Seduction and the Secret Power of Women: The Lure of Sirens and Mermaids

Overview

An exploration of humanity’s age-old fascination with Sirens

• Explains the Sirens’ half-human, half-animal bodies as a metaphor for the psychological challenge that their myth has always embodied

• Fully illustrated in color with works by Rubens, Bosch, Munch, Magritte, and others

Their celestial voices drove mast-lashed Ulysses nearly out of his mind with libidinous promises as they beckoned him ever-closer to paradise—or a rocky death. With womanly torsos and animal lower ...

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Overview

An exploration of humanity’s age-old fascination with Sirens

• Explains the Sirens’ half-human, half-animal bodies as a metaphor for the psychological challenge that their myth has always embodied

• Fully illustrated in color with works by Rubens, Bosch, Munch, Magritte, and others

Their celestial voices drove mast-lashed Ulysses nearly out of his mind with libidinous promises as they beckoned him ever-closer to paradise—or a rocky death. With womanly torsos and animal lower halves, usually birds or fish, Sirens have long been symbols of the lure of desire—the feminine, as seducer—beckoning men to mystery beyond their ken, or to disaster. This book is both a celebration of Sirens and an examination of the psychology of dichotomy—the diametrically opposed drives and inherent conflicts underlying this female archetype.

Since antiquity, Sirens and their mermaid sisters have maintained an ongoing affair of the heart with humanity’s greatest writers and artists. Sirens play important roles in the classical writings of Homer and Euripides, as well as in the modern works of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, and many others. Matching these writings with vibrant work from such artists as Peter Paul Rubens, Hieronymous Bosch, Edvard Munch, and René Magritte, Meri Lao has created a feast for the eye. Exploring our 3,000-year-old relationship with Sirens, Lao reveals the secret of the power in their song: it is the sound of the subversive, luring us from the orderly conscious world down to the depth of the world of dreams, and the harder we try to ignore that singing, the more we desperately want to hear it.

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Editorial Reviews

Jane Caputi
“Informative and reflective, this beautifully written, extensively researched, and illustrated work traces the history of Sirens, from their beginnings in antiquity as bird-women, through the familiar fish-tailed mermaids of sculpture, art, and literature, and even to the modern siren wailing on an ambulance. Meri Lao suggests that though men have refused to listen, Sirens, in all of their incarnations, bear a message that merits hearing. Seduction and the Secret Power of Women is a unique and valuable source for all interested in women and mythology as well as mermaids and their kin.”
Lee Prosser
"The book is entertaining and literate. As a reference text, it is imaginative, logical, concise, and presents a complete analysis of its subject matter in detail. High recommended."
Michelle Mueller
" . . . a great addition to a magical or feminist library. . . . Meri Lao has provided informative, detailed text worth reading closely."
The Midwest Book Review
" . . . an excellent New Age survey appropriate for both women's studies and new age collections."
D. Tigermoon
"The author includes a wonderful variety of historical references and illustrations as well as photographic examples, and makes a complicated subject quite clear and understandable. The chapters are packed full of history and explanation, but very well written so they flow without becoming cumbersome or confusing."
Barbara Ardinger
"With its illustrations on nearly every page, many of them in color, this book is worth twice the price."
Apr 08 The Midwest Book Review
" . . . an excellent New Age survey appropriate for both women's studies and new age collections."
professor of women’s studies at Florida Atla Jane Caputi
“Informative and reflective, this beautifully written, extensively researched, and illustrated work traces the history of Sirens, from their beginnings in antiquity as bird-women, through the familiar fish-tailed mermaids of sculpture, art, and literature, and even to the modern siren wailing on an ambulance. Meri Lao suggests that though men have refused to listen, Sirens, in all of their incarnations, bear a message that merits hearing. Seduction and the Secret Power of Women is a unique and valuable source for all interested in women and mythology as well as mermaids and their kin.”
From the Publisher
" . . . a great addition to a magical or feminist library. . . . Meri Lao has provided informative, detailed text worth reading closely."

