert Wilson's set decorations. There, music and scenography were combined into an effortlessly, emerging unit. Wilson has declared that in every staging light is the most significant element and he had Debussy's opera engulfed by a blue, dreamlike shimmer, completely in harmony with the opera's rather contour-less, dreamy character, where everything is vague and fluid as if mirroring an alien, underwater world where emotions are left in the open, but nevertheless remain unarticulated. Dark urges, violence and jealousy simmer beneath the surface, subdued by light, movement and music.
As with Wagner, Debussy creates a kind of ”eternal melody” permeated by emotion-carrying leitmotifs, though far from as pronounced as with Wagner. With subtle means Wilson suggested the listener/spectator into the opera´s meditative dream world. For example, he presented Pelléas and Mélisande's leitmotifs about water, springs, wells and moonlight through a large circle of light which in all the blue became a source, a well, a window, a moon, and her wedding ring, which she to her husband claims to have lost in a cave, though it had actually fallen into deep well during a loving encounter she had had with his brother.
Mélisande is an enigmatic, elusive water creature who King Golaud during a hunt encounters crying by a deep pond in which she claims to have lost her crown. He wants to dive after it, but she holds him back. Goluad is captivated by the beautiful, mysterious girl, takes her to his castle and marries her. The king's half-brother Pelléas is also captivated by Mélisande and his feelings are answered, but in a very subtle way through hidden encounters in cellar vaults, caves and moonlit forests. The brothers' father, Arkel, is also fascinated by the young Mélisande, who seems to unite an innocent child of nature with a demonic femme fatale. She becomes pregnant with King Goluad but is relentlessly drawn to Pelléas who is murdered by his jealous brother. Mélisande dies shortly after giving birth to a baby girl.
The opera and Maurice Maeterlinck's play on which it is based, are inspired by French myths about Melusine. The story of Melusine has by the House of Lusignan been assumed as the origin of their lineage. From the tree of Lusignan emerged several branches that gave rise to powerful families, among them the Plantagenet family who held the English throne for three centuries. The first Prince of Lusignan, Raimodin (whose actual name was Hugh), met sometime during the 9th century at a forest spring a beautiful woman who first remained silent for several months, but when she finally spoke told him her name was Melusine. She did not want to tell the prince about her origins, but since he was hopelessly in love Raimodin could live with that uncertainty and his love was reciprocated by Melusine, who eventually turned out to be an enterprising and lovable housewife, giving the prince no less than ten children. The only thing Melusine demanded from her husband was that he promised not to watch her while she every Saturday took her weekly bath. For several years Raimondo kept that promise, until one day he could not refrain from spying on his bathing wife and to his horror found that the lower part of her body was shaped like a huge snake. He rushed into the bathroom and the frightened and furious Melusine spread a pair of huge wings, rose up from her bath and flew out of the window, leaving her husband forever. Although her protective spirit has since then rested over the House of Lusignan.
From the 12th century onwards, the story of Melusine had a great impact on Europe's literary circles, there are countless stories and legends based on it and adopted in various ways by writers, artists and philosophers. Stories of the swan prince Lohengrin, as well as those about The Lady of the Lake within the the Arthurian legend cycles are reflections of the Melusine story. Martin Luther wrote about her and appears to have believed that Melusine still existed as a demon, a succubus who came to men, usually monks, during nights, seduced and had intercourse with them.
My favourite among such stories is Goethe's The New Melusine, which tells about a young man who during a journey becomes accompanied by an unusually beautiful lady with whom he begins a relationship. Completely captivated, he agrees to her condition not to ask her where she is when she is not with him and in her absence take care of her suitcase One night when the young man is travelling alone in a stagecoach, he sees light coming out of a gap in the suitcase and when he looks down into it, he perceives a miniature version of his beloved travel companion moving around in a room inside the suitcase. The young man reveals his discovery to his mistress and Melusine then transforms him into a creature like herself and he becomes part of her parallel world. However, he soon gets tired of the adventure, regains his former stature and sells the suitcase.
