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The History of Mermaids and Sirens

Symbols of Transformation



Mermaids by Arthur Rackham 33


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, 

and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

                                                                                                                                                                            Genesis 1


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Mermaids have been enduring symbols in myth and culture for thousands of years. Mermaids continue to have a very visible role in contemporary society in advertising, movies and our culture in general. Each year The Coney Island Mermaid Parade occurs the first Saturday after the summer solstice around the third week of June, hundreds of mermaids, Neptunes, mer-men and hundred of thousands of spectators descend upon Coney Island, New York to celebrate the beginning of Summer and the official opening of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Coney Island Mermaid - Northstar Gallery

Coney Island Mermaids

®Northstar Gallery

What is this powerful attraction to Mermaids that is so compelling? Why do five hundred thousand of people turn out for the Mermaid Parade? Why do mermaids retain such a visible role in our contemporary culture? Why is The Little Mermaid such a popular children's' movie? To answer these questions one must look at the historical myths and legends that tell the stories of mermaids, Sirens and other goddesses.

Doris Day



The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men. He said that he saw some in Guinea on the coast of Manegueta.
                                                              —From the Diary of Christopher Columbus, January 9, 1493


Beatrice Phillpotts, in her book Mermaids suggests that: Supremely beautiful, forever combing her hair, just beyond reach of men, mermaids have beckoned the adventurous to the unknown and the promise of forbidden fruits. However behind this seductive image of the Siren lurks the a metaphor of death, for enticed by her promise and allure, generations have been lured to their certain doom in a thousand different stories that form the bases of powerful and enduring myths and legends that continue today.48

The mermaid is found in all Western countries; she is the German Meriminni or Meerfrau, the Icelandic Marmenill, the Danish Maremind, the Irish Merow and many others, and there are echoes of her story from the East as well. The Matsyanaris, figures sometimes found sculptured in Indian temples, are nymphs with fishes’ tails, and superstitious Chinese sailors firmly believe in the existence of similar creatures in the China sea. 63

The Sirens of today, including the mermaid that calls to us from almost every urban corner,claim a long and rich ancestry, that dates back to a multitude of fish-tailed gods and goddesses of some of man's earliest civilizations. The sea, as womb of creation and the source of unfathomable wisdom has always played an important role in world beliefs, particularly among maritime nations. The Gods of the sea are among some of the most powerful in history and their strength lives on in a host of submarine beings symbolic of the shifting, ever changing, dual nature of the sea as both life-giver and destroyer.49

In Greek mythology, sirens are sea nymphs who possess the bodies of birds and the heads of women, and are the daughters of the sea god Phorcys. Sirens had such sweet voices that it is said that mariners who heard their songs were lured into grounding their boats on the rocks on which the beautiful nymphs sang. 

The Greek hero Ulysses was able to pass their island in safety because, following the advice of the sorceress Circe, he plugged the ears of his companions with wax and had himself firmly bound to the mast of the ship so that he could hear the songs without danger. According to another legend, the Argonauts escaped the Sirens because Orpheus, who was on board their ship, the Argo, sang so sweetly that he drowned out the song of the nymphs. According to later legends, the Sirens, upset at the escape of Odysseus or at the victory of Orpheus, threw themselves into the sea and perished. 30

A Mermaid - John William Waterhouse 1900

The earliest sirens were often depicted as looming over warriors marching to war or sailors at sea. Later Sirens began to appear on funerary stelae, often shown tearing their flowing tresses  and beating their breasts with gestures of distress and mourning offering comfort to afflicted souls.  The Siren below was found on the top of a large funerary monument on the Island of Manara. It is now located in the Louvre. 33

Siren on funerary monument

Island of Manara, Louvre 33

In myth and folklore, mermaids are supernatural, sea-dwelling creatures with the head and upper body of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a fish. The mermaid is frequently described as appearing above the surface of the water and combing her long hair with one hand while holding a mirror in the other. Mermaids, in the numerous tales told of them, often foretell the future, sometimes under compulsion; give supernatural powers to human beings; or fall in love with human beings and entice their mortal lovers to follow them beneath the sea. Similarities frequently exists between the stories concerning mermaids and those told about the Sirens. 30 The Sirens of Homer's Odyssey are often depicted as mermaids in contemporary art.

Coney Island Mermaid - Northstar Gallery

Coney Island Mermaids

®Northstar Gallery



Antipholus of Syracruse:


O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,

To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.

Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;

Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,

And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,

And in that glorious supposition think

He gains by death that hath such means to die;

Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink!

Comedy of Errors -excerpt-



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One of the first references to a humans encountering Sirens is found in Homer's ancient epic, the Odyssey, written around 800 B.C. Ulysses is hardened to the many apparitions he had encountered on his travels and was very skilled at circumventing dangers and outwitting his adversaries. Ulysses was guided by Circe a sorceress who know the secrets of the seas and guided him in his great adventure. Circe gave Ulysses the following instructions about the Sirens:

"So far so good,' said she, when I had ended my story, 'and now pay attention to what I am about to tell you- heaven itself, indeed, will recall it to your recollection. First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.

"Then, being much troubled in mind, I said to my men, 'My friends, it is not right that one or two of us alone should know the prophecies that Circe has made me, I will therefore tell you about them, so that whether we live or die we may do so with our eyes open. First she said we were to keep clear of the Sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers; but

Ulysses and the Sirens - Herbert James Draper

she said I might hear them myself so long as no one else did. Therefore, take me and bind me to the crosspiece half way up the mast; bind me as I stand upright, with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away, and lash the rope's ends to the mast itself. If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.' "I had hardly finished telling everything to the men before we reached the island of the two Sirens, for the wind had been very favorable. Then all of a sudden it fell dead calm; there was not a breath of wind nor a ripple upon the water, so the men furled the sails and stowed them; then taking to their oars they whitened the water with the foam they raised in rowing. Meanwhile I look a large wheel of wax and cut it up small with my sword. Then I kneaded the wax in my strong hands till it became soft, which it soon did between the kneading and the rays of the sun-god son of Hyperion. 

The Sirens Leon Belly

Musee De L'Hotel Sandelin

Sanit-Omer, Frnace

Then I stopped the ears of all my men, and they bound me hands and feet to the mast as I stood upright on the crosspiece; but they went on rowing themselves. When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing. "'Come here,' they sang, 'renowned Ulysses, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song- and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.' "They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens' voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me. "Immediately after we had got past the island I saw a great wave from which spray was rising, and I heard a loud roaring sound. The men were so frightened that they loosed hold of their oars, for the whole sea resounded with the rushing of the waters, but the ship stayed where it was, for the men had left off rowing. I went round, therefore, and exhorted them man by man not to lose heart. "'My friends,' said I, 'this is not the first time that we have been in danger, and we are in nothing like so bad a case as when the Cyclops shut us up in his cave; nevertheless, my courage and wise counsel saved us then, and we shall live to look back on all this as well. Now, therefore, let us all do as I say, trust in Jove and row on with might and main. As for you, coxswain, these are your orders; attend to them, for the ship is in your hands; turn her head away from these steaming rapids and hug the rock, or she will give you the slip and be over yonder before you know where you are, and you will be the death of us.'

