Mermaids abound. From the Babylonian deities Oanna and Atargatis, to the Dalmatian merpeople, to – let's say – sea lasses from the freezing waters of Iceland. But the most famous representative of this family are the Sirens.
Although, ironically, they originally had little to do with the sea.
Today's journey will be a long one. We'll start, as it were, in ancient Greece and sail west to the warm waters that give birth to the Gulf Stream. And then we'll make a brief stop at the author´s home and in the Indian Ocean.
Let's get on our way. We follow a creature that is a beautiful girl from the waist up, with a fish tail below her navel instead of a pair of equally beautiful legs. A special sign: the angel's voice.
Equipped with this description, we can't go wrong. So what's the picture doing here? Well, it proves the need to be wary of uninformed witnesses. And the need to look out for indicators. We are currently in the ancient Mediterranean and the creatures of our description are tritones, possibly ichthyocentaurs and nereids, but (so far) by no means sirens.
According to one legend, the Sirens belonged to the nymphs among whom Demeter's daughter Kore, later called Persephone, grew up. It is not the best-known myth – that is the later version about the daughters of the pair Achelous (river god) and Terpsichore (Muse of the Dance) – but it is nevertheless the more original one, according to which the Sirens belonged to the demons of the underworld and accompanied the third form of the Triad Koré – Persephone – Hecate. But Man Proposes, Time Disposes, and so in classical times the Sirens changed their profession. Probably to get into the history of the two most famous and unsurpassed sea voyages of all time, Iason's quest for the Golden Fleece and Odysseus' wanderings. In any case, let us be clear about a few things. I'll come back to the appearance in a moment, now I'll introduce ladies to you. Although originally the Sirens were to be two (according to Homer) or three, later times agreed on nine. To avoid confusion, I offer you eleven names – I have no choice but to admit that some of them also belong to a person – and here they are:
Aglaophone, ‘with a gleaming voice'
Leukosia, White Being
Raidné, Relief (possibly)
Thelxiope, Persuasive Face
Now we've finally got one of the hallmarks – it's seen in most of the names. The sirens really could sing beautifully. And they knew it, which is why they went toe-to-toe with the Muses themselves.
Which was a mistake. After the inevitable fiasco, the Muses turned them into monsters. They kept their human faces and bodies, gave them wings and the appropriate bird chassis. Well, not to mince words, it's quite possible that this transformation was the work of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who didn't like the fact that the beautiful Sirens weren't interested in her proclaimed promiscuous lifestyle. It's quite possible because Aphrodite did such things often and with gusto.
(Now, this is where I should stop and look up Greek myths. Birds with a human face do fly around here, after all, and they're called Harpies. But I will omit this obvious kinship because many before me have omitted it and adopted the Sirens into a completely different family.)
Whatever the case with the transformation, in any case, the Sirens have moved to the Straits of Messina. Scylla and Charybdis gained new neighbors and the region began to settle down. One last reminder of the original myth – when the god of the underworld, Hades, kidnapped Persephone, the Sirens went in search of their friend. And because no man would help them, Demeter turned them into monsters at their request, and they took revenge.
From that moment on, the Sirens were linked to the water. Their victims were exclusively sailors, attracted by their beautiful faces and luscious appearance. The Sirens drowned them and sucked their blood.
The oldest recorded case is the attack on the Argo. Failed because the divine singer Orpheus was on board and he simply sang the Sirens into submission. There was the only one of the Argonauts who threw himself overboard, but he was saved by Aphrodite. It is said that the singing maidens lost their wings in the process and committed suicide. Not much truth in this, for Ulysses found them in full and still winged form. He was also the only one to hear their musical production and survive, thanks to the now-famous beeswax trick in the sailors' ears and the proper knots that bound him to the mast.
With the departing Ithacan king, we sail away.
Somewhere along the way to the Middle Ages, the Sirens did lose their wings, their bird's feet were replaced by fish tails and civilization drove them out of Messina. Already Pliny finds them in India (which, as we shall see in the end, was absolutely correct).
As time went on, the Sirens began to merge with the true naiadas, seen, for example, in the Spanish Dones d'aigua, which have both forms of body, bird, and fish.
