Source: A Book Of Myths
“Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr gold’nes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr gold’nes Haar.
Sie kämmt es mit gold’nem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
In every land, North and South, East and West, from sea to sea, myth and legend hand down to us as cruel and malignant creatures, who ceaselessly seek to slay man’s body and to destroy his soul, the half-human children of the restless sea and of the fiercely running streams.
In Scotland and in Australia, in every part of Europe, we have tales of horrible formless things which frequent lonely rivers and lochs and marshes, and to meet which must mean Death. And equal in malignity with them, and infinitely more dangerous, are the beautiful beings who would seem to claim descent from Lilith, the soulless wife of Adam.
Such were the sirens who would have compassed the destruction of Odysseus. Such are the mermaids, to wed with one of whom must bring unutterable woe upon any of the sons of men. In lonely far-off places by the sea there still are tales of exquisite melodies heard in the gloaming, or at night when the moon makes a silver pathway across the water; still are there stories of women whose home is in the depths of the ocean, and who come to charm away men’s souls by their beauty and by their pitiful longing for human love.
Those who have looked on the yellow-green waters of the Seine, or who have seen the more turbid, more powerful Thames sweeping her serious, majestic way down towards the open ocean, at Westminster, or at London Bridge, can perhaps realise something of that inwardness of things that made the people of the past, and that makes the mentally uncontrolled people of the present, feel a fateful power calling upon them to listen to the insistence of the exacting waters, and to surrender their lives and their souls forever to a thing that called and which would brook no denial. In the Morgue, or in a mortuary by the river-side, their poor bodies have lain when the rivers have worked their will with them, and “Suicide,” “Death by drowning,” or “By Misadventure” have been the verdicts given. We live in a too practical, too utterly common-sensical age to conceive a poor woman with nothing on earth left to live for, being lured down to the Shades by a creature of the water, or a man who longs for death seeing a beautiful daughter of a river-god beckoning to him to come where he will find peace everlasting.
Yet ever we war with the sea. All of us know her seductive charm, but all of us fear her. The boundary line between our fear of the fierce, remorseless, ever-seeking, cruel waves that lap up life swiftly as a thirsty beast laps water, and the old belief in cruel sea-creatures that sought constantly for the human things that were to be their prey, is a very narrow one. And once we have seen the sea in a rage, flinging herself in terrible anger against the poor, frail toy that the hands of men have made and that was intended to rule and to resist her, foaming and frothing over the decks of the thing that carries human lives, we can understand much of the old pagan belief. If one has watched a river in spate, red as with blood, rushing triumphantly over all resistance, smashing down the trees that baulk it, sweeping away each poor, helpless thing, brute or human, that it encounters, dealing out ruin and death, and proceeding superbly on to carry its trophies of disaster to the bosom of the Ocean Mother, very easy is it to see from whence came those old tales of cruelty, of irresistible strength, of desire.
Many are the tales of sea-maidens who have stolen men’s lives from them and sent their bodies to move up and down amidst the wrack, like broken toys with which a child has grown tired of playing and cast away in weariness. In an eighth-century chronicle concerning St. Fechin, we read of evil powers whose rage is “seen in that watery fury and their hellish hate and turbulence in the beating of the sea against the rocks.” “The bitter gifts of our lord Poseidon” is the name given to them by one of the earliest poets of Greece and a poet of our own time—poet of the sea, of running water, and of lonely places—quotes from the saying of a fisherman of the isle of Ulva words that show why simple minds have so many times materialised the restless, devouring element into the form of a woman who is very beautiful, but whose tender mercies are very cruel. “She is like a woman of the old tales whose beauty is dreadful,” said Seumas, the islander, “and who breaks your heart at last whether she smiles or frowns. But she doesn’t care about that, or whether you are hurt or not. It’s because she has no heart, being all a wild water.”
Treacherous, beautiful, remorseless, that is how men regard the sea and the rushing rivers, of whom the sirens and mermaids of old tradition have come to stand as symbols. Treacherous and pitiless, yet with a fascination that can draw even the moon and the stars to her breast:
“Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.”
Very many are the stories of the women of the sea and of the rivers, but that one who must forever hold her own, because Heine has immortalised her in song, is the river maiden of the Rhine—the Lorelei.
Near St. Goar, there rises out of the waters of the Rhine a perpendicular rock, some four hundred feet high. Many a boatman in bygone days there met his death, and the echo which it possesses is still a mournful one. Those who know the great river, under which lies hid the treasure of the Nibelungs, with its “gleaming towns by the river-side and the green vineyards combed along the hills,” and who have felt the romance of the rugged crags, crowned by ruined castles, that stand like fantastic and very ancient sentries to guard its channel, can well understand how easy of belief was the legend of the Lorelei.
Down the green waters came the boatman’s frail craft, ever drawing nearer to the perilous rock. All his care and all his skill were required to avert a very visible danger. But high above him, from the rock round which the swirling eddies splashed and foamed, there came a voice.
“Her voice was like the voice the stars
Had when they sang together.”
And when the boatman looked up at the sound of such sweet music, he beheld a maiden more fair than any he had ever dreamed of. On the rock she sat, combing her long golden hair with a comb of red gold. Her limbs were white as foam and her eyes green like the emerald green of the rushing river. And her red lips smiled on him and her arms were held out to him in welcome, and the sound of her song thrilled through the heart of him who listened, and her eyes drew his soul to her arms.
Forgotten was all peril. The rushing stream seized the little boat and did with it as it willed. And while the boatman still gazed upwards, intoxicated by her matchless beauty and the magic of her voice, his boat was swept against the rock, and, with the jar and crash, knowledge came back to him, and he heard, with broken heart, the mocking laughter of the Lorelei as he was dragged down as if by a thousand icy hands, and, with a choking sigh, surrendered his life to the pitiless river.
To one man only was it granted to see the siren so near that he could hold her little, cold, white hands, and feel the wondrous golden hair sweep across his eyes. This was a young fisherman, who met her by the river and listened to the entrancing songs that she sang for him alone. Each evening she would tell him where to cast his nets on the morrow, and he prospered greatly and was a marvel to all others who fished in the waters of the Rhine. But there came an evening when he was seen joyously hastening down the river bank in response to the voice of the Lorelei, that surely never had sounded so honey-sweet before, and he came back nevermore. They said that the Lorelei had dragged him down to her coral caves that he might live with her there forever, and, if it were not so, the rushing water could never whisper her secret and theirs, of a lifeless plaything that they swept seawards, and that wore a look of horror and of great wonder in its dead, wide-open eyes.
It is “ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten”—a legend of long ago.
But it is a very much older Märchen that tells us of the warning of Circe to Odysseus:
“To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who bewitch all men, whosoever shall come to them. Whoso draws nigh them unwittingly and hears the sound of the Siren’s voice, never doth he see wife or babes stand by him on his return, nor have they joy at his coming; but the Sirens enchant him with their clear song.”
And until there shall be no more sea and the rivers have ceased to run, the enchantment that comes from the call of the water to the hearts of men must go on. Day by day the toll of lives is paid, and still the cruel daughters of the deep remain unsatisfied. We can hear their hungry whimper from the rushing river through the night, and the waves of the sea that thunders along the coast would seem to voice the insistence of their desire. And we who listen to their ceaseless, restless moan can say with Heine:
“Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin.”
For the sadness of heart, the melancholy that their music brings us is a mystery which none on this earth may ever unravel.
Next: Freya Queen Of The Northern Gods