"The North American Indians tell a story of how they once lived in a land far away to the west, a barren coast land where they were hungry and cold and did not know how to find food. Then a man appeared from the sea, rising every day out of the waters and coming quite close to shore, though he never actually touched the land. I He was a strange figure, like a man from the waist up but with two fish tails instead of legs and a face that might have been human yet was oddly like that of a porpoise. His long hair and beard were green. He would float on the surface of a the water, his fish tails clearly visible, and sing to the people.  He told them how beautiful was the land whence he had come, the land of the sea. He told them of the treasures that lay under the waves, and of the strange fish people, and of the lovely green light that shone in the deeper waters, and the people, knowing that those who disappeared under the water never returned to earth, were frightened. But then he told them that across the waters lay another land to which a he could guide them, a land where they could live and find food. The Indians hesitated. But eventually, since they were nearly starving in their own land, they decided to trust the -words of the fish-man. They built boats, gathered up their families and their few possessions, and followed in the wake of this strange green-haired creature who called to them. He led them east, straight across the sea to the land of which he had told them, and there they landed safely and there they founded a new tribe; it was thus that the Indians came from Asia to North America. The fish-man, or fish-god, as he may have been, then disappeared, still singing, and was never seen again." 62

"According to the East Indians the god Vishnu took the form of a fish to save Manu from the great flood. Manu, a sage and—like his counterpart Noah—a virtuous man, one day found a tiny fish in the water with which he was performing his morning ablutions. He was about to throw it back into the river by which he stood when the fish spoke to him, begging him not to leave it in the water until it had grown bigger, because it was afraid of the great creatures of the sea. Manu accordingly placed the little fish in a bowl, but by morning it had grown so that the bowl was too small, and soon even the largest cauldron would not hold it. He took it to a lake nearby, but even that was too small, and it was with difficulty that he at last managed to get the now gigantic fish down to the sea. There it spoke to him again.

"In seven days’ time," the fish said, "there will be a great flood. I will send a ship for you and for the seven sages, and you must take with you in this ship two of every creature that lives on earth or in the air, and you must take the seeds of every plant.

Manu made ready as he was told, and in seven days the sea rose out of its bed and flowed over the earth. At the same time a great ship appeared and Manu and all his menagerie embarked, guided by Vishnu in his fish shape. This same fish, huge and with golden scales, then fastened the ship to his single horn and towed it up to the peak of the great mountains in the north. From thence, as the waters subsided, Manu was able to guide his vessel gradually down the slope of the mountain and back to the lands he knew, the mountain having ever since borne the name "The Descent of Manu." 62



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Sirens are a universal symbol with a multitude of traditions, myths and meanings. Sirens are hybrid creatures, half animal half woman with strong feminine identities. The two beings coexist in the same body with the prerogative of accessing the qualities of both ever being transformed, perpetually provocative and disturbing. In her book The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein observes: "Myth-images of half-human beast like the mermaid and the Minotaur express an old, fundamental, very slowly clarifying 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; and in these continuities, and these differences, lie both  a sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here.

Freud's concept of symbol expresses the notion that conflicts are explored in metaphors in the unconscious where censorship disguises enigma. Hybridization, ambivalence, polarity, duplicity and dualism are the qualities created by fear and the unresolved.

Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) suggests that supernatural forces springs from the fusion of two biologically different entities, opposites that embrace and explain practically everything. Jung believed symbols materialize on their own account in our dreams, the expression of which is beyond the dimensions of time and space and in the sphere of unspecified and unlimited. These symbols therefore possess a numinous character and impress themselves on the general consciousness, disturbing for those minds used to operation within the limits of logic and rationality. Nevertheless, we can suppose that primordial images, sediments of accumulated memory, collective input, have a life of their own, independent of single individuals. As children we dreamed of monsters; what matters is that they approach, threaten and we are astonished, terrified, bewitched, petrified; and we either flee or overcome them. Often the dream repeats again and again seeking integration and resolution.

Jung also observed: "A symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or brush in  hand and invented a symbol. No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and than give it "symbolic form". There are many symbols, however, that are not individual but collective in their nature and origin. These are chiefly religious images. The believer assumes that they are of divine origin - that they have been revealed to man. The skeptic says flatly that they have been invented. Both are wrong. It is true, as the skeptic notes, that religious symbols and concepts have for centuries been the object of careful and quite conscious elaboration. It is equally true, as the believer implies, that their origin is so far buried in the mystery of the past that they seem to have no human source. But they are in fact "collective representations," emanating from primeval dreams and creative fantasies. As such, these images are involuntary spontaneous manifestations and by no means intentional inventions."  15 The sensual images under consideration embody profound symbolic content from our "collective unconscious" and  may be some of the most significant and enduring  symbolic manifestations of the human experience.

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Seduction of the Faithful: Noah looks on anxiously as fellow passengers on the Ark ogle nearby mermaids. A woodcut from the Biblia Sacra Germanica, kown as the Nurenberg Bible, 1483

Phillpotts in Mermaids states: "Faced with the mass of accumulated stories and reported sightings relating to a patent sinner who nonetheless clearly commanded a large popular following, the Western Roman Church countered by enlisting the mermaid as a spectacular propaganda aid in the cause of religious duty. Moralized, she now existed solely as a siren eager to lure the upright citizen from the straight and narrow. The censorious Church attitude reflected a central repressive approach to sex in general. Writing to St Augustine in 601 AD, Pope Gregory adopted a stern stand on the matter, declaring that ‘Lawful intercourse should be for the procreation of offspring, and not for mere pleasure’, and continuing: It is not fitting that a man who has approached his wife should enter Church before he has washed nor is he to enter at once though washed... for when a man’s mind is attracted to those pleasures by lawless desire, he should not regard himself as fitted to join in Christian worship until these heated desires cool in the mind, and he has cease to labour under wrongful passions. (Bede, A Historjv of the English Church and People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price, 195 5). 50

Symbols of Vice, the voluptuous harlot-mermaids as represented by the medieval Church personified the lure of base, unnatural desires which stood between a man and his chance of salvation. 50

As a vivid reminder of banned pleasures, the mermaid enjoyed a revival in the Middle Ages. Mermaid carving began to appear increasingly in church decoration and mermaid illustrations formed a popular feature of the bestiary books that came into vogue between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, in which fantastic descriptions of real and imaginary creatures were used to illustrate points of Christian dogma. As fatal charmer, the mermaid continued the siren tradition but in fish rather than bird form. The snaky sinuosities of her tail made the mermaid form a particular favorite in Church carvings which could also neatly and decoratively point a moral lesson, and soon an army of shapely sirens carved on the capitals of the pillars and pew ends gazed at the assembled faithful. 50 

Confronted by a fleet of predatory mermaids brandishing their fearsome fish trophies, symbols of the abducted Christian soul, the medieval churchgoer was urged to reflect on the righteousness of his own life-style. Some church authorities, feared for the spiritual benefit of such possible musings. St Bernard of Clairvaux expressed his own anxiety for the spiritual welfare of his monks surrounded by such salacious beauties: 50

Again in the cloisters what is the meaning of these ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity before the very eye of the brethren when reading? Such endless forms appear everywhere, that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in the books, and to spend the day admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God." 50

The ultimate role of Siren as seductress was created by Michelangelo in the central image of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where in "The Fall of Man and the Expulsion From Paradise"   a mermaid like creature with a female body from the waits up and a snake or fish body from the waist down is shown seducing Adam and Eve. 

The classic story of Odysseus and the Sirens served as a powerful moral allegory of the manifold temptations of the flesh. ‘Let not a woman with a flowing train cheat you of your senses’, thundered Clement of Alexandria in his Exhortation to the Heathen, ‘sail past the song; it works death; exert your will, and you have overcome ruin; bound to the wood of the Cross, you shall be freed from destruction. The Word of God will be your pilot, and the Holy Spirit will bring you to anchor in the haven of Heaven. 52

Nick Berryman states that the church of Saint Senara in Zennor on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall near the town of Saint Ives sits on high, rocky cliffs, and stands on the site of bench_small.jpg (6962 bytes)a 6th century Celtic church. Inside the church he reports that there are two medieval bench-ends remain - now made into a seat.  One end is a famous carving of a mermaid, or "morveren" in Cornish holding the traditional comb and mirror in each hand. This carving depicts the famous Mermaid of Zennor that tells the story of a beautiful mermaid that falls in love with the churchwarden's son Mathew Trewhella, and lures him into the sea where he was never seen again. On the south side of the tower there is also a small bronze medalian, bearing the figure of a mermaid, and the inscription: "the Glory of the world Paseth. Paul Quick fecit, 1737". Click here for an illustrated version of the story of The Mermaid of Zennor. 51

"A creeping disillusion with the Church stimulated by the inexorable progress of analytical science and Darwin’s disturbing evolutionary theories was evident in changed interpretations of the mermaid, now more frequently represented as the victim of society. The traditional mer-quest for a soul proved a popular literary inspiration as an allegory of society’s shortcomings. Matthew Arnold’s poem, The Forsaken Merman (1849), derived much of its poignancy from its attack on the heartlessness of organized Christianity. Margaret, the village maiden who is married to a merman abandons her mer-family to return to land and regain her soul; her unhappy mer-husband follows to plead with her but is cruelly spurned:" 53

But ah! She gave me never a look For her eyes were seal’d to the holy book.

