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"... Le refus de la politique militante, le privilège absolu concédé à la littérature, la liberté de l'allure, le style comme une éthique, la continuité d'une recherche". Pol Vandromme

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Location: Portugal

Monday, October 08, 2007


It was the Emperor Tiberius who startled his grammarians with the question, what songs the Sirens sang? I suspect he knew more about the matter than they did, for he was a Siren-worshipper all his life, though fate did not allow him to indulge his genius till those last few years which he spent among them on the rock-islet of Capri. The grammarians, if they were prudent, doubtless referred him to Homer, who has preserved a portion of their lay.
Whether Sirens of this true kind are in existence at the present day is rather questionable, for the waste places of earth have been reclaimed, and the sea’s untrampled floor is examined and officially reported upon. Not so long ago some such creatures were still found. Jacobus Noierus relates that in 1403 a Siren was captured in the Zuider Zee. She was brought to Haarlem and, being naked, allowed herself to be clothed; she learned to eat like a Dutchman; she could spin thread and take pleasure in other maidenly occupations; she was gentle and lived to a great age. But she never spoke. The honest burghers had no knowledge of the language of the sea-folk to enable them to teach her their own tongue, so she remained mute to the end of her days—a circumstance to be regretted, since, excepting in the Arab tale of “Julnar the Sea-born” little information has been handed down to us regarding the conversational and domestic habits of mediaeval Sirens.
In the royal archives of Portugal are preserved the records of a costly litigation between the Crown and the Grand Master of the Order of Saint James, as to who should possess the Sirens cast up by the sea on the Grand Master's shores. The suit ended in the king’s favour: “Be it enacted that sirens and other marin monsters ejected by the waves upon land owned by the Grand Master shall pass into the possession of the King”. This would show that Sirens were then fairly plentiful. And one of the best authenticated cases is that recorded by the veracious Captain John Smith — he of Pocahontas fame. “I cannot here omit to mention,” says he, “the admirable creature of God which in the year 1610 I saw with these my own eyes. I happened to be, standing, at daybreak, on the shore not far from the harbour of St. John, when I observed a marine monster swiftly swimming towards me. Lovely was her shape; eyes, nose, ears, cheeks, mouth, neck, forehead, and the whole face was as that of the fairest maiden; her hair, of azure hue, fell over her shoulders...” Altogether, a strange fish. The rest of the quotation will be found in Gottfried’s Historia Antipodum. Consult also Gesner, Rondeletius, Scaliger, and other good folk, from whose relations it appears evident that Sirens were common enough in their days and, doubtless for that reason, of little repute; for whatever is common becomes debased, as the very word “vulgar” proves. This perhaps helps to explain their fishy termination, for the oldest Sirens were of bird kind. The change took place, I imagine, about the time of Saint Augustine, when so many pagan shapes began to affect new vestments and characters, not always to their advantage. It influenced even those born in Hellenic waters, whom we might have supposed to have remained more respectable and conservative than the others. Thus Theodoras Gaza, whose name is a guarantee of good faith and intelligence -- did he not write the first Greek grammar? -- once related in a large and distinguished company (Pontanus was also present) how that, after a great storm in the Peloponnesus, a sea-lady was cast up with other jetsam on the beach. She was still alive and breathing hard; her face and body were, “absolutely human” and not uncomely. Immediately a large concourse of people gathered round, but her sighs and heaving breast plainly showed how embarrassed she was by their vulgar curiosity. Presently she began to cry outright. The com­passionate scholar ordered the crowd to move away and escorted her, as best he could, to the waters edge. There, throwing herself into the waves with a mighty splash, she vanished from sight. This one, again, partook rather of the nature of a fish than of a bird.
In Greece, too, Sirens of every kind have ceased to sing. I remember a long-drawn, golden evening among the Cyclades. A spell had fallen over all things; the movement of Nature seemed to be momentarily arrested; there was not a sound below; overhead, the sunbeams vibrated with tuneful melodies. Janko, the fisherman, had dropped his oars, and our boat, the only moving object in that preter­natural stillness, was drawn by an invisible hand towards the ruddy pool in the west. Athwart our path lay a craggy islet, black and menacing against the background of crimson conflagration. Soon it came in upon us in swarthy confusion of rock and cloven ravine, a few gleams of emerald in its sheltered recesses. Here if anywhere, me thought, Sirens might still dwell unmolested. The curly-pated rascal steered with cunning hand towards a Lilliputian inlet; like a true Greek he appreciated curiosity in every form. He resolutely refused to set foot on shore. I began my explorations alone, concluding that he had visited the place before. It was no Siren islet. It was an islet of fleas. I picked them off my clothes in tens, in hundreds, in handfuls. Never was mortal nearer jumping out of his skin…”

Norman Douglas, Siren Land (1911)

Em fundo: Esther Ofarim, Split Personality

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