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Mermaid Metamorphosis


Tidepool’s Mermaid REC455 by Bernard Excellent

Ever wonder how the form of the mermaid – half fish and half woman – came to be?  Known in Haiti and other parts of the world as “La Sirene,” the original Sirens had at one time been part bird and part woman.  How and why did the change take place?


Design element on an Ancient Greek red figure krater

The story of La Sirene begins, as so many stories do, in Ancient Greece. As Homer tells it, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. One day, in the blossom of her youth; lovely, virginal and trim-ankled, (I did not make that up.  He specifically described her as “trim-ankled.”) Persephone was out in a meadow picking flowers, blissfully unaware of the ill-intended approach of Hades. Enraptured by her beauty, the Lord of the Underworld abducted her and spirited her off to his kingdom, leaving not a trace. Utterly distraught, Demeter searched far and wide for her darling daughter and summoned Persephone’s handmaidens, The Sirens, to go looking for her.  In frantic desperation, she and gave them wings and bird bottoms to speed them along in their search. (Either that, or she punished them for not finding her by giving them bird wings and bottoms. There exists a bit of discrepancy on that point.)  Persephone did eventually turn up – no thanks to The Sirens – who, bird bodies and all, eventually settled into life on a rocky island where they amused themselves by singing beautifully and luring sailors to their deaths.

Now here is where it gets a bit muddled:  According to one on-line source, time went by and the Queen of the Olympians, Hera, proposed a singing competition between The Sirens and The Muses. The Muses won, so they plucked the feathers off The Sirens to make crowns for themselves, thus signifying their victory for all time.  The Sirens resourcefully replaced their feathers with the tails and scales of fishes and continued their seductive work per usual, with the world’s second-most beautiful voices.  Another story goes that a hungry sea-monster, possibly the Krakken, devoured the bird halves of The Sirens and again, they cleverly replaced their missing halves with corresponding fish parts.

Still a third version says that The Sirens had been cursed would die if a ship passed by them that failed to stop to listen to their singing.  When the adventurer, Odysseus, set out on his voyage, he avoided The Siren’s treachery by putting wax in the ears of his crew and having them bind him to the masthead so that he could hear their song and yet be unable to stop the ship. Thereby, the curse of The Sirens was broken and they fell into the sea, whereupon they didn’t die after all, but metamorphosed into the half fish/half women that we associate with mermaids today. Since all of this is fiction anyway, for my money what “really” happened is kind of a moot point.  All that matters to me is a good story – and here, we have three!

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