Oscar Wilde employed the mermaid myth as an allegory of the supremacy of ‘heart’ over ‘soul’. His, The Fisherman and his Soul (1891), tells the story of a young man who loses his soul in order to win his mermaid. Each year the separated soul returns siren-like, to tempt its master back. On the third attempt it wins and both are reunited, but having lived without a heart the soul has become evil and the fisherman not only gains a worthless soul but loses his love. 

Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (1873), commemorated in Edvard Eriksen’s famous statue in Copenhagen harbour, is perhaps one of the best-known mermaids of all time. The classic story revolves around a central quest for a soul. Andersen’s heroine endures a state of purgatory to conceal her mermaid nature and win the love of her beautiful prince, but to no avail, since he subsequently chooses another love. Unlucky in love and consequently bereft of her chance of a soul through a mortal marriage. The little mermaid’s quest for a mortal soul seems pretty bleak but her fortitude wins her a reprieve and her suffering is sublimated to martyrdom and eventual salvation. For an illustrated version of the Little Mermaid click here.

"The yearning for lost pagan worlds expressed in much nineteenth century creative literature, also manifested itself in the art of the period and a new mermaid vogue. Here too interpretations had changed; the symbolic figure of the mermaid as Vice, familiar from Medieval art, exerted a more complex attraction in an age of declining Christian belief. The symbolism of the Classical dream which had inspired the formal allegories of Renaissance art, fascinated nineteenth-century artists in a more personal, frequently mystical sense, and the epic Renaissance scale was increasingly narrowed in favor of the intimate drama of private tragedy. As submarine femme fatale, the mermaid was the perfect symbol of the attractions of doomed passion, a favorite theme frequently indulged with a masochistic thrill, as in Burne-Jones’ painting, The Depths of the Sea (1887), which endowed its grisly subject with a haunting beauty." 53



To understand the significance and origin of Sirens and mermaids as symbols and the compelling themes they address, it is necessary to visit the role of the human form in classic myth. The female form is of course frequently found adorning public buildings, squares, cathedrals,  museums and parks around the world. In Western tradition, the ability to master the female figure is often the mark that defines fine artistic  talent. Clark observes: "We remember that the nude is after all, the most serious of all subjects in art..." 9 Auguste Rodin observed "The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that". Similarly Walt Whitman offered: "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred. It is understandable that Sirens must embody these themes in the important role they play in myth.


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The song of the Sirens call men to abandon themselves, to hurl into the deep, to sprout wings, to transform, to die to self and emerge into a new form with new knowledge and understanding. It is significant that Sirens are creatures of water for water has powerful symbolic value. Water is also a duality, it can sustain life, give comfort and it is a source of life and abundance. Water is the symbol we use for baptism and spiritual rebirth and renewal. It is the primordial soup, it represents purification and regeneration and it is the source from which each of us was born. Water  however can also be destructive, causing inundation, drowning, annihilation and death. Sirens and mermaids embody all of these qualities and meanings and are thus symbols of both death and immortality. They call men to the unknown, to change and transformation the essential passage from one space to another, form one condition to another. They serve as escorts during times of transit, danger, transformation, uncertainty, sea voyages and missions of war.  Sirens call man, urging him to abandon what he is, to become something new.  Fear of Sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, fear of the unknown, fear of transformation, fear of learning, fear of losing oneself, fear of being out of control and fear of descending into the deep (the unconscious) 

 The Depths of the Sea - Edward Burne-Jones 1887




"A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him for her own,

Pressed her body to his body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown."


                                          William Butler Yeats


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Lilith is one of the most prevalent identities in human culture. She dates back  as far as 2000 years B.C. as depicted in the Sumerian bas-relief below. In other depictions Lilith is represented as a beautiful woman from the waste up and as a snake from the waste down. Lilith, aside from a stray reference comparing her to a "screechowl", does not appear in the Bible. It is in Rabbinic Midrash  that the full account of Lilith is reported. The rabbis began with the Biblical reference to man's first creation as a bisexual being--"male and female". Some of the rabbis found in this image something similar to what Aristophanes proposed in the Symposium: a dual bodied being later divided into two who must thereafter seek each other out. But others tried to take into account the later creation of Eve. If woman was created from Adam, after his initial creation, than what happened to the female created at first? The answer, according to the Midrash, was that she was Lilith; created with Adam. 36

Lilith as Adam's first wife


Lilith typically symbolizes rebellion, rage and an untamed sexual nature. Her origins are ancient; she is sometimes known as the 'Hand of Inanna', who encouraged men to come and worship at the goddess's temple. She is also, variously, a Sumerian demon, a seductive succuba, the bride of Satan and Adam's clandestine lover or first wife. Lilith is always, significantly, homeless, and wanders about between the domains of Heaven and Earth. The Alphabet of Ben Sira, in the 11th century Kabbalistic work, suggests that Adam and Lilith were once an androgynous being with equal rights and substance. But this ideal state did not last: Adam and Lilith never found peace together. She refused to comply with Adam's demand that she submit herself to him, and in the end fled from him, basing her claim for equality on the fact that each had been created from earth. When Lilith saw that Adam would overpower her, she uttered the ineffable name of God and flew up into the air of the world. Adam then complained to God about his loneliness, and the creation of Eve followed, together with the "Fall" and the Expulsion from Eden. Adam, blaming this on Eve, separated from her, and for a time reunited with Lilith, before finally returning to Eve. Eventually, Lilith came to dwell in a cave on the shores of the Red Sea. There she engaged in unbridled promiscuity, consorted with lascivious demons, and gave birth to hundreds of Lilim, or demonic babies, daily. The images below are from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris depicting Lilith as the serpent tempting Adam and Eve. The imagery reflects the duality represented in Sirens with a hybrid female and snake identity. The image to the right shows the entire statue with the Virgin Mary holding Jesus. This sculpture is on the West facade of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Lilith Tempting Adam and Eve

Notre Dame Cathedral 32



Lilith Tempting Adam and Eve

"The Fall of Man and the Expulsion From Paradise"

Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel Vatican



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In her book "Forever Barbie", M. G. Lord  finds many fascinating parallels between the development of "Barbie", and the evolution of our culture. She explores Barbie ® as if the doll embodies the collective unconscious of America. Any symbol that is so visible and so prevalent in a culture has an powerful impact on both the conscious and unconscious life of the members of that culture. When a symbol becomes so commonplace, it merges into the culture and actually becomes less visible but not less influential. Does Barbie® iconology define the culture or is she merely a reflection of us with her imagery merely affirming the cultural trends and values of the time.


Coney Island - Northstar Gallery


Barbie® as Coney Island Mermaid

®Northstar Gallery


I am a creature of the Fey
Barbie® is such a powerful cultural symbol, that when ever she is placed next to just about anything she changes the meaning of that thing, bringing powerful myths and symbols to the transaction and to the perceptions.



Mermaid Barbie®

Barbie® offers important insight into our society and about our selves. In Western civilization there is no other icon that is more prevalent or more widely distributed. With the number of Barbies® exceeding the 1,000,000,000 level, she serves as a defining image of femininity. "Barbie's" power as an image is enhanced by its pervasive presence during the early formative years of childhood. It is thought that every girl in America will own an average of seven Barbies® during her childhood.  In this role Barbie® defines both the roles of women and men and is affirmed both consciously and unconsciously by her commercial importance and the hundreds of millions of dollars that are earned through her image annually.