Oh, are we in Spain yet? Before the long voyage that awaits us, it's a good idea to stop for a moment at the author´s home.
Sirens have been known in Bohemia too, although thanks to the unpleasant fact that we have no sea, only by hearsay. They were said to have girlish bodies, beautiful faces, and fishtails for legs. Possibly two fishtails. In short, our idea was, as it were, identical to the rest of Europe, and it would have been unnecessary to mention it if we had named them in the same way. But the Czech language has left the Sirens to the Mediterranean and Latin, and they have always been called Mořské panny (Mermaids) or Ochechule in our country. And for this, in the case of the description of human girls, a pejorative Czech word, we abstained.
Quickly back to the ship, we sail from Palos westwards, to India. Unfortunately, not for Pliny's Sirens, but for gold and spices. Our captain is none other than Christopher Columbus. Let's look over his shoulder in his diary:
"...but they are not so beautiful as they are painted."*
Who? The three sirens he saw in the sea off the Indian (sorry, American, but the Admiral doesn't know that yet and doesn't want to believe it) coast.
And here we are at our destination. For sirens do exist. A discussion of mermaids and sea cows would be in order, for what the seafarers and zoologists of the time refer to as sirens are indeed the direct descendants of the mermen, the naiads, and tritons. Only these supernatural creatures had no record of attacking such celebrities as Iason and Odysseus – and since the attack on those two came from the sea, it was they who took the fall in later times.
Thus, thanks to the continuous maintenance of the reputation, the Sirens have seamlessly transferred into modern times and into the bodies of the interesting – herbivorous – aquatic mammals of the order Sirenia. The West Indian sirens, which so disappointed Columbus, are of course manatees (genus Trichetus), while the East Indian ones, occurring from the Red Sea to Australia, and giving at least partial credit to Pliny, belong to the species Dugong dugong. There was a third family, the Steller's sea cow, living in Arctic waters, but this took its place on account of its size, its fur, and its voracious hunters. For the record, the name of the man responsible for hunting the last Steller's sea cow was Ivan Popov. And to come back from your trip halfway around the world even more informed, know that the closest relatives of the Sirenia order are, oddly enough, elephants and rabbit-like damans.
P.S. 2023. There is a possibility, that Columbus compared a West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) with a West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis), not with the description of ancient legendary beings.
The ancient Greek plate whose photo accompanies this story can now be found in the Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
While we're wandering the seas, it doesn't hurt to visit one of the most powerful aquatic creatures.
He was one of the three main Greek gods, and the sea was his lot. Which is a thing we forget. Not the sea. The division of power between the three divine brothers. This is Greece, after all, and it's famous for democracy.
Let's recall the history here.
When the god Kronos eliminated his father Uranus on his way up, he learned his own lesson and swallowed all his offspring immediately after birth. Except for the youngest, Zeus, who was replaced with a stone by his desperate mother.
(It is worth noting that according to some narrators, even Poseidon escaped the stomach, instead of which Kronos choked a foal. This seems like a purely expedient rumor – you know, the horse is an attribute of aquatic beings, and Poseidon later became the god of the sea. And according to other sources, horses were created by him.)
Zeus later organized an opposition and overthrew Cronus after all. And because the divine children had no problems with their father's gastric juices, they were brought to light by the batch.
When it was all over, the youngest Zeus, by virtue of being the leader of the opposition, declared himself the eldest of the siblings, marrying his older (sorry, now younger) sister Hera. But he was – at least initially – going to share the reigns. He and his brothers Hades and Poseidon sat down at the helmet and each drew for a realm. Zeus had the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea. They left the earth and its inhabitants for all.
So Poseidon became the boss of all the sea gods, sea animals, and monsters. He built himself an underwater palace in Aegea.
Underwater, he was the sovereign ruler, even Zeus could not and would not interfere in his realm. But things on land sometimes got fierce. Poseidon's most famous disputes were with Athena over Attica, with Zeus over Aigina, and with Hera over Argos. Hera was also his ally in the coup d´etat to remove Zeus, which Poseidon led. Another sea goddess, Thetis, helped the supreme god out of his need, the freed Zeus then especially revenged his wife, Hera, who was on hand.
