Tag Archives: siren

Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them

Last week I was asked to write about my Five Favourite Medieval Hybrids for BBC Radio 3. I’ve been pondering the enduring appeal of mythical beings since I started work on a cultural history of the mermaid, but this feature, and the release of the next instalment of the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has got me thinking once again about the powerful place fabulous creatures hold in our imagination and how that maps onto the physical places they are meant to inhabit.

royal-20-b-xx-f76v

Alexander the Great carried by Griffins in London, British Library Royal MS 20 B xx, f. 76v

Hybrid beings like merfolk, centaurs, and sphinxes, reside in a twilight realm. They have a foothold in two worlds – human and animal – yet belong to neither. They often have sentience and speech, yet visually they epitomise chaos, a convergence of opposites, an impossible binding together of body parts that shouldn’t co-exist.

In the Middle Ages, hybrid creatures were frequently used to explain our existence and teach Christians how to live good (or bad) lives. Inherited from the Classical tradition, the sirens and their enchanting song, for example, became an emblem of the devil, ever ready to lure sinners to their destruction with the sweetness of worldly pleasures. The mermaid, on the other hand, might encapsulate vanity. Commonly depicted with a mirror and comb, the accoutrements of pride, she would often appear in manuscripts and churches as a warning against sin. Yet her hybrid body could also be used to represent positive dualities, as the fourteenth-century religious plays known as the Cornish Ordinalia show. Here the mermaid is employed to explain the concept of Christ’s dual nature (part-man, part-god).

Queen Mary Psalter 96v Sirens

Sirens planning an attack on sleeping sailors in ‘The Queen Mary Psalter’, British Library MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 96v

While the bodies of these fantastic creatures could be used to ponder or explain what it meant to live in a fallen world, where corporeal forms could deceive or influence those who gazed upon them, the landscapes inhabited by liminal creatures such as the mermaid, the werewolf, or the centaur, were equally useful for reflecting on the dichotomies of our existence. Typified by duality, the mermaid’s element – the sea and watery regions of the land – could nurture mankind by providing food and connecting cultures, or it could destroy life and civilisation. It was fierce and impenetrable, it was temperamental and unpredictable. It could give and it could take away.

In religious literature and art, the sea often figures as a transitional space: a place of change and transformation for those adrift upon it. Once an individual embarks on a sea voyage, planned or otherwise, they are never the same. A good example is the Middle English poem Patience, which tells the story of Jonah, who must patiently suffer the trails God sends. Another is the breathtaking Anglo-Saxon poem known as “The Seafarer“, which uses the vastness of the winter sea to focus on the isolation of the individual. Even the story of the first founding of Britain, which prefaces the Middle English Prose Brut, begins with a sea voyage. After murdering their husbands to gain independence, 33 Syrian princess are cast adrift on the ocean, only to wash up on the shores of ancient Britain and found a race of giants by copulating with spirits of the air.

The wilderness or dark forests of Western Europe, were equally dangerous environments for medieval folk. Unsafe, uncharted, and unknown, the medieval imagination populated them with sharp-toothed beasts like werewolves, inscrutable fairies, or wildmen known as wodwoses. The creatures in these spaces are always used to test the humans that venture into them and challenge their way of life. The knights of Arthurian romance, like Sir Gawain, are repeatedly  confronted with such trials, as is the eponymous hero of the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.74v

A knight killing a wodwose in London, British Library Royal MS 10 E iv, f. 74v

In thinking about how fantastic creatures and their environments work together to isolate humans and take them beyond the known, the mappable, and the ‘safe’, the literature and art of the Middle Ages can offer us new insights into the medieval mind and how it tried to make sense of the world. In the same way, our own enduring fascination with mythical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and griffins, allows us to exercise the power of our own imaginations and ponder what a world filled with fabulous, and often uncontrollable, beasts might mean for the human condition.

The quest to find fantastic creatures in the wild and secret places they inhabit is also the search for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Five Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (BBC Radio 3 website)

The Beauty of the Bestiaries (also featured on Being Human Festival Blog)

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens' Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing research into mermaids, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research fed into a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my research develops, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing research into mermaids, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research fed into a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my research develops, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

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