Lilie01 sm.jpg (7550 bytes)Lord reports that Barbie® was copied precisely from a German "Adult" doll by the name of Lilli who was sculpted by doll designer Max Weissbrodt. Lilli (Lilith?) was never intended for children, for she was an 11" high, pornographic caricature for men modeled after a 1950s German comic strip character; Lilli. Ruth Handler, founder of Mattel first encountered Lilli on a shopping trip in Switzerland. Handler purchased Lillie during the trip and brought her back as a model for Barbie®. Mattel had the new doll copied in Japan by Kohusai Boeki Kaisha (KBK) with only minor changes from the original Lillie model. 40 

As a role model Barbie® like Lilli and Lilith lived a life absent of marriage, children and family. She defines a life style celebrating self, eternal youth, perfect beauty and  indulgent materialism. Her men are weak and marginalized while she sets an expectation of female perfection, strength, enduring youth and eternal beauty. In Barbie's® universe like that of Lilith, women are not the second sex for "Barbie" came before Ken. Lord continues; "The idea of woman as temptress, or as woman subordinate to man is absent from "Barbie" cosmology. Kenny is an accessory to the perfect woman who lives in a paradise of consumer goods. She has never been exiled from the garden for she has not experienced the fall. Barbie® is both toy and mythic object a modern woman... an incarnation of "The One Goddess with a Thousand Names" (Lilith?) In the reservoir of communal memory, what psychiatrist Carl Jung has termed the collective unconscious. Barbie® is an archetype which is ancient, matriarchal and profound." 42


Coney Island - Northstar Gallery

Barbie® as Coney Island Mermaid

®Northstar Gallery


It is interesting to note that in her book "Forever Barbie", M. G. Lord observes "There is remarkable amount of pagan symbolism surrounding Barbie®. Even the original location of corporate headquarters - Hawthorne, has significance. The Hawthorn, or May Tree, represents Goddess01.jpg (15072 bytes) the White Goddess Maia, the mother of Hermes, goddess of love and death, both the ever - young Virgin giving birth to the God, and the Grandmother bringing him to the end of his season. The cult of the Great Mother was ministered to by eunuchs" (Ken®?) In 1979 the company test marketed two "Gardian Goddesses", "SunSpell" the fiery guardian of good, was dressed in white" (The White Goddess Maia?) and "MoonMystic," "who wears the symbols of night." was dressed in black. Both dolls were identical in size and shape to "Barbie", they came with four additional outfits.....In order to "unlock" their "powers" you spread their legs and then they would fling their arms upward, throwing off their street cloths acquiring the power to control nature to include: freezing volcanoes, drying up floods, blowing away tornadoes, and halting a herd of stampeding elephants. These are among the activities suggested on their box." To reset the dolls mechanism their thighs had to be squeezed together until they clicked. 41  Lillie and Barbie's feet are pointed down in a manner similar to Lilith's feet which frequently appear as being webbed or that of a bird. (See Lilith as Adam's first wife above) It is probable that Barbie's huge economic success is driven by the fact that she taps into the powerful iconology of Lilith, Sirens and the Universal Goddess. 



Below is an image of an automobile hood ornament from the 1920s. The winged Goddess encompasses many of the Lilith qualities as does the bomber nose art of the 1940s

© Copyright Automobile Figural Mascots

Automobile Mascot

Automobile Figural Mascots 28
Used with permission


Lilith Bomber Nose Art

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When one first observes the very sensuous images in the great cemeteries in Paris, Milan, Rome and Moscow you are compelled to ask what is this about? What do these beautiful figures have to do with death and mortality? The image to the right is from Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Pere Lachaise was privately developed and served as an alternative to the church cemetery for Monumental Cemetery Milan - Northstar Gallery the wealthy of Paris. This private ownership removed the control and influence of the churchPere Lachaise Cemetery Paris - Northstar Gallery over the content of imagery and the expression of an unfettered  personal and artistic vision. The separation of municipal burial from church burial was an essential development for such creative expression to flourish. A final reality was that for health reasons, the reform movement prohibited mass burial and required individual graves, setting the stage for the increasing importance of individual memorial markers and monuments. For the middle class, commemorative tombs became a way to achieve and confirm social standing. (The image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan Italy)

For the female figure to be accepted in public places the higher moral purpose of the work had to be convincing and beyond reproach. Cemeteries are sacred places, so work that might have been unacceptable in other settings were cast in a transcendent ambiance. Monumental Cemetery Milan Much like the public buildings and cathedrals, formal cemeteries offered a legitimate venue for theSaint Peter's Cathedral, The Vatican, Rome expression of the inherent beauty and symbolism of the female form. Many of the famous sculptors whose works are in the Worlds greatest museums and private collections also have work in the Pere Lachaise, Stagleino, Novodevichye, Montparnasse, Monumental, Forrest Hills and other great cemeteries. The exquisite angel to the right is in Saint Peter's Caththedral in the Vatican and the image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan. Artists, who were often dependent on the commissions for memorial art, perhaps relished the opportunity to express,  their creative talents unfettered in such a noble cause. 

A Death and Maiden theme emerged from a  long mythological tradition. In Greek mythology Monumental Cemetery Milan - Northstar Gallery the abduction of Persephone by Hades, god of Hell, is an  early expression of the clash between Eros and Thanatos. The young goddess Persephone gathers flowers while accompanied by carefree nymphs. When Persephone saw a pretty narcissus, she picked it and at that moment, the ground opened and Hades came out of the underworld and abducted Persephone carrying her into his underworld.



Angelo, Monumental Cemetery, Milan

®Northstar Gallery

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Within the Death and the Maiden Theme, a dark bound between sexuality and death is explored. In this iconography, the young girl is not involved in “the dance of death” but enters into a sensual relationship with death, which becomes increasingly erotic as time passes. Despite the sensuality of this genre, it maintained a moralistic goal for it is intended to remind us that life is short as is the exquisite beauty of a woman. The theme of Death and the maiden also serves as a moralistic pretext to depict female nudity. 24


In Sandro Botticellies, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485-86. Venus was conceived when the Titan Cronus castrated his father, the god Uranus, and the severed genitals fell into the sea and fertilized it. Venus is then born and is transported from the sea by a giant gilded scallop shell to the shores of Paphos in Cyprus. Sister Wendy in The Story of Painting states 'The lovely face of Venus shows a hauntingly intangible sadness as she is wafted to our dark shores by the winds, and the garment, rich though it is, waits ready to cover up her sweet and naked body. We cannot look upon love unclothed, says the Birth of Venus, we are too weak, too polluted, to bear the beauty." The Birth of Venus suggests an innocence and purity inherent in perfect beauty that is shared with all Sirens. Sirens and Venus also share a common origin, being born of the sea while Venus unlike her sisters completes her transmutation, and leaves the sea to live among men. 