Like the sea, Poseidon is moody, sometimes a pleasant companion, sometimes a relentless destroyer.
The legitimate wife of Poseidon at first avoided her suitor, fleeing from him to Atlas. Unlike his brothers, Poseidon used neither guile nor violence. He tried the good way and sent an emissary to her. A certain Delphinus, who later became one of the star constellations for his eloquence, made the difficult task easy, and Amphitrite finally agreed.
It's hard to say why she refused the god of the seas in the first place. Some say she loathed Poseidon, others that he was too high-ranking god for her. What is certain is that before Amphitrite, Poseidon courted her sister Thetis. Could this be the stumbling block and the cause of Amphitrite's rejection? Thetis did not become Queen of the Seas simply because of an unpleasant prophecy that her sons would become more famous than their fathers.
Like Hera, Amphitrite had big trouble keeping her philandering husband under control. She herself became the mother of three of Poseidon's children – Triton, Rhode, and Benthesikime.
He originally looked like a man, but later times gave him a half-fish form. He lived in his parents' palace and, following his father's example, used a trident as his weapon and a symbol. Smaller one, of course. His official vehicle was a golden carriage, and he often rode a dolphin. Among his most famous attributes, however, was that famous conch shell; with a low rumble he calmed the sea, with a loud one he stirred it.
With various sea goddesses, he had several sons, also Tritons. These were considered the sea counterparts of the Silenuses and Satyrs.
It is said that her mother was not Amphitrite, but the nymph Halia, daughter of the sun god Helios. The father is exceptionally certain – Poseidon.
Rhode gave the name to the island of Rhodes, which Helios raised from the sea when there was no land left for him because when the gods were dividing Earth, he was busy dragging the sun across the sky.
or Wave from the deep, is the little-known daughter of Poseidon. Even it was a legitimate child.
She lived in Ethiopia. Poseidon's illegitimate son Eumolpos, whom he had with Boreas' daughter Chione, grew up in her house. when Benthesikyme's half-brother grew up, she offered him one of her daughters as a wife. But because he fell in love with another one, she banished him to Thrace.
The most famous sea monster comes from Scandinavia. A monstrous beast, half octopus and half crab, attacks ships and eats sailors (which you can actually see in the picture, except for the appearance, as the illustration dates from a time when people already knew what a Kraken was).
Most of the time it rests in the deep, occasionally heading for the surface, and then a ship anchors off a suddenly surfaced islet, the captain calls for a reconnaissance, and disaster may be complete, especially if the landing party builds a fire. This can upset even the more mild-natured creature. (This legend is often associated with giant whales and a Leviathan, as the Kraken usually travels to the surface in search of prey.)
Like most sea monsters, the Kraken has endured until recent times. As late as Bishop Pontoppidan describes the Kraken (who is also called Kraxen or Krabben) and gives it 1.5 English miles in circumference.
("Someone says more, but I am for smaller dimensions for better plausibility.")
Already the description given us by the honorable clergyman, without attempting any exaggeration, fits – except, of course, as to dimensions – the real inhabitant of the deep sea, the giant squid of the genus Architeuthis, whose remains were first described in 1639, when the sea washed them up on the Icelandic coast.
The North Atlantic is rife with such finds, and so it is impossible to blame the Vikings, sailing along the coast in their drakkars (brave, yes, but otherwise not very good sailors), when they spotted a live squid. The creature, over ten meters long – the largest recorded specimen was sixteen and a half meters – became a model not only for the Kraken but probably for a good number of sea snakes as well.
But that's for another time.
Illustration Edgar Etherington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
9.10.2023 (15.8. 2002)
The giant Töll, who was nicknamed the Great, used to be the chief of his people on the largest Estonian island, Saaremaa. As is often revealed in such cases, the tangible reminders of his existence are the large stones that can be found around the island, which the giant threw in those places. He is said to have usually aimed at his age-old adversary Vanatühi, or at other, less dangerous attackers.