Another in my opinion unusually charming version of the Melusine story was written by the eccentric lady Vernon Lee, who for most of her life lived in a villa outside of Florence. My appreciation of her story Prince Alberik and the Snake Lady may partly be due to the fact that I read it just before Rose and I a few years ago came to spend a week in a fin de siècle villa outside Florence where I in our room found some exquisitely illustrated diaries written by a lady who had lived there in the early twentieth century. Vernon Lee, whose real name was Violet Paget (1856-1935), was known for her elegant essays on art and music. She was closely acquainted with several of the Englishmen and Americans who often stayed in Florence by the beginning of the last century, such as Henry James, E.M. Forster and John Singer Sargent, the last mentioned artist made an excellent portrait of her.
Vernon Lee was fascinated by the connections between art and bodily manifestations and believed that if you are deeply touched by a work of art – a sculpture, painting, or a piece of music – unconscious bodily reactions are created through the conjunction with memories and associations, giving rise to altered posture and breathing. Vernon Lee was a well-known suffragette, deeply committed to foster the rights of women, as well as she was a bold lesbian. She dressed like a man and lived together with a woman painter under conditions that by her contemporaries were described as a "happy marriage".
Her charmingly told story about a serpent woman evolves around a small principality somewhere in northern Italy during the eighteenth century. The hypersensitive, orphaned heir to the princedom is forced to live in the shadow of his silly, egocentric uncle, who under layers of makeup and lavish clothes lets himself be hailed as ”eternally young” while wasting the boy's inheritance on all sorts of fancies in the form of tasteless art and expensive theatrical shows with the pompous prince himself as the main actor. The dreamy boy gets lost in fantasies triggered by a medieval tapestry covering an entire wall in his room. It depicts how one of his ancestors by a fountain embraces a beautiful woman. Not until the boy is fifteen years old, a coffin is removed and he detects that the lower part of the woman's body is a snake. The bizarre uncle destroys the tapestry and replaces it with a vulgar work of art.
The inconsolable, young prince is exiled to a dilapidated castle, though he does not consider it as a punishment, but an occasion to further indulge in his daydreaming. By a fountain in the castle’s overgrown garden he finds a beautiful, green shimmering snake that becomes his company in solitude. Soon a strange lady appears who turns out to be his benefactor, not only by telling him about the ways of the world, as well as its legends and myths, she also bestows wealth upon him and becomes his secret mistress. Of course, she is Melusine and the story has an unhappy ending.
As always when I follow a storytelling thread, associations emerge where I least expect them and my interest in seductive water creatures has led me to various descriptions of such legendary personages, unfortunately it would take up far too much space to describe them all here. However, I might warmly recommend Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué´s in his time very popular short novel Undine, which despite being written in 1811 has not lost any of its charm. It is the story of a sparklingly happy and charming water spirit, her hunt for a human soul and great love for the treacherous knight Huldebrand. It is the perfect fairytale; multi-layered and mysterious. It deals with Paracelsus’s mysterious elemental spirits and is spiced with gothic horror and betrayed love, all surrounded by a shimmering fairytale atmosphere.
Another exciting acquaintance has been François Bourgeon's exquisite comic album Les Compagnons du crépuscule, The Companions of the Dusk, which third part, The Siren's Song, revolves around the Melusine legend. Bourgeon's detailed and skilfully recreated depictions of France during the Hundred Years' War is impressive and fascinating, thoughI found the story somewhat too dense and constructed for my taste.
Finally, the masterpiece in the mermaid genre; about the impossibility of uniting humanity’s two natures as children of the water and children of the land, the longing for another existence, and ”the lust of the flesh and the incurable loneliness of the soul” – Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little Mermaid from 1837.
In a palace under the sea lives a little mermaid, the youngest of six sisters who all share a household with their father and grandmother. It is a beautiful place and a cohesive family, where everyone loves each other. In order not to long for the world of the human and learn to realize that their world is the better one, the mermaids are allowed to rise to the surface after they have turned fifteen.
