|The most famous and photographed siren,|
simbol of Copenhagen - Denmark (*)
The dugong and the manatee are related to the myth of sirens, enough to be classified in the
order of Sirenians (or Sirenidae). The myth of sirens, which goes back to the civilization of ancient Greece,
is as much aged as dugongs are, of which remains dating from 6000 years ago have been found.
The best known reference to sirens is probably the one taken from Homer's «Odyssey», where Circe
the Sorceress warns Ulysses of the danger represented by the sirens and their bewitching song, and suggests
him to stop the sailors' ears with some wax. If Ulysses wants to listen to that song, he'd better let himself
be tied up tightly to the mast of the ship, commanding the sailors not to set him free, whatever he might say
or order them. Thanks to this stratagem, Ulysses can listen to the sirens' song, yet escape any danger.
Not as much well known is Jason's and the Argonauts' encounter with sirens: Apollonio Rodio in his
«Argonautics» tells this story. In this case it is Orpheus, who saves the sailors from sirens' call,
playing his cittern in such a melodious way that his men listen to his music and ignore the sirens, who,
disappointed and humiliated, commit suicide by throwing themselves from a cliff.
Nevertheless the myth of sirens is not restricted to the Mediterranean area: it can be found also in
Scandinavian, Irish, British, German, Russian, Middle-Eastern and Asiatic mythologies. Often, besides female
figures, male images make their appearance too, such as Triton, son of Neptune, in Greek mythology, Ningyo in
Japan and Vatea the Creator, in Polynesia.
The origins of sirens' myth are obscure and discordant. It's interesting to stress the fact that originally
they were represented with bird's bodies, long talons, ample bosom and woman's face. Such features are well
related to the characteristic of the bewitching song, as singing is typical of birds and not of marine beings.
It seems that even the word «Siren» might come from the Semitic root «Sjr»,
which means "to sing". How it happened that the bird-woman turned into fish-woman is unknown yet. Among the
hypotheses a Latin transcription mistake, from «pennis» (feathers) into «pinnis»
(fins). By the way, I find it hard to believe that this myth, widely diffused in so different and distant
cultures, might have undergone such a radical change on the strength of a simple transcription mistake,
especially in times when oral tradition had great importance. Another hypothesis is that the bird-woman's myth
might have its origins in countries far from the sea, or in landlocked areas: a mythological figure, similar
to Harpies as regards depiction and attitude, which later turned into fish-woman when the sirens' myth
reached coastal cultures, cast towards the sea.
It's very important to stress that sirens were considered malevolent beings, bearers of bad luck.
They represented the pair «deception-death»: by means of their bewitching song they attracted
ships close to the coast, towards hidden sunken rocks, in order to make them be wrecked. For some people
sirens were reincarnations of spirits rejected by the Hereafter; beings thirsty for blood, that fed themselves
on those sailors who succeeded in swimming as far as them, without drowning. Their song overcame whoever
heard it, but it lost its power if the victim managed to draw away enough not to hear their call any longer.
In short, it was a sort of temporary madness.
Over the centuries the siren's figure has gradually changed from a symbol of mortal deception into a simple
figment of sailors' imagination. They recounted of having seen sirens, probably on the strength of too a
long time spent on the sea, which made them lose their mind. Notifications of sightings have gone on almost
to present time. In the meanwhile siren's figure has been turning into a symbol of mysterious woman, endowed
with magnetic appeal, able to whet fantasies, often depicted with sexy features, almost an erotic symbol.
On the other hand, Andersen, in his famous tale, represents the everlasting struggle between rationality and
instinct on the path of spiritual growth: the conquest of a soul, which makes the Little Mermaid become human,
and the loss of her tail, animal feature, which gets her to give up her original environment and condition.
|A curious siren's image. Notice how its face looks more|
like a dugong's snout, than a woman's face. (*)
At this point, a question arises spontaneously: how was it possible that dugongs (or manatees),
sociable but not attractive animals, could be mistaken for sirens, endowed -on the contrary- with great
fascination, cruelty and bewitching voice? If you listen to the dugong's call on the introductory page,
no doubt you'll realize that it's anything but bewitching! I think the responsibility for having fed this
misunderstanding is to ascribe actually to sailors' imagination and to their too long stays on the sea,
as well as to their surroundings, all along rich in superstitions and beliefs. It seems that even Chistopher
Columbus, on seeing three manatees, expressed his disappointment for the ugliness of those "sirens"!
Also in this case a logical explanation has been hazarded; searching for elements, among their physical
features, which could justify the match of dugongs and sirens. The female dugong has her teats very close
to the base of her flippers: often, while suckling, she holds her baby tight on her breast using her flippers,
thus reminding of a woman. Despite my goodwill, I can see no other common features. Maybe a female dugong suckling
her baby, spotted from afar, after several months spent on the sea, seeing no women, with a pint of rum in their
stomach, misled some sailors? It's hard to give an answer. It would be much easier to resolve the whole matter
ascribing this wrong identification to the fantasies of visionary sailors. Nevertheless some odd coincidences
remain, which can be found among very different and distant cultures and populations. The first oddity regards
the name given to the dugong (to the manatee, as for Brazil) in various countries:
- Egypt: Arusa el bahar = the Maid, the Beauty of the Sea;
- Kenia: Queen of the sea;
- Indonesia: Putri duyung = Princess Dugong;
- Brasile: Peixe mulher = Womanfish (It's also called "Peixe boi" = cowfish, oxfish).
In each of these cases, the name is always referred to a female figure. I wasn't able to
trace the common name given to dugongs in other countries (if anybody knew anything about it, I would be
thankful for any information), but I think there must be other similar examples.
And that's not all, as all those names are always eulogistic: we shouldn't forget that sirens, even though
cruel creatures, were beings endowed with superhuman faculties and came of gods.
Another oddity: in Indonesia people believe that dugongs are reincarnations of women and consider them
benevolent beings, while sirens are incarnations of spirits to which the access to the Hereafter was denied
(evil spirits, in this case). A Thai legend tells about a woman transformed into a dugong because of her
overweening passion towards the pods of certain water plants. From then on, dugongs' tears are considered a
mighty love potion and the same happens in Indonesia. Some populations ascribe to dugongs' tears mixed with
perfume, as well as to consumption of its meat, the power of attracting the opposite sex, which reminds of
the same peculiarity typical of sirens.
Other populations deem dugongs bearers of bad luck, holding them as negative as sirens were held. Also in
the Philippines dugongs are considered as bearers of bad luck, that's why talismans against evil spirits are
made of their bones. On the contrary, in China for centuries the dugong has been deemed an animal endowed
with miraculous powers and its kill a cause of disgrace. In many villages in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), fishermen
associate the dugong with superstitious beliefs. Thus they don't hunt it, but set it free whenever it gets
tangled up in their nets.
It's difficult to investigate the historical and cultural reasons why the sirens' myth throve
in so many countries and why the dugong was identified with the siren by so many different cultures. What is
certain is that many both positive and negative faculties are ascribed to the dugong and that it has always
been inspiring beliefs and superstitions. As for me I just can add that the female specimen I met, bewitched
me at first sight, with her tender and calm glance, without any fascinating song, in the absolute silence of
my approach to her, while holding my breath.
(*) Images found in the web, with no indications about the authors or the origins.
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