Niklaus Manuel Deutsch completed this work in 1517. It demonstrates the transition between the Dance of Death and the theme of Death and the Maiden. Here Death, as a rotting corpse, caresses his young lover, takes her by the hand, grasps her by the neck, kisses her as she guides his hand under her dress. As his young lover she welcomes deaths touch and attention. 24 (click on image to enlarge)


Death and the MaidenHans Baldung Grien completed this work in 1517. Here Death seizes a young girl by the hair preparing to force her to descend into the tomb dug at her feet. Death points toward the grave with his right hand. The girl, completely naked, does not resist. Her mouth is plaintive, her eyes are red and tears run down her cheeks; she understands the inevitability of her end. 24 (click on image to enlarge)


Edward Munch completed this engraving in 1894. Here, Death in the form of a skeleton suggests the victory of Love over Death as he is passionately embraced by the young girl. The beautiful girl is not dominated or intimidated by Death for she embraces death willingly and with great passion and intimacy. 24 (click on image to enlarge)



Imagery expressing the female form brings together powerful forces of death and sensuality, the eternal link between Thanatos and Eros. This expression reached a high level during the romantic era of the early nineteenth century. In Romantic art, death became a metaphor not of loss, fear and horror but of love and desire. William Wordsworth explores this theme in his poem Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known. The sensuous female forms of these monuments make this association explicit. In romantic love the object of a man's affection is more greatly valued the more unattainable she is. This is the origin of placing a woman on a pedestal keeping her as an ideal worthy of pure love. The Siren manifests the ideal form of unavailability; she is beautiful, cannot serve as her lovers consort and resides in an unreachable realm. 

fin-de-siecle engraving

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For the Romantics, death was an important theme. For them death was experienced as exquisite emotion and the ultimate expression of love. "To die loving you is better than life itself," wrote Alferd de Musset. The Romantic era was a period of "beautiful death" in which death was perceived as a refuge, a  release, a reward and a rebirth. Death was associated with rebirth, conception, birth and sexual expression. The transition from death to eternal life was seen as a rebirth and came to be symbolized by a release of sensual pleasure expressed by the "petite death". It is no accident that the expression of morning by the women in many of the works is indistinguishable from sexual ecstasy. 2  One of the best examples of this theme is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini, 1650. Bernini's work is a representation of Saint Teresa of Avila's writings in which she reports: "It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the  following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel......He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire....In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with SaintTeresa01.jpg (9286 bytes) it, and he left me completely afire with a great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it - indeed a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His Goodness, to give him the same experience. Amen" 13   To the left is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini, 1650.

The moment of ecstasy corresponds to the self-annihilation spoken of by the mystics of the seventeenth century. Pierre de Berulle starts from the stage of "spiritual death" which the soul has to pass through during the "time of trials" in order to attain the "mystical marriage" with the Bridegroom. It is the Bridegroom who permeates the soul in the "abyss of greatness" and the "gulf of glory" in order to consummate the "spiritual marriage" Benoit de Canfield has written "the Bride of God (man's soul) "desires with all other creatures to be melted, liquefied, consumed, and annihilated." 16

In Bernini's Ludovica Albetoni, the believer is introduced into the Blessed Lady's bedroom and made a witness to her convulsions on the disordered bed. It is not merely a statue, but more like a living, gesticulating actress. In these examples, we see the sculptor's intent to create in the observer a mood of mysticism and ecstasy. 16 The sculpture thus becomes a mirror and indicator of the state of mind of the observer opening the way to salvation. 17

Cemeteries are places of infinite optimism where life everlasting takes precedence over death, loss and mortality. The focus is turned from the temporal past to: salvation, rebirth and everlasting life. Memorial art functions as both tribute and hope with these sensuous figures embracing this powerful duality. It is interesting to observe that the cemetery is the ideal venue for art  dedicated to exploring this important duality. In one regard, these are surrogate mourners depicting how great the loss is and how deeply the deceased is missed. Their idealized beauty is spiritual: representing innocence, birth, rebirth, renewal, purity, fertility, commitment and passion. The greater their beauty the greater and more profound the loss and the greater the promise of eternal life. However in their dual role these women also serve as escorts in the journey ahead. As surrogate companions they stand post, watching over the deceased. Forever present and forever young, they communicate the hope for eternal youth, beauty and vitality in the life to come. 2 (The image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan) To see more images from Pere Lachaise, Monumental, Novodevichye, Montparnasse, Forrest Hills and other great cemeteries click here. These goddesses of the cemetery are born of the same psychic material as that of the Siren performing many of the same symbolic roles in times of transition.

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Ever since man first set to sea, sailors have tried to ensure safe passage by attempting to pacify mysterious and unpredictable gods with symbols of faith. The ship's  figurehead, a typical example of this tradition, took many forms over the centuries. Human figures first began to appear in the late 1770s. It wasn't long before beautiful female figures began to appear including the classic pose of the mermaid and other female goddesses leaning into the wind. both the wind and the unknown and promising future.

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In the 1920's and 1930's, people experienced a new love affair with the automobile. During this heady period, cars proudly 1933 Plymouth Coupe - © Copyright Northstar Gallery displayed "Mascots" or "Hood Ornaments" on the front of their vehicles. These Mascots were unique pieces of art that made a personal statement to the world. A variety of Gods, Goddesses, Mermaids, Indians, Birds, Dogs, Lions,  Elephants, Sirens and other winged icons added a personal touch  to the cars they adorned. Car manufacturers got into the act by adding their own  line of Hood Art on production cars for the working man. The most common theme were the "Flying Ladies" often very sensual and frequently erotic representations of the female form. In an additional juxtaposition ships, cars and airplane are usually experienced as having a female identity. The theme of sensuality emerges in many design elements, particularly in classic automobiles. The goddess not only serves as the hood ornament but is embodied in the graceful and sensual lines and form of the car itself. To view more images of classic automobile hood ornaments, click here.

Below are several examples of hood ornaments with a mermaid theme. Like the Sirens that called Ulysses to let go of the mast and surrender to their siren call, these figures also beckoned  their mariner to let go and be transformed. 


© Copyright laliqueglass.com

René Lalique Car Mascots Gallery

 Hood Ornament 34


René Lalique Car Mascots Gallery

 Mermaid Hood Ornament, 34


Siren "Dangerously fascinating woman' by G. Colin, 

French bronze mascot c.1910, 35



Automobile Mermaid Mascot

Automobile Figural Mascots 28
Used with permission

1931 Cadillac - © Copyright Northstar Gallery

1931 Cadillac Hood Ornament

Northstar Gallery

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Mermaid, Goddess and Siren images again began appearing during World War II. This genre of figurative art emerged in the form of "nose art" on thousands of bombers and fighter escorts flying missions over France, Germany, Africa and the Pacific. Nose art served as the aviator's unique calling card and as personal escorts during missions of great danger and uncertainty. The Army Air Force attempted to ban and censor nose art on many occasions. Ultimately the symbolic power of the art prevailed for its value in boosting crew morale was unquestioned. 

In "Lakanooki" to the upper right the beautiful mermaid is juxtaposed with the carnivorous and deadly teeth under the ball turret of a B-24. 

"Frisco Frisky" above and to the left integrates the beautiful young woman as goddess with the role of destroyer suggested by the 120 mission bombs to her left. 

"Playmate" to the right similarly suggests that the beautiful woman is a dangerous playmate as evidenced by the many mission bombs to her upper right. 


"Bachelor's Bedlam" on the B-24 to the left integrates the role of the warrior as both seducer and destroyer. 

"Bangin Lulu" on the B-24 to the right offers a triple entendre of Lulu as sex object, and bomber. 

"Virgin Aboard" on the B-24 to the left perhaps suggests the innocence of the airmen aboard and the purity of their mission. 

The B-24; "Becoming Back" is an elegant expression of the dual role of goddess as both escort and beauty during missions of danger.

"Mors As Alto" to the left draws on the primal theme of Lilith as a warrior goddess. The imagery of bomber nose art powerfully integrates the goddess symbol as warrior and harbinger of death as well as the sensual goddess of beauty, fertility and renewal.



Nose art emerged as a defining element of the era, gracing  everything from war airplanes, to leather flight jackets, to the walls of barracks, huts and Officer and NCO Clubs across Europe and the Pacific. In some ways, "nose art" was indeed memorial art, for over half of the young men serving in bomber crews would be killed or captured during their 20 mission tours. The beautiful ladies of the cemetery and the women of the bombers are indeed related, sharing the powerful symbols of the female as the universal goddess.

There is no way to know the truth, however it is hard to imagine the elegant and complex iconography and symbolism expressed in WWII bomber nose art was solely the product of conscious intent. At first blush one responds to the images as immature and juvenile, particularly when one realizes all are adjacent to the cockpit of the Bomber. However when considered in their historical and mythological context, it is hard to conceive of a more profound symbol appropriate to the work of the brave young men put a grave risk defending their country.