" . . . an excellent New Age survey appropriate for both women's studies and new age collections."

"The author includes a wonderful variety of historical references and illustrations as well as photographic examples, and makes a complicated subject quite clear and understandable. The chapters are packed full of history and explanation, but very well written so they flow without becoming cumbersome or confusing."

"The book is entertaining and literate. As a reference text, it is imaginative, logical, concise, and presents a complete analysis of its subject matter in detail. High recommended."

"With its illustrations on nearly every page, many of them in color, this book is worth twice the price."

“Informative and reflective, this beautifully written, extensively researched, and illustrated work traces the history of Sirens, from their beginnings in antiquity as bird-women, through the familiar fish-tailed mermaids of sculpture, art, and literature, and even to the modern siren wailing on an ambulance. Meri Lao suggests that though men have refused to listen, Sirens, in all of their incarnations, bear a message that merits hearing. Seduction and the Secret Power of Women is a unique and valuable source for all interested in women and mythology as well as mermaids and their kin.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594772016
  • Publisher: Inner Traditions/Bear & Company
  • Publication date: 9/15/2007
  • Edition description: 4th Edition
  • Edition number: 4
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Meri Lao is the author of over 20 books in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English. She has been a concert pianist, a professor of theater arts, and composed the music for Federico Fellini’s masterpiece City of Women. She lives in Rome.

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Read an Excerpt

from the Introduction

Creatures of the air, the Sirens have mastery over space and the summits and the faculty of rising in flight to the heavens. The wing challenges the laws of gravity. The lightness of the feather implies the speed of a whiplash—sail, glide, vanish, hover in the ether. Air brings to mind soul, aura, voices rising, hymn. Bathing in the celestial element of light, the Sirens epitomize purity, ascension, enlightenment: the inaccessible, the divine.

Sirens have never been reputed to capture women, which may be explained by the fact that women rarely set off on sea voyages. Had they done so, considerably more balanced accounts of the Sirens would undoubtedly have reached us regarding the essence of feminine wisdom. Instead, it has always been men who told of Sirens, men who dreamed of them, projected onto them, were attracted to and frightened by them. To be consistent with this masculine perspective, only he who has dared to abandon himself and his history, to hurl himself into the deep and sprout wings, emerging into a new life, can hear them.

Homer’s attention is mainly absorbed by the mantic abilities of the Sirens. They know “whate’er beneath the sun’s bright journey lies.” They offer men memory, meaning, knowledge of the world, glory, and fame. And the Greeks considered knowledge the most valuable of worldly achievements: in it every action is reflected and converges. “Blest is the man ordain’d our voice to hear, / The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear,” the Sirens tell Ulysses. They render man happy and fulfilled by making him knowledgeable. They tempt him by promising to gratify his lust, provide him with supreme refreshment, and lead him to the ultimate adventure. In other words, they offer to make him immortal, a god. To do this, he has to be diverted, prevented from returning to the same old beaten paths: to past experiences, nation, family, institutions. Sirens are the opposite of the repose of the warrior, the alternative to the sheltered port.

Sirens are divinities who fulminate with the knowledge of extreme opposites and could thus be considered the female equivalent of the god of inebriation, Dionysus. Indeed, according to the tradition of Argolis, Dionysus arrived from Naxos with Ariadne by sea, accompanied by the Sirens. But Homer does not mention Dionysus and is not expansive in translating the message of the Sirens into his hexameters. For him, supreme pleasure lies in narrating events already the subject of the Iliad and now recounted in the Odyssey, roads familiar to him, his past, his universe.

By nature ambivalent, the Sirens maintain an airy quality while at the same time personifying water, the element that, perhaps more than any other, expresses ambivalence. Water has a dual action. It can be a blessing as it slakes the thirst of man, irrigates the earth, and becomes a source of life and abundance, the primordial soup; it represents purification, regeneration, and perpetuity. However, it can also be destructive, causing inundation, shipwreck, drowning, and annihilation. All the vital processes take place in aqueous substances: amniotic fluid is the medium through which we come into the world, and in Greek mythology four rivers provided passage to the underworld. Sirens embody the combination of all these meanings, consequently they are the dispensers of both death and immortality.