The little mermaid has the most beautiful voice of them all and that does not mean a little when it comes to a mermaid. She constantly longs for the surface, not least after hearing her older sisters talk about the oddities found up there. When it is finally her turn to swim up to the human world, she peeks into the windows of a ship and thus gets a glimpse the most beautiful man she has ever laid her eyes upon. When the ship is wrecked during a violent storm, the mermaid saves the handsome prince and brings him ashore by a monastery, only to return to her abode under the sea, but ... she cannot possibly forget her dream prince.
All her longing is to become a human being; to have legs and feet, and an immortal soul – mermaids live for several hundred years, but when they die they just become foam on the waves. The only way to become a human is to seek out the terrible Sea Witch and give her what she desires. The witch that the mermaid is looking for is a completely different creature than the magnificent Ursula in the Disney film. By the way, The Little Mermaid is one of Disney Studios' best films and that's not to saying little.
The scene with the Sea Witch is masterfully told by H.C. Andersen, albeit much scarier than by Disney:
the Sea Witch's domain, and here for a long way the only path ran over hot bubbling mire which the Witch called her peat moss. Behind it lay her house, in the middle of a hideous wood. All the trees and bushes of it were polypi, half animal and half plant, which looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the ground. All their branches were long slimy arms with fingers like pliant worms, and joint after joint they kept in motion from the root till the outermost tip. Everything in the sea that they could grasp they twined themselves about, and never let it go again. […] Men who had been lost at sea and had sunk deep down there, looked out, white skeletons, from among the arms of the polypi. Rudders of ships and chests they held fast; skeletons of land beasts, and even a little mermaid, which they had caught and killed. That, to her, was almost the most frightful thing of all.
In a house built of the white bones of men drowned at sea sat the Sea Witch
making a toad feed out of her mouth, as we make a little canary bird eat sugar.The hideous fat water-snakes she called her little chicks, and let them coil about over her great spongy bosom.
The agreement that the mermaid enters with the witch is that she will obtain beautiful legs to walk upon and if she gets the prince to marry her, the little mermaid will receive an immortal soul. However, the mermaid will never be able to return to her family at the bottom of the sea and if the prince marries another woman, her heart will break and she will become foam on the waves. The price the Sea Witch demands for her services is to cut out the tongue from the mermaid's throat so that she will never be able to sing or speak again.
The mermaid obtains her beautiful legs, but for every step she takes it feels as if she is walking upon broken glass. However, she endures the terrible pain and despite her dumbness, she does through her beauty and obvious kindness manage to win the prince's love. However, since the prince caught a glimpse of an unearthly beautiful creature while he was rescued from drowning he cannot forget that marvellous being. Maybe she was a beautiful nun from the convent where he was taken care of after his ordeal?
When the prince finally arrives at the monastery and there meets a woman who seems to be the mermaid's double, when it comes to beauty and a gentle disposition, the prince imagines that this nun was the one who once had saved him. The mute mermaid can not possibly convince him of the truth and accepts her tragic fate. The prince decides to marry the beautiful nun and the mermaid awaits her death. Her sisters then rise from the sea and tell her that the Sea Witch has told them that their beloved sister can return to them and even obtain an immortal soul if she kills the prince. They hand their sister a knife they have received from the witch. However, the mermaid throws the weapon back into the sea and then dives into its depths, prepared to die because as a human she cannot breathe underwater. However, she is picked up by angels who bring her to Paradise.
In his story, Andersen has managed to incorporate a variety of motifs from other fairytales, like the underwater kingdom, the mermaid's beautiful song, the passion between mortal men and sea creatures, the search for a soul, the man's betrayal and the virgin's death.
It was his own life Andersen wrote about. His longing after inaccessible women, like the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. The awareness that he was an odd character who did not really belong anywhere. Andersen could with his voice – his stories – enchant people around him but without his story telling he was awkward, like the mute mermaid on her paining legs. Like the mermaid, Andersen was uncomfortable among people. He was a hypochondriac, complained too much and enjoyed himself best within his own fantasy worlds. Like an alienated sea creature, Andersen was a split being and like so many of us, he had a hard time reconciling a mundane existence with unattainable dream worlds. Maybe we have our origins in the sea, but we can never return to it, it can only be done in fantasies and dreams.
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