Sensuality And Taboos: The Myth Of The Sirens

Sensuality And Taboos: The Myth Of The Sirens

By: Alejandro I. López -

In ancient times, the world was seen as an infinite and unknowable place. Little by little, human curiosity unraveled the world's mysteries, or at least tried to do so. As the sun set, Mediterranean waters beckoned adventurers: the sea was that ultimate frontier they would have to cross, and they dreamed of discovering the edge of the world that lied beyond the sunlit horizon. 

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.

Mermaid mythology greek jar


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. 

Mermaid mythology james draper
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:

mermaid mythology new representation

"Sirens are sea-girls who deceive sailors with the outstanding beauty of their appearance and the sweetness of their song, and are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea."

From that moment onwards, the image of the siren was no longer associated with an ancient pagan tale that warned sailors about the dangers of the sea; now it was a symbol that warned about the dangers of the female body. Her voluptuous figure became an embodiment of desire, which was coupled with temptation and sin. Thus, Ulysses' encounter with the sirens acquired a new interpretation.

mermaid mythology bestiary 1

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.

mermaid mythology without wings

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.

mermaid mythology comb and mirror

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."

mermaid mythology renaissance 1  Mermaid mythology comb and mirror 4

The Fisherman And The Siren (1858) by Frederic Leighton and The Mermaid (1900) by John William Waterhouse.

Renaissance art shaped the appearance of the siren according to its aesthetics, and this turned her into a symbol of feminine beauty. Then the Romanticism movement arrived, highlighting their sensuality. The story of the siren's representation not only shows radical changes in myths and beliefs, but it also reflects the sexual taboos that have haunted the minds of the Western world.

Rodríguez, Peinado Laura, "Las Sirenas", Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Departamento de Historia del Arte I, 2009.
Gálvez Giménez, Alberto, "La figura de la femme fatale clásica en la pintura de los siglos XIX y XX", Universitat Politécnica de Valencia, 2014-15.
García Fuentes, María Cruz, "Algunas precisiones sobre las sirenas".
Mittman Asa, Simon and Dendle, Peter. The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Routledge, 2012.


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Translated by Andrea Valle