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.



Sea Monsters: Jörmungandr

I have a sense many would agree that calling Jörmungandr a sea monster does him a disservice. He is The Midgard Serpent, The World Serpent, and one of the great contributors to Ragnarök, the end of life as it was. Like many characters in Norse mythology, he is both hero and villain, both the betrayed and the betrayer. His dark past forges a darker future and makes him one of most compelling characters in the pantheon.

Jörmungandr is the middle child of Loki (blood brother of Odin, The Allfather) and his wife Angrboða, a jötunn (contrasting beings to the gods, generally considered to be giants). He is considered to have taken the form of a large snake at birth. His brother, Fenrir, is a gigantic wolf. His sister, Hel, takes human form though she is described as being half blue and half flesh-coloured, with many depictions showing her to be burned on one side. Because of her children’s frightful appearances, Angrboða is often referred to as the Mother of Monsters.

Odin makes no secret of the fact that he is fearful of Loki and Angrboða’s brood. All he can see is their potential for destruction if left to their own devices, he cannot not see any opportunity for good. So he chains Fenrir, banishes Hel to the Underworld, and tosses Jörmungandr into the ocean. In the murky depths, Jörmungandr’s heart grows cold towards the gods. He feels abandoned by Odin, stripped of his family, that he and his siblings have been treated unjustly. However, physically, he thrives.

In no time at all, Jörmungandr grows to such a length that he can wrap himself around the world, grasping at his own tail. Tales are told of his domination of the sea and the Norns predict that if he is to let go of his grip, Ragnarök – a great battle, a swathe of natural disasters and the submersion of everything under water – will begin. But for a while, Jörmungandr keeps to himself, only emerging when coaxed or tricked by one of the gods.

Most frequently, he is disturbed by Thor. At their first meeting, Jörmungandr is used as a prop by the giant king and magician, Útgarða-Loki, to test Thor’s strength. Útgarða-Loki disguises Jörmungandr as a humungous cat and challenges Thor to lift him. Of course, Thor is unable to, because by this time Jörmungandr has become part of the fabric of the world and in lifting him, Thor will alter the boundaries of the universe.

Their second encounter is during a fishing trip, when Thor is, typically, hunting for the biggest fish he can find, using an ox head as bait. He catches two gigantic whales before Jörmungandr is enticed. The serpent breaches the waves, angrily spitting poison when he realises that the ox’s head is attached to a line, and that the line is Thor’s. From that moment, they become sworn enemies.

Their final encounter is at Ragnarök, the “Twilight of the Gods”. The gods that Jörmungandr has grown to hate. The first sign, as foretold, is the unrest of the ocean as Jörmungandr releases his tail from his mouth. He then thrashes himself upon the land and rises up alongside his brother, the mighty Fenrir, who breathes fire from his nose. The brothers fight alongside the sons of Muspell, fire giants, and together kill a number of the greatest figures in Norse mythology, including Odin and Thor. However, this is not before Jörmungandr takes a mortal blow from Mjölnir, Thor’s trusty hammer.

Jörmungandr is a fascinating character because, alongside his siblings, he embodies a crucial moment for Odin and in the lives of the gods. There is an inevitability to Ragnarök that is apparent throughout Norse mythology. Odin knows that the world must be made anew without him, he knows that his days are numbered. Through fear, he still chooses cruelty towards the children of Loki, someone he professes to love. Choices like this make Odin more human. Jörmungandr’s resultant descent into hatred makes him relatable. Much more than the sea monster who surrounded the world, he is a lost child, a frustrated adult, an agent for change.



Ocean Magic: Doom Bar

Although the term “Doom Bar” might now be more widely associated with an amber ale brewed on the Cornish coast, the real Doom Bar was the site of a great and tragic heartbreak. A bar of sand, a bar of doom, kicked up in a furious storm, slicing Padstow Harbour in two and becoming the place of a hundred of shipwrecks.

As with most folklore, aspects of the story of Doom Bar have altered over time. The version I enjoy most tells of a young man, a Padstow local, who saved up his earnings as a sailor to purchase a new gun. He was immensely proud of it and wanted to shoot his first shot into something “worthy”. He went to the nearby Hawker’s Cove, on the hunt for a large seal he might take home as a trophy. However, as he approached the cove, he found it empty of seals, replaced by a beautiful woman perched upon a large boulder, singing a hypnotic melody as she stared out to sea.

Entranced by her, he approached and asked her name. She did not respond as she gazed into the deep pools of his eyes, peering into his soul and unravelling his desires. He felt at once as if he had always known her, and sure that he was in love. He immediately asked the woman whether she would do him the honour of becoming his wife. She told him that although she could sense they would have a happy life together, she could not accept his proposal, and continued to look wistfully at the gently lapping waves before her.

Enraged, the young man pulled out his gun and took a single shot at her. The bullet made contact, and as the woman screamed and fell from the rock, the young man realised that she was not a woman at all, but a mermaid. With her dying breath, she cursed Padstow Harbour with the bar of doom; a mighty storm that would dredge the silt from the ocean floor and redeposit it along the shore, causing a severe hazard for any boat trying to enter or leave the port.