© Copyright finesse-fine-art.com

Hood Ornament 

finesse-fine-art 29


© Copyright Automobile Figural Mascots

Victory Goddess Holding Torch

Automobile Figural Mascots 28
Used with permission


The females who cast their face into the wind as ship's figureheads, the "Flying Ladies" of classic automobiles, the glorious women adorning WWII bombers, the beautiful ladies of the cemetery and the mermaids of myth and legend, all serve a similar purpose. Each offers service as an escort during a passage into the unknown, providing a call to transformation with a promise of rebirth, continuity, renewal and salvation. 


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 The most famous Siren of all is unquestionably the little mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen (1805—1875). It is this mermaid that is the central character Aerial in the Disney film "The Little Mermaid". The story as told by Hans Christian Andersen follows the Little Mermaid from infancy to adolescence. She is fair, blonde, and blue-eyed, and like all “seafolk,” she spends her life  underwater. Her father is a king, and her home is a crystal palace. Thrilled by her grandmother’s tales of the world beyond the sea, she is amazed that on land flowers emit perfume, that the woods are green, and that the “fish” hopping on the branches know how to sing. She can hardly wait for her fifteenth birthday when she will be permitted to rise above the surface of the sea. When that day finally arrives, her grandmother places a garland of pearl lilies on her head and, as a symbol of her rank, attaches eight large oysters and onto her tail; they hurt, but if one is to be beautiful it is sometimes necessary to suffer.

Meanwhile, on a boat above the sea, a party is in progress with music and fireworks. It is the birthday of a young, hansom prince. There is an accident and the boat sinks. The little mermaid saves the unconscious prince. The prince does not know that it was the little mermaid who saved his life. She returns to the bottom of the  sea, but she has fallen in love. She embraces the sunken marble statue that resembles the prince, overcome with love and nostalgia. Then she learns something fundamental from her grandmother that will lead her eventually to reject her own nature. She learns about immortal souls. 

"Do men, when they are not drowned, live for ever?” she asked one day; “do they not die as we do, who live at the bottom of the sea?”

“Yes,” was the grandmother’s reply, “they must die like us, and their life is much shorter than ours. We live to the age of three hundred years, but, when we die, we become foam on the sea, and are not allowed even to share a grave among those that are dear to us. We have no immortal souls, we can never live again, and are like the green rushes which when once cut down are withered for ever.

Human beings, on the contrary, have souls that continue to live when their bodies become dust, and as we rise out of the water to admire the abode of man, even so these souls ascend to glorious unknown dwellings in the skies, which we are not permitted to see.

“Why have not we immortal souls?” asked the little Mermaid. “I would willingly give up my three hundred years to be a human being for only one day, thus to become entitled to that heavenly world above.”

“You must not think of that,” answered her grandmother, “it is much better as it is; we live longer, and are far happier than human beings.”

“So I must die, and be dashed like foam over the sea, never to rise again ~nd hear the gentle murmur of the ocean, never again to see the beautiful flowers and the bright sun!—Tell me, dear grandmother, are there no means by which I may obtain an immortal soul?”

“No!” replied the old lady. “It is true that if thou couldest so win the affections of a human being as to become dearer to him than either father or mother; if he loved thee with all his heart, and promised, whilst the priest joined his hands with thine, to be always faithful to
thee; then his soul would flow into thine, and thou wouldest become partaker of human bliss. But that can never be! for what in our eyes is the most beautiful part of our body, the tail, the inhabitants of the earth think hideous: they cannot bear it. To appear handsome to them, the
body must have two clumsy props, which they call legs.”

Determined to conquer the pedestrian prince and acquire an immortal soul, she flees, venturing into the terrible abyss of the witch. She glides past repugnant octopi holding human remains and even the body of a little mer-maid in their tentacles. She sees chests, sunken ships, and piles of bones that form the walls of the witch’s house, whose floor is crawling with snakes There she makes a pact with the witch: she will give her melodious voice in exchange for a philter to transform her beautiful fish tail into a pair of woman’s legs. She drinks the philter on the steps of the prince’s palace, and falls down in a swoon.

When the sun rose she awoke, and felt a burning pain in all her limbs, but—she saw standing close to her the object of her love, the handsome young Prince, whose coal-black eyes were fixed inquiringly upon her. Full of shame, she cast down her own, and perceived, instead of the long, fish-like tail she had hitherto borne, two slender legs; but she was quite naked, and tried in vain to cover herself with her long thick hair.

The Prince asked who she was, and how she had got there: and she, in reply, smiled and gazed upon him with her bright blue eyes, for, alas! she could not speak. He then led her by the hand into the palace. She found that the witch had told her true; she felt as through she were walking on the edges of sharp swords, but she bore the pain willingly:

Onward she passed, light as a zephyr, and all who saw her wondered at her light undulating movements.

When she entered the palace, rich clothes of muslin and silk were brought to her; she was lovelier than all who dwelt there, but she could neither speak nor sing.

“Dost thou not love me above all others?” her eyes seemed to ask, as he pressed her fondly in his arms, and kissed her lovely brow.

“Yes,” the Prince would say, “thou art dearer to me than any other, for no one is as good as thou art! Thou lovest me so much; and thou art so like a young maiden, whom I have seen but once, and may never see again. I was on board a ship, which was wrecked by a sudden tempest; the waves threw me on the shore, near a holy temple, where a number of young girls are occupied constantly with religious services. The youngest of them found me on the shore, and saved my life. I saw her only once, but her image is vividly impressed upon my memory, and her alone can I love. But she belongs to the holy temple; and thou, who resemblest her so much, has been given to me for consolation; never will we be parted!”

And the prince, who is unaware of who the little mermaid really is, then meets the fiancée chosen for him by his parents, who is just as beautiful virtuous as the little mermaid, with the same large blue eyes and a voice. He is convinced that he has found the girl who saved him. 

Nothing remains for the little mermaid to do but fling herself into the sea; she already feels her body beginning to dissolve into foam. Then the spirits of the air, so transparent and light as to float in the air without wings, carry her away and her voice returns, more spiritual than before. However, three hundred years of good actions in the torrid and pestilent zones of the world await her, after which she will finally have her immortal soul. 



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Coney Island Mermaids

Northstar Gallery

Joseph Campbell states "Myths of the Great Goddess" teach compassion for all living beings. There you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth itself, because it is nut01.jpg (9999 bytes)the body of the Goddess.5 "And when you have a Goddess as the creator, it's her own body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe...She is the whole sphere of the life-enclosing heavens."6 Campbell goes on to state: "This is the an essential experience of any mystical realization. You die to your flesh and are born into your spirit. You identify yourself with the consciousness and life of which your body is but the vehicle. You die to the vehicle and become identified in your consciousness with that  of which the vehicle is the carrier. That is the God." 7 Within the essential experience of birth and rebirth the female embodies the totality from conception to birth and renewal. As Mother Earth she embodies fertility and rebirth and out of death, the eternal renewal of life. The greater the beauty and perhaps the more sensuous, the more powerful the identity is of "Goddess as Mother Earth." To the left is a "sarcophagus from second-century A.D. Thebes that reveals a symbolic connection with the archetypal Great Mother (the container of all life). The inside of the cover bears a portrait of the Egyptian goddess Nut; thus the goddess would "embrace" the body of the deceased."  14



Where fresh water runs

there runs spirit...for it comes from

the realm of the earth goddess and

bears her gifts. 37

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Wells, springs, rivers and lakes were sacred places in many cultures. Sacred waters are traditionally haunted by a host of female; spirits, white ladies, mermaids, fairies or Naiades suggesting the submerged memory of a goddess. The water habitat symbolizes the fluid nature of female sexuality, and its ancient connections with water. 38  In many of the mermaid and Siren myth the protagonist "dissolves" into the water. 

We were born of the water and lived in its realm for hundreds of millions of years. Our extended transmutation from reptilian form to human form is reflected in the metaphor of the mermaid. This metaphor resonates because it connects us to our watery roots and reminds us that the story is not yet done.

