I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.
The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray.
The fairest of maidens is sitting
Unwittingly wondrous up there.
Her golden jewels are shining,
She’s combing her golden hair.
The comb she holds is golden,
She sings a song as well
Whose melody binds an enthralling
And overpowering spell.
In his little boat, the boatman
Is seized with a savage woe,
He’d rather look up at the mountain
Than down at the rocks below.
I think that the waves will devour
The boatman and boat as one;
And this by her song’s sheer power
Fair Lorelei has done.
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you can,
you are unique
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
There are several characters of mythology, folklore or spiritual belief that reappear in different cultures with different names and sometimes altered forms. Sometimes it is easy to discover how they travelled from one part of the world to the other, but at other times it is an interesting mystery how different cultures far away from each other created such similar beliefs and dramatic characters.
German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in tragic ballad tones of the Lorelei, a mythical femme fatale of the great River Rhine who possesses extraordinary beauty and sings an irresistible enchanting song. Both the beauty and the song are irresistible and draw boatmen sailing by like magnet. They cannot help themselves but move spellbound towards her and hasten to their destruction against the dangerous rocks by the river bank.
This creature belongs to Germany, but bears strong resemblance to other characters now claimed all around the western world but originating in another country and a different culture. Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood wrote about mythical temptresses who are much better known and much more written about. These are the very well-known Sirens of Greek mythology. They, too, are beautiful women but they also have bird’s wings and three of them inhabit an island somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. They sing a song that no sailors in ships passing by can resist. Anyone who hears the singing is captivated and sail, swim, whatever they need to do, towards the seductive women on the island. However, by the time they get to the shore they encounter the sharp rocks and the complicit waves and are completely destroyed.
Thoughts of these female folklore characters may stray towards the European figure of the Mermaid inherited by many other regions. Mermaids are also women who inhabit the sea. The top half of their bodies are curvaceous and womanly, but the bottom half takes the form of a fish with a tail instead of legs. These are benign, not demonic creatures although their strange amphibian form tends to make them somewhat supernatural.
A close examination of “Lorelei” by Heine’s narrator, however, will recall Mermaids known in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Mermaids have long flowing hair and are in the habit of emerging from the water to sit on a rock, always combing their hair. It is believed that the comb is golden and the Mermaids quite shy since they will plunge quickly in the depths if anyone comes along and catches sight of them. Sometimes they leave the golden comb behind and persons may find it on the river bank. The Caribbean version of the Mermaid inhabits the rivers.
However, the Caribbean lore goes further to the belief in Fairmaids and Water Mama of Guyana, Ribba Mooma of Jamaica and Mama Glow or Mama Dlo of West Indian islands with a French background. To go further, the Guyanese river character becomes a demonic figure. Sometimes the comb left on land is a deliberate bait to catch those who pick it up. There are those for whom the water character is spiritual or religious. Prayers and offerings are made to her and she bestows wealth and prosperity upon the devotee.
But where they resemble Lorelei is in their role as temptresses. They appear on land disguised as attractive girls who lure predatory men who think they are making a conquest. But as soon as they lead them close to the water, they will either plunge in, taking the men beneath the surface never to be seen again, or they break their necks on the bank.
There are many stories in Guyanese folklore and oral literature called ‘Fairmaid stories’ about these supernatural demonic creatures and their ‘punishment’ of philandering predatory men. Similarly, there are stories in Greek mythology about the Sirens.
Atwood, in this poem, uses very deep irony in having one of the Sirens herself tell the story. Close examination of it will reveal that the story told by the persona (the Siren) is actually the song sung by the Sirens, but of course, no one knows it since anyone who hears it dies. So that the plea for help is what the Siren uses to entrap her audience. It is a far more appealing poem than Heine’s. It leads the reader along much as the Siren does her victims and the true secret of the song is only revealed in the final stanza, spoken by the Siren after the man she has just enticed meets his death like all the others.
One famous story told by epic poet Homer in “The Odyssey” is about the encounter of the Greek hero Odysseus, aka Ulysses, with the Sirens. He is condemned by the spiteful god of the sea Poseidon to wander for 10 years around the seas on his attempt to return home after defeating Troy in the 10-year Trojan War. Ulysses was warned about the Sirens and so was prepared. As soon as he came within reach of the island where they lived he ordered his men to bind him tightly to the mast of the ship and at the same time block their ears with wax. He could hear the Siren song but because he was bound, was in no danger of going to them. His men could not hear, and so were safe. When he could hear the song no more he signalled to the men. In this way they sailed past the island and lived to tell the tale.