The quality of Becoming is implicit in the element of water, just as the quality of Being is implicit in the element of air. Static, the Sirens attract men, those simple terrestrial creatures, and propel them toward change, the essential passage from one space to another, from one condition to another. Sirens are linked to transit, transitions, transcendence, transfer, long sea voyages, and subsequently to mysteries of initiation—collective in the Argonautica, individual in the Odyssey. The departure might become a passing away. Let us take the words of Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), in a flowing reverie from Water and Dreams:

Death is a journey, and a journey is a death. “To leave is to die a little.” To die is truly to leave, and no one leaves well, courageously, cleanly, except by following the current, the flow of the wide river. All rivers join the River of the Dead. This is the only mythical death, the only departure that is an adventure.

Ulysses and Orpheus have this adventure in common as well. The katabasis, the descent into Hades, is completed by Ulysses just prior to his encounter with the Sirens, and awaits Orpheus long after his triumph over the bird-women. The knowledge of the Sirens belongs to the marine element, and thus is prophetic and secret. “The old men of the sea,” as Homer called the ancient sea gods, knew everything, saw beneath, through, and beyond.

The only problem for those who aspired to obtain a response from them was to succeed in holding them still, because another of their extraordinary capacities was to suddenly assume the most unexpected forms. Transient and relative, they were indeterminate and amorphous. One rash movement, a sudden quickening, sufficed for the unpredictable and elusive animal to appear.

Sirens call to man, urging him to abandon what he is, to become a transgressor; fear of the Sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, of transforming, of being replaced, even in part, by something unpredictable; fear of the unknown, of losing oneself, disappearing or dissolving. Returning to Bachelard’s chain of thought, if the dissolution of the earth ends in dust and fire ends in smoke, the dissolution of water is yet more radical:

Water dies with the dead in its substance. Water is then a substantial nothingness. No one can go further into despair than this. For certain souls, water is the matter of despair.

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Table of Contents


Prologue

Introduction

1 Classic Sirens
2 Fish-Formed Sirens
3 An Anthology of Sirens
4 Sirens and Science
5 Modern Sirens

Bibliography

Index

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    A reviewer

    The breadth of Lao's artistic and literary study of female sirens associated with the ocean realm reaches from ancient mythology to modern novelists, Roman frescoes to contemporary advertising, medieval Christianity to Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Across centuries and cultures, such mythic creatures have a similarity in appearance and description. The mythic creature is always associated with water and has combined human and aquatic features. But apart from similar visual portrayal or literary description, the mermaid, etc., is an innate precept or quality in human nature recognized no matter how it is expressed. A Dorothy Dinnerstein in her 1963 book 'The Mermaid and the Minotaur' claimed that women water sirens symbolized the 'communal insight that our species' nature is internally inconsistent, that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound...' The anomalous features of the mermaid--most conspicuously fins and breasts--symbolize inconsistent, changeable human nature while the seductive allure tokens the mystery of Humankind's relationship to the world of nature. The Mexican author Jose Durand sees the mythical figure as symbolizing the elusive nature of the essence of life and life's spirituality. The siren is not associated with the fluid, deep water world nor does she live in it. The siren is water, specifically the salt, the salt of the sea, without which 'it would be tasteless...Salt and the siren are life and death, and hence, dream'. Lao's broad study with choice quotes from writers of all eras and a generous amount of diverse, engaging illustrations lays out fertile thoughts of the ago-old figure of the sea siren. Besides being the author of numerous books and a professor of theater arts, Lao has composed the music for Fellini's film 'City of Women'. Her aesthetic sensibilities and flair bring a particular richness to her treatment of mermaids and sirens.

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