There are other claims about Töll's height. When he visited his brother Leiger on the neighboring island of Dagö, he walked the five kilometers with only the help of his nine-meter spruce trunk, which he used as a walking stick. This also shows us, giant, or not, that the Baltic Sea does not abound in great depths.
He was a modest ruler, and if there was no need for office or war, he lived his existence as a mere farmer. He worked from morning till night, as is usual in farming, and in his leisure hours he was fond of indulging in the sauna; his wife Piret was therefore greatly taxed by the operation of this establishment, in addition to the usual running of the household. He was also fond of beer and cabbage. Giants are either man-eating and vicious, and of a furious temper, or peaceful and decent, well aware of their strength. Töll belonged to group number two, but he was of a personality which, according to a long outdated four temperament theory, is called Choleric. He is not known, however, to have caused irreversible damage by his short-sighted actions and to have used his physical strength for uncontrolled and deliberate violence. To discharge such pent-up energy and excess adrenaline, he had enemies who occasionally invaded the island.
The greatest of these was the aforementioned Vanatühi. Vanapagan by another name. A stupid giant, the first of the cited. But nowhere is it written that stupidity and evil cannot win even in folk tales, so Töll's earthly story ends in a battle in which the chief of the island loses his head.
It is impossible to exist well enough in such a state, let alone rule, so the giant picked himself up, impaled his head on his sword so as not to lose it, and walked to his grave, somewhere near the village of Tõlluste.
But the service to the country does not end with the burial of great rulers – the adjective in this case does not refer to physical height. Not always.
It was soon known for certain that when the island was in a bad way, when there was war, Töll would rise and deal harshly with his enemies. So the giant became another of the select (but quite numerous) group of individuals we refer to as the Kings under the Mountain. With one, but interesting exception to the rule.
The Saaremaa rescuer – at least according to one account – resigned from his role. It's actually not that strange, it's the definitive culmination of similar incidents where the King/knights are interrupted in a cave by a random traveler; but usually after saying "It's not time yet." the soldiers go back to sleep.
In the Estonian tale, it is otherwise. Apparently, Töll's more impetuous nature played a role in this, but a factor was the unruly children who absentmindedly summoned him to their childish pranks. The giant did indeed come, but when he saw the war he was about to embark on, he growled angrily that he could give it up, and that he would not come out again, come what may.
An evil demon of the deep.*
* The description with the same number of characters as the name is unfortunately spoiled by this additional footnote: known in Tahiti.
The recent flood postponed the start of the school year, so this week began with the almost-forgotten whimpers of: "I don't want to go to school“, the bumping of sleeping schoolkid into walls on the way to the bathroom, and unexpected escapes back to bed.
The old Czechs didn't have these problems. They had a boogeyman named Postelníček, who tickled such late birds with a straw on the foot until he drove them out of bed.
If you know anyone of them (somewhere they call him a Postelnička or a Koutníček), give him my address, I have an exclusive contract ready for him. Just not those ones from Stara Paka, they were a nuisance at night, rustling in the straw, looking for badly thrashed ears of corn.
An asthenic white-faced white gown-wearing bogeyman who signed a contract with the Catholic Church, and, according to this, took away children who wouldn't pray after dusk. She infiltrated the house in the shape of a moth.
I remember Krvavé koleno (Bloody Knee) personally from my childhood days of yore. Well, personally... I've never seen it, unfortunately, which is a great shame for boggartology. I would be the first who scientifically describe and classify this peculiar species.
All that is known about this pedagogical bogeyman is that it chases children who wander outside after dark. The phrase: "Don't go there, you'll be caught by a bloody knee" is so traditional that not only have I encountered it.
30.10.2023 (12.9. 2002)
Old hag Škrabinožka carries razors, cleavers, knives and other bladed tools in her purse. Of course, she also has a sharpener. Somewhere in the shadows she sharpens her tools with it, so that they are ready for the dirtbags who can't see their dirty feet and refuse to wash them, saying, "I got them clean."
The South Bohemian Pucnoha is a relative of Škrabinožka. Unlike her, he works with a knife and grips customers in a carpenter's tool (which czech nickname is "the goat") that is otherwise used to make handles.
