Ocean Magic: The Sirens

“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.”
Homer (“The Odyssey”)

Tales of the Sirens have long fascinated ocean dwellers and land lubbers alike. A mystery surrounds them that is never fully unravelled by Homer, or the other Greek myths in which they appear. Homer never explicitly describes their physical appearance, although we can infer from his descriptions of lustful reactions to them that they at least, in part, take human form.

What we know is that they are singing enchantresses whose voices entice passers-by to their dwellings – usually rocky outcrops, small islands, old boat wreckages – and ultimately to their doom. Traditionally, they are the daughters of the river god Achelous and a Muse (the name of which will depend on which source you favour). They are fated to die should anyone should survive their songs.

There are two versions of the same story that outline the Sirens’ transformation from mortals to mystical beings, and stem from the same myth, The Abduction of Persephone. In both versions, the Sirens are cited as Persephone’s handmaidens. When Hades, God of the Dead, falls in love with Persephone and drags her to the Underworld, one branch says that Persephone’s mother, Demeter, is so enraged with the Sirens for failing to keep her daughter safe that she transforms them into feathered monsters. The other tells of the Sirens being so bereft by their loss that they beg Demeter for wings so that they can search for Persephone more efficiently.

Their further transformation to the mermaid-like creatures we see them most frequently depicted as in popular culture can be attributed to a few things. In Homer’s The Odyssey, our most significant encounter with the Sirens is as a feature of the mortal hero Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca from the sorceress Circe’s island of Aeaea. Before he leaves, Circe tells Odysseus of the Sirens, warning him that they dwell along his route by sea, and that should he hear their song, he will die.

Homer also tells of the Siren’s song luring a sensitive member of the legendary Argonauts’ crew – Boutes of Athens – to jump overboard and start swimming towards them. He does, forcing their ship to ground in the process. Fortunately, he is saved by Aphrodite, Goddess of Love who subsequently takes him as her lover and bears him a son.

Over time, authors and artists have depicted the Sirens in ways that are the most tangible and attractive to their audiences. Although bodies of birds still occasionally feature in modern retellings, their aquatic metamorphosis is generally attributed the popularity of Hans Christian Anderson’s 19th century folk tale, The Little Mermaid.

More profound than this, though, is the sense of mystery that the seas are able to lend to the already bewildering Sirens, and make them infinitely fascinating. The lack of description at their origin allows us to try and fill in the gaps or leave some of their details secret, like much of the ocean floor. The unexplored depths create a world for them that we, as mere mortals, will never truly know and leaves us forever longing.

Sailor Superstition: Tattoos & Sailor Jerry

When you look around today you are more likely to find someone who is tattooed than someone who is not. Styles range from Neo-Japanese, to the ancient tradition of Tā moko, to modern Blackwork. However, in western culture, there is none more enduring than Old School/Traditional style, signified by clean black outlines, bright colours and minimal shading. They include designs such as the pin-up girl, hearts, anchors and daggers.

Old School/Traditional tattoos can be traced back to the 1700s, when those on the fringes of society began using them to visually disassociate from cultural norms. They became a symbol of rebellion and a quest for a different kind of existence. Throughout their history no singular profession has adopted them more passionately than sailors.

Much of a sailor’s enthusiasm for the art is due to the tradition within sailor communities of observing and perpetuating long-held superstitions. Where they might once have taken a lucky silver coin or a lock of their lover’s hair for comfort and protection upon their vessels, upon their discovery of tattooing they started to use it as a way of creating permanent and powerful talismans.

Maritime symbols hold specific meanings and so are chosen as tattoos to prevent circumstances a sailor might want to avoid. For example, the North Star (Nautical Star or compass rose), is used to mitigate the possibility of a sailor becoming lost at sea. An anchor stops them from floating away from his boat should they fall overboard. One of the more curious is the symbol of a hen, an animal incapable of swimming, and thought to receive the direct assistance of God should it find itself adrift.

By the end of the 20th century, it is believed that 90% of US Navy sailors proudly sported some form of ink. This can partially be attributed to the meteoric rise of Norman Keith Collins aka “Sailor Jerry”, in the 1930s. Prior to setting up his first tattoo shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, nearby the US naval base in Pearl Harbour, he practiced his art on drunks on Skid Row. During this time, he became accustomed to the motion of the needles and refined his skill, but was yet to find his own distinctive tattooing style.

This would arrive when he joined the US Navy himself, and became exposed to the art of Southeast Asia. The vibrancy of the work he loved most during his travels would later encourage him to develop his own colour pigments and single-needle tattooing, preventing skin trauma and colour bleed, allowing him to create the clean lines and lively colouration that became synonymous with Old School/Traditional tattooing.

Tattoos have a rich cultural history that touch every corner of the globe. Some contribute to a rite of passage, others signify deep bonds between humans and nature, and there are those that are purely decorative. Like folklore, they have evolved, moulding to place and time, altered by brave pioneers and visionaries. Modifying the body with ink is more popular today than ever, and in its broadest sense, remains a visual signifier of community, preventing individuals from feeling lost at sea.