She darkly promised that the Doom Bar would stretch from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay, then she raised her arms and summoned a mighty ocean torrent before the young man’s eyes. The squall of bad weather lasted long into the night. The following morning, the harbour was littered with the wrecks of one hundred ships and their victims, and has ever since been known as the place where a mermaid was heartbroken.

In reality, Doom Bar has accounted for more than six hundred wrecks since records began early in the nineteenth century. However, the phenomenon originally occurred during the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, and is thought to be due to the high exposure of Padstow Harbour to the Atlantic Ocean, one of the more energetic estuaries on that shoreline.

Whichever theory you prefer, you probably have just cause to believe that the harbour is cursed, and it’s an undeniable truth that stories of love and betrayal are forever the most enduring of all.

Sailor Superstition: Klabautermann

The Klabautermann is a water kobold (or “sprite” in English), its name stemming from the Low German verb “klabastern” meaning “to rumble”. It might sound like a troublesome creature but, conversely, is believed to bring good luck to sailors crossing the Baltic and North Seas. Over time, descriptions have emerged of what they wear – a sailor’s raincoat and a woollen hat – and of their physicality – a long beard with a wooden pipe dangling from its mouth.

But far from simply being some form of a Captain’s mascot, the Klabautermann is thought to embody the soul of the ship itself. The ships on which they are ever-present are always the best looked-after, the most sea-worthy, and so earn the good fortune of being escorted by the Klabautermann across treacherous seas to safety.

In retellings of encounters with the Klabautermann, their temperament is mostly described as gentle and merry. They enjoy nothing more than singing upon a ship’s deck, the sound of which can be heard upon the brisk Northern winds. They have a deep affinity with the ocean, and are able to negotiate with it in order to save the lives of sailors who are thrown overboard in storms.

Yet, how their appearance and temperament are known remains a mystery, because although the presence of the Klabautermann is generally seen as a positive thing, if anyone ever sets eyes on one upon their ship, it becomes an omen for everyone on board. The Klabautermann only ever become visible to the crew of a doomed ship, vessels who cannot contend with the ferocity of the ocean.

When I first started researching the Klabautermann after stumbling across them whilst studying another piece of sailor folklore, I found that over time it had taken on some more sinister characteristics, reincarnating as a demon that terrorised ship’s crews and deliberately riling up an unpredictable ocean to put people in danger.

I find this later interpretation of the Klabautermann generic, we have lots of demonic creatures across innumerable pieces of lore. It strikes me as the workings of a bored sailor’s mind, trying to make sense of the harsh conditions of life at sea. On the other hand, imagining a creature so in harmony with a ship – having the sway to make agreements with the ocean itself in order to protect its comrades on board – is hugely intriguing.

So remember, when planning to cross the Baltic or North Sea, make sure your ship is spotless and listen for a melody on the cold breeze.

Sea Monsters: Scylla & Charybdis

Whether you know Scylla and Charybdis as two of Greek mythology’s darkest villains, or most tragic players, they are undoubtedly an iconic pairing in the world of ocean folklore. Two powerful, angry, female characters who weave themselves into the stories of men and change the course of their paths.

They rule over a narrow channel of water, the Strait of Messina. Scylla quietly haunts the coast of the island of Sicily, laying in wait for unsuspecting sailors and fishermen to cross her path, while Charybdis violently thrashes against the coast of Calabria (on the Italian mainland), sucking her prey down into the deep blue. They dwell close enough to each other that, working in unison, they become an inescapable threat.

Greek mythology cites Charybdis as the elder of the two, normally thought to be the daughter of two primordial deities, Pontus or Poseidon (of the Sea) and Gaia (of the Earth). She is the personification of a deadly whirlpool, profoundly connected to flow of the tides, but able to weave her own black sea magic and bend the water to her wicked will. She was born with a monstrous hatred for mankind.

Scylla’s appearance is outwardly more terrifying, commonly described as having six long necks and twelve feet, she is thought to be the personification of an underwater reef with deadly teeth that rip open ship’s hulls. To me, her story is the more compelling of the two.

Where Scylla’s “evil sea monster” narrative seems to diverge is in the suggestion that she was not always as she appears. One tale of the transformation of Scylla sees her metamorphosis from beautiful sea nymph at the hands of the jealous goddess Amphitrite, who poisons the pool in which Scylla bathes when she notices her husband Poseidon flirting with her, turning her soft skin to scales.

However, I was first drawn to researching Scylla after I read Madeline Miller’s beautiful book “Circe”, which tells a sadder tale of transformation at the hands of the sea god, Glaucus.

For many months, Glaucus admired Scylla from afar, falling more deeply in love with her with each day that passed, as she sang sweetly and bathed in sapphire pools before him. Desperate for his feelings to be reciprocated, Glaucus visited the sorceress Circe and asked her for a love potion. Yet she had other plans, as Circe was in love with Glaucus and could not bear to lose him to Scylla. So she concocted a poison, rather than a potion, and Glaucus looked on in horror as his love made the grizzly transformation before him.

Together, Scylla and Charybdis are two of the most evocative characters in Greek mythology. They are the personification of our greatest fears of the ocean; the unknown and the uncontrollable. But where Charybdis feels more to me like the untethered rage of a sea storm, an inexplicable anger, Scylla is more nuanced. Her vengeance is indiscriminate, yet there are moments through the myths where she makes mistakes, and intriguing decisions, that perhaps mean the nymph is not entirely lost.