Long and thin guy, dressed in a robe full of pockets. He wore a sack and lurked behind the door – he would then put the whiny little ones into a loose pocket or a sack full of similar whiners.
A big fat worm crawling through the sands of southern Mongolia. The body (sometimes the color of blood), from fifty to one hundred and fifty centimeters in length, gives no clue as to which end its head is at; as we shall learn in a moment, it is not essential to know this information. It is much more important to know that it is a venomous creature. Extremely venomous. As the Mongolian Prime Minister Damdinbazar told Roy Chapman Andrews in 1919, and as the American traveler revealed to the world three years later in Asia Magazine and then in On the Trail of Ancient Man, the mere touch of a legless creature from the desolate reaches of the Gobi Desert kills instantly. Sometimes even mere proximity. And it doesn't change the claims of some researchers that it's not poison, but an electrical discharge. The worm, which is attracted by the yellow color and which non-eyewitnesses use words like "sausage“ to describe (according to a shaman interviewed by Ivan Mackerle, it is said to be a gut filled with blood), moves by rolling from side to side.
Cryptozoologists are hoping to uncover a species that serious biology has not yet described, but local herders are clear about one thing - this is not some forgotten large animal, but a creature of the supernatural. It surfaces in the desert, known for its extremes (forty below zero Celsius in winter, forty above in summer) in June and July, but direct sightings are not as frequent as some would like. When the aforementioned American zoologist discussed the existence of the creature with the country's leaders and learned from the Prime Minister, he received the usual response from another of the ministers to a follow-up question:
"My late sister-in-law's cousin saw it."
Efforts to trap the mysterious animal were already underway by then, in 1919, Andrews having learned of the existence of the fat worm from an inquiry of the Prime Minister, inquired whether an American would catch one Olgoi Khorkhoi for the local government on his travels in the desert. After a curious response from an uninitiated traveler, a debate ensued, the content of which we already know.
In my country, the (presumed) existence of the mysterious creature, probably mainly due to Ludvík Souček's books remained in the public domain, but elsewhere in Europe and across the ocean this was not the case. Information from Andrews' books has been swept away by the sands of time. The one who reintroduced the Tibetan worm to today's Western world was Czech cryptozoologist Ivan Mackerle, who went to see the mysterious creature several times; the first time in 1990, and the last time fourteen years later. He attempted to summon the worm by beating it, just as the great sand worms in Herbert's novel Dune (1990) or by explosions (1992). He searched for traces of its presence from the air (2004). Nor did he succeed. He did not find the mysterious creature whose existence was once introduced to him by a Mongolian student, and about which many people warned him. But he did inspire other researchers – especially by printing English articles in The Faithist Journal and World Explorer.
A Czech forest spirit, shouting at people. Whoever answered it was torn apart, or Hejkal jumped on his back and beat him. In the Vysočina region, it was called Hejkadlo.
He looked like a man – a dark man, or a small boy with a big head and thin legs. At other times he appeared in animal – most often black colored bird form.
According to tradition, an insulted man could defend himself with a singed broom.
1.11.2023 (5. 10. 2002)
The headless Count of Hardegg does not haunt the family castle Hardegg, but the corridors of the castle Riegersburg. The two places are not far apart, for it is not Riegersburg Castle in Styria, but a newer building of the same name in a town on the border between Austria and the Czech Republic. He was beheaded in 1595 by a court ruling that discussed his (alleged) treason in fighting the Turks. The real cause may have been the Protestant faith of this nobleman.
His headless existence (and the existence of a walking invisible body) was recorded several times. As well as the scattered beds, in which someone was quite obviously sleeping, although the common trap of spilled flour did not detect anything.
"Things just happen. What the hell."
* Terry Pratchett. Hogfather
Welcome to my world. For the longest time I couldn’t think of right name for this place, so I left it without one. Amongst things you can find here are attempts of science fiction and fantasy stories, my collection of gods, bogeymen and monsters and also articles about things that had me interested, be it for a while or for years. (There is more of this, sadly not in English but in Czech, on www.fext.cz)
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