Yet, there were great dangers lurking in the depths of the sea. And at that time, everything was possible for the human mind. In a world so vast, imagination had no boundaries. Humankind pictured all sorts of untouched lands with infinite sorts of unknown creatures.
Few mythical creatures have been able to stand the test of time and change, and perhaps the most prevalent are the elusive mermaids. This creature made its first appearance in Homer's Odyssey (8th c.), the Greek epic poem that narrates all the adventures and misadventures of Ulysses after the fall of Troy. The poem, as well as early Greek art, depicts these creatures as birds with a woman's head and scaly feet. With time, those representation changed to the mermaids we know nowadays.
According to Greek myths, sirens were powerful and erotic creatures, and many unsuspecting sailors would fall prey to their seductive beauty. The common belief was that they would devour sailors after their ships would crash into the rocks, as most men couldn't resist the temptation of their sweet melodies and angelic faces.
The first modern representation of the siren appeared in the seventh century A.D., in Medieval bestiaries, which had been influenced by the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Early bestiaries show her transition from half-bird to half-fish, by merging element of both creatures. The "book of monsters," Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, (7th c), provides an initial approach to the new fish-shaped morphology of the siren. This first depiction also shows how Eastern elements had started to adopt concepts from Christian morality:
Above and below: Illustrations of fish-shaped sirens that still preserve features of their classical form. Taken from bestiaries from the seventh and fourteenth century respectively. Both of them are holding a musical instrument, but the one below is closer to the contemporary depiction of the siren.
Centuries later, instruments disappeared and were replaced by a comb and a mirror. Sirens started to seduce with their bodies and sweet voices, so these two features became symbols of their vanity, coquetry, and eroticism.
In the late Middle Ages, the bestiary Libellus de Natura Animalium (14th c.) gives an account of the final transformation of these sea maidens, now a representation of desire and lust:
"Sirens, like worldly pleasures and vanity, charm men with their beautiful songs. Sailors who are attracted to the singing fall asleep; the sirens then attack the men and tear their flesh. But cautious sailors block their ears with wax; with holy words, good deeds, and virtues."
You might also like:
The Scientific Explanation Behind The Plagues That Hit Ancient Egypt
Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Pyramids?
Translated by Andrea Valle