Coney Island Mermaids

®Northstar Gallery

The passage from conception to birth takes place in the maternal womb, the eternal earth, the grain of wheat which Persepone represents. Bachelard states; " In point of fact, the leap into the sea, more than any other physical event, awakens echoes of a dangerous and hostile initiation. It is the only, exact, reasonable image, the only image that can be experienced of a leap into the unknown. It is in the sea, the womb, and the grave all places of birth, rebirth and regeneration where the enigma of transformation is concealed.  The danger and seduction of the sea becomes a metaphor for the womb, the grave, and the dangers of the feminine realm. 44

 The Mermaid

Howard Pyle

I am a creature of the Fey
Prepare to give your soul away
My spell is passion and it is art
My song can bind a human heart
And if you chance to know my face
My hold shall be your last embrace.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) proposed: "In the deeps of the sea it is night: woman is the Mare tenebrarum, dreaded by navigators of old; it is night in the entrails of the earth. Man is frightened of his night, .... which threatens to swallow him up. He aspires to the sky, to the light, to the sunny summits, to the pure and crystalline frigidity of the blue sky; and under his feet there is a moist, warm, and dark gulf ready to draw him down; in many a legend do we see the hero lost forever as he falls back into the maternal shadow,- cave, abyss, hell."

Joseph Campbell states: " Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The Labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world."


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The Naiades are nymphs who reside in bodies of fresh water. There are three main classes of water nymphs - the first being the Nereides who are from the Mediterranean Sea and the second were  the Oceanides or nymphs of the oceans, while the Naiades, the third group lived in rivers, streams, brooks, springs, fountains, lakes, ponds, wells, and marshes. Naiades were also subdivided into several sub classes: Crinaeae who lived in fountains, Pegaeae who dwelled in springs, Eleionomae who were inhabitants of marshes, Potameides residents of rivers, and Limnades who lived in lakes. 

Naiades were deeply connected to the body of water in which they lived. It was often thought that the waters over which Naiades presided possessed spiritual, healing, or prophetic powers. Thus the Naiades were frequently worshipped by the ancient Greeks in association with divinities who were also known for healing, fertility and growth. 34

"The genealogy of the Naiades was determined by geographic region and literary source. Naiades were either daughters of Zeus, daughters of various river gods, or simply part of the vast family of the Titan Oceanus." 34

Like all the nymphs, the Naiades were female symbols of the ancient world and played the part of both the seduced and the seducer. Zeus in particular seems to have enjoyed the favors of countless Naiades and other gods do not seem to have lagged far behind.  The Naiades frequently fell in love with and actively pursued mortals as well. Classical literature abounds with the stories of their love affairs with both gods and men and with the tales of their resulting children." 34


"In the twentieth century Post-Freudian thought had exposed the legendary fish-tailed seductress as the personification of the hidden desires of the sexual subconscious, symbolizing primitive castration anxieties and the urge to return to the amniotic waters of the womb. Firmly characterized as an element of the unconscious, the mermaid now abandoned her marine habitat to re-emerge in the irrational dream settings of the Surrealist imagination. Magritte was one of the earliest artists to take such liberties, his stranded inverted ‘mermaid’ of L’Invention Collective (1934) neatly and humorously underlining the perverse eroticism of her original. Paul Delvaux, a later Surrealist much influenced by Magritte introduced the mermaid into his modern dream landscapes in which alluring sirens beckon to oblivious passing businessmen, the contemporary stereotype of masculine frustration." 53

The Lady from the Sea - Edvard Munch, 1896

click on image to enlarge



The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery 

of birth and death and the renewal of life... 

                                                      Marija Gimbutas, 1989

Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces offers insight into the roll of the Goddess in myth:

The Meeting with the Goddess

"The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart.



A Sea Nymph
Emile Jean Horace Vement

She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest. She is mother, sister, mistress, bride. Whatever in the world has lured, whatever has seemed to promise joy, has been premonitory of her existence— in the deep of sleep, if not in the cities and forests of the world. For she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again: the comforting, the nourishing, the "good" mother—young and beautiful—who was known to us, and even tasted, in the remotest past. Time sealed her away, yet she is dwelling still, like one who sleeps in timelessness, at the bottom of the timeless sea. 55

The mythological figure of the Universal Mother imputes to the cosmos the feminine attributes of the first, nourishing and protecting presence. The fantasy is primarily spontaneous; for there exists a close and obvious correspondence between the attitude of the young child toward its mother and that of the adult toward the surrounding material world. But there has been also, in numerous religious traditions, a consciously controlled pedagogical utilization of this archetypal image for the purpose of the purging, balancing, and initiation of the mind into the nature of the visible world.


Woman as the Temptress

The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, Were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father’s place. 60

Thus phrased, in extremist terms, the problem may sound remote from the affairs of normal human creatures. Nevertheless, every failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late. The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. Therefore it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres? Those are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.

In the office of the modern psychoanalyst, the stages of the hero-adventure come to light again in the dreams and hallucinations of the patient. Depth beyond depth of self-ignorance is fathomed, with the analyst in the role of the helper, the initiatory priest. And always, after the first thrills of getting under way, the adventure develops into a journey of darkness, horror, disgust, and phantasmagoric fears.

The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant someone else.

But when it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention, that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of Life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure soul.


0, that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! 0 God! God!


So exclaims the great spokesman of this moment, Hamlet:


How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden,

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this! 88


The innocent delight of Oedipus in his first possession of the queen turns to an agony of spirit when he learns who the woman is. Like Hamlet, he is beset by the moral image of the father. Like Hamlet, he turns from the fair features of the world to search the darkness for a higher kingdom than this of the incest and adultery ridden, luxurious and incorrigible mother. The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond her, surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.


For a God called him—called him many times,

From many sides at once: "Ho, Oedipus,

Thou Oedipus, why are we tarrying?

It is full long that thou art stayed for; come!"

                                                                                                                                             Hamlet, I, ii, 129-137.


Where this Oedipus-Hamlet revulsion remains to beset the soul, there the world, the body, and woman above all, become the symbols no longer of victory but of defeat. A monastic -puritanical, world-negating ethical system then radically and immediately transfigures all the images of myth. No longer can the hero rest in innocence with the goddess of the flesh; for she is become the queen of sin.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Astarte Syriaca (1877);
Manchester Ciry Art
Gallery, UK

click on image to enlarge

"So long as a man has any regard for this corpse-like body," writes the Hindu monk Shankaracharya, "he is impure, and suffers from his enemies as well as from birth, disease and death; but when he thinks of himself as pure, as the essence of the Good, and the Immovable, he becomes free. . . . 

Only geniuses capable of the highest realization can support the full revelation of the sublimity of the goddess. For lesser men she reduces her effulgence and permits herself to appear in forms concordant with their undeveloped powers. Fully to behold her would be a terrible accident for any person not spiritually prepared: as witness the unlucky case of the lusty young buck Actaeon. No saint was he, but a sportsman unprepared for the revelation of the form that must be beheld without the normal human (i.e., infantile) over- and undertones of desire, surprise, and fear. Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world. 56

A story, for example, is told of the five sons of the Irish king Eochaid: of how, having gone one day ahunting, they found themselves astray, shut in on every hand. Thirsty, they set off, one by one, to look for water. Fergus was the first: "and he lights on a well, over which he finds an old woman standing sentry. The fashion of the hag is this: blacker than coal every joint and segment of her was, from crown to ground; comparable to a wild horse’s tail the grey wiry mass of hair that pierced her scalp’s upper surface; with her sickle of a greenish looking tusk that was in her head, and curled till it touched her ear, she could lop the verdant branch of an oak in full bearing; blackened and smoke. bleared eyes she had; nose awry, wide-nostrilled; a wrinkled and freckled befly, variously unwholesome; warped crooked shins, garnished with massive ankles and a pair of capacious shovels; knotty knees she had and livid nails. The beldame’s whole description in fact was disgusting. ‘That’s the way it is, is it?’ said and ‘that’s the very way,’ she answered. ‘Is it guarding the Well thou art?’ he asked, and she said: ‘it is.’ ‘Dost thou licence me to take away some water?’ ‘I do,’ she consented, ‘yet only so that I have of thee one kiss on my cheek.’ ‘Not so,’ said he. ‘Then water shall not be conceded by me.’ ‘My word I give,’ he went on, ‘that sooner than give thee a kiss I would perish of thirst!’ Then the young man departed to the place where his brethren were, and told them that he had not gotten water. 58

