It is interesting to trace how the
siren developed from woman-faced bird into a fish-tailed temptress. The earliest example of a fish-tailed siren that I have found is an attractive terra-cotta figurine of a ‘mourning siren’ of about
250 B.C., to be seen in the British Museum. A transitional mermaid, with fish-tail, claws and feathers, is to be found on a misericord in Carlisle Cathedral, and thus she was pictured in some of the
It is the Bestiaries which gave the mermaid all the attributes associated with her from early Christian days – her vanity, constantly with comb and mirror, her alluring appearance and voice,
and her danger to the human soul. Early on in the Christian Era, a fish was a symbol of the soul; and, in medieval Church carvings, a mermaid grasping a fish is an Awful Warning to the Laity. There
is a good example from a misericord in Exeter Cathedral. The work of the first Bestiarist, Physiologus, a monk of Alexandria,is lost, but it was copied, with embellishments, all over Europe.
The compilers included her with other fictitious, and also living,creatures in their works illustrating moral themes. For example, Guillame le Clerc, who compiled his Bestiary in A.D. 12IO-II,
wrote of the Syren ‘shaped like a fish or like a bird’ in her lower half, and summed her up as follows:
‘So sweetly does she sing and well
That they who go sailing on the sea,
As soon as they hear that song,
From letting their ship approach.
So soothing seems the song to them.
That in their ship they fall asleep,
And when they are so fast asleep,
Then are they deceived and trapped;
For the syrens kill them
Without their uttering shriek or cry.’
Then follows the carefully pointed moral:
‘The Syren, who sings so sweetly
And enchants folk by her song
Affords example for instructing those
Who through this world must voyage.
We who through this world do pass
Are deceived by such a sound,
By the glamour, by the lusts
Of this world, which kill us
When we have tasted of such pleasures:
Wantonness and bodily ease,
And gluttony and drunkenness,
Slothfulness and riches,
Palfreys, fat horses
The splendour of rich draperies.
Always we incline that way;
About the future we are slow to think
So great is our delight in them
That perforce we fall asleep.
Thereupon the syren kills us,
It is the evil one who uses us so ill,
Who makes us plunge into vice so much,
That he entangles us in his snares.
Then he attacks us, then he falls upon us,
Then he kills us, then he does us to death,
Just as the syrens do
To the mariners who sail the seas.’4
Gwen Benwell, and Arthur Waugh, *Sea Enchantress; the Tale of the Mermaid and Her Kin* (New York: Citadel Press, 1965).