Olioll, Brian, and Fiachra, likewise, went on the quest and equally attained to the identical well. Each solicited the old thing for water, but denied her the kiss. Finally it was Niall who went, and he came to the very well. "‘Let me have water, woman!’ he cried. ‘I will give it,’ said she, ‘and bestow on me a kiss.’ He answered: ‘forby giving thee a kiss, I will even hug thee!’ Then he bends to embrace her, and gives her a kiss. Which operation ended, and when he looked at her, in the whole world was not a young woman of gait more graceful, in universal semblance fairer than she: to be likened to the last-fallen snow lying in trenches every portion of her was, from crown to sole; plump and queenly forearms, fingers long and taper, straight legs of a lovely hue she had; two sandals of the white bronze betwixt her smooth and soft white feet and the earth; about her was an ample mantle of the choicest fleece. pure crimson, and in the garment a brooch of white silver; she had lustrous teeth of pearl, great regal eyes, mouth red as the rowanberry. ‘Here, woman, is a galaxy of charms,’ said the young man. ‘That is true indeed.’ ‘And who art thou?’ he pursued. ‘"Royal Rule" am I,’ she answered, and uttered this: "‘King of Tara! I am Royal Rule. "‘Go now,’ she said, ‘to thy brethren, and take with thee water; moreover, thine and thy children’s for ever the kingdom and supreme power shall be. . . . And as at the first thou hast seen me ugly, brutish, loathly—in the end, beautiful—even so is royal for without battles, without fierce conflict, it may not be won; but in the result, he that is king of no matter what shows comely and handsome forth.’ 57

Such is royal rule? Such is life itself. The goddess guardian of the inexhaustible well—whether as Fergus, or as Actaeon, or as the Prince of the Lonesome Isle discovered her—requires that the hero should be endowed with what the troubadours and minesingers termed the "gentle heart." Not by the animal desire of an Actaeon, not by the fastidious revulsion of such as Fergus, can she be comprehended and rightly served, but only by gentleness: aware ("gentle sympathy") it was named in the romantic courtly poetry of tenth- to twelfth-century Japan.


Within the gentle heart Love shelters himself,

As birds within the green shade of the grove.

Be fore the gentle heart, in nature’s scheme,

Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.

For with the sun, at once,

So sprang the light immediately; nor was

Its birth before the sun’s.

And Love hath his effect in gentleness

Of very self; even as

Within the middle fire the heat’s excess.


The meeting with the goddess who is incarnate in every woman is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love, which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity." 59



Untitled 1994

®Connie Imboden

Used with permission 46


"The human body is not just the most magnificent form;
it is the most mysterious as well.
An investigation of the human body can lead to the edge of the mind."

Untitled 1992

®Connie Imboden

Used with permission 47


Connie Imboden has been photographing the human form underwater for 30 years. Her images are made in the camera with no manipulation in the darkroom or computer. Imboden's work resonates at a very deep level. Her compelling images are clearly human with luscious texture, and form clearly of the flesh. These images are natural, the product of the reflection and refraction of light through water and its surface. The images have always been there, Imboden is the first to see these powerful views and share her vision with others. Because they are naturally occurring images, there is a profound truth in their reality. The images are archetypes that live deep in the cauldron of our collective unconscious and primitive memories. The exquisite beauty juxtaposed with the forces of creation, transmutation, distortions and evolution, transport us to our origins and our very nature. Water is of what we were born, it is the element of renewal, of purity, of cleansing and rebirth. Water is the womb from which the species was born, it is the element through which the greatest transformations occur.  Imboden's work is a portal to both our past and to our future, it calls us to our most human of qualities, the desire to transform and transcend our being. More of Imboden's work may be viewed at her website Imboden . The Images above are protected by Copyright - Connie Imboden ©1990-2002, All Rights Reserved. Reproduction or retransmission of these images in any form, format, or variation is strictly prohibited.

Something is calling you. Something is calling from the quiet space inside and from the vast universe all around. Something is calling forth the stream inside you and awakening you to your connection with the source.

~~Paul Williams


"Throughout the ages creativity has been one of the ways in which people have expressed their religious beliefs. The aim of the Sacred Arts is to explore those arts which reflect the spiritual vision of humanity and contain truth as well as beauty.

The divine truth is expressed in many forms - from architecture to music, from dance to landscape.

The discovery of deeper meaning within outer forms brings us closer to our center and to the sacred traditions which are so undervalued in our modern world." 39


The powerful role that mermaids, goddesses and Sirens continue to play in our culture is testimony to the profound depth of their identity in the primal soup of the human experience and our collective unconscious. They embody themes that are always with us but often not on the surface of our daily experience and perception. Our society seems to be increasingly at odds with our inherent essence.

These images and their associated symbols explore a collective yearning to understand the human condition, our origins, our vulnerability, our mortality, the need for renewal and redemption, the terror of the unknown and our deep desire to be transformed. From the beginning of time, the use of these symbols in the telling and retelling of myths has been an essential component of the human experience.

Coney Island Mermaid

®Northstar Gallery


These are deep issues that seek transcendence and express a profound desire to understand the meaning of our existence. Such passion is at the foundation of the great art of the Western World and our ultimate hope that the universe is not random. In her book Sirens - Symbols of Seduction Meri Lao closes with the following:

"Sirens are a deforming mirror, a changing screen, containing every possible metamorphosis, fulmination. They speak of death to a civilization that would prefer to ignore it, one that denies their initiatory powers, The winged figures startle with their call. The sudden sonorous arrival of sirens causes a sense of premonition, of threat, provoking that ancestral emotion that triggers chemical reactions and accelerates the heartbeat. They act upon our primitive reptile brain, echoing our own hybrid within, our oldest fear of the claws that slashes or the teeth that drag us into the abyss of the sea. Ensnared by this arcane power, we are pervaded by an obscure sense of dissolution, dismayed and seized by a compulsion to flee. In the past: fear and fascination. In the present: fear only. In the past, a leap into the sea, into darkness, the unknown. Today the alarm, la larme: the tear-essence of human affliction, certainly, but also of boundless joy. The Sirens continue to express themselves through oxymoron. Tear: drop of salty liquid, ultimately. How well Jose Durand wrote:

The siren is salt. Inseparable, intimate nature of the seas. Without which it would be tasteless. It is death and life. Sowing salt—the extreme ignominy—is equivalent to sowing death. When salt is lacking—or else, if death is lacking—no life is possible. Salt reigns, the siren reigns, source of grace. Salt and the siren are life and death, and hence, dream.

Dream, symbol. We could then say that today’s sirens are the reemergence of the weeping, hair-tearing, breast-beating tomb Sirens of Greece. Or of those forces who, with a cosmic music, procure the pleasure of death. They are the inextricable presence of distant and coeval events, of the real and the phantasmagoric. The last metamorphosis of the Sirens, their last face in history. And our last rejection of them. Still ambivalent then, indicating both the alarm and the all clear, Sirens have learned to rise above the feral howling created by man. Since the first
World War, perched atop churches and city towers, they have been warning of the arrival of a new breed of death-bearing birds. In the event of disaster sirens start automatically. Could that be the only way they have left to continue their chant, whatever it may be, in the stubborn hope that someone might hear?"





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Encarta 98


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Your comments on The Northstar Gallery are very much valued, please respond to northstar.gallery@verizon.net

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© Copyright 2002 Northstar Gallery
These images are the exclusive property of the artists and may not be used,   downloaded, manipulated, or reproduced without prior written consent.