The sirens (meaning 'entanglers') had initially been imagined to be creatures of awesome destructive power and dreadful allure. In the nineteenth century, which saw an influx of these enchanted women in art, they became synonymous with sexuality and seduction. Mythologies concerning nymphs and sirens occur throughout Europe, from the Russalkahs and Marmaete of Eastern and Northern Europe to the French Melusine and the German Lorelei and Nixen. In folklore and mythology, kelpies, naiads, crenae, potamids and limnads inhabited the streams and rivers that flowed into the ocean of their sisters, the sea-nymphs. Some crawled out of their watery grottoes and lived among the trees as dryads or as oreads dwelling on the mountain slopes, ready to ensnare imprudent shepherds. Paintings of nymphs and sirens were as numerous as the Nereids themselves in the annual exhibitions of the Continental salons and British Royal Academy. Artists andd poets would have liked us to believe that every brook, lake, ocean cove and bathtub was inhabited by a naiad or an undine.

It is unsurprising that the nymphs should be so popular during the century of the corset and sexual repression, as they offered freedom to the incarcerated male libido. The daughters of the ocean symbolise the alternative image ofWoman from that of the petticoated china-doll, allowing themselves to become absorbed by their hunger for sexual gratification. Images of nymphs and the sirens had become seductive and beautiful, but their inhcivnr dangerous trait remained. The sirens' promise carries a baleful price, for their kiss is laced with [67/68] poison, albeit sweet venom. As the nymphs and sirens can only obtain a soul by procreating with a mortal, their seduction also leads to the loss of their immortality. Therefore intercourse with sea maidens is fatal to both the sirens and their prey. The loss of their virginity is the awakening o reality and with reality comes death. The siren is the personification of venereal disease, the whon of the sea, a sexy Nemesis to punish those who stray into her sea bed.

The sado-masochistic preoccupation with the saline vampires is rather disturbing. Women wen being represented as untrustworthy, schizophrenic and treacherous, watching wide-eyed from from the rocks for the next male victim to drag from the security of his boat. Swinburne had recognised the predatory nature of these young women in the first scene of Act III of his poem Chastelard, which inspired Draper's 'The Sea Maiden' of 1894:

A song of drag-nets hauled across thwart seas
And plucked up with rent sides, and caught therein
A strange haired woman with sad singing lips,
Cold in cheek, like any stay of sea
And sweet to touch? so their men seeing her face,
And how she sighed out little Ahs! of pain,
And soft cries sobbing sideways from her mouth,
Fell in hot love, and having lain with her,
Died soon?" [67-68]

References

Toll, Simon. Herbert Draper, 1863-1920: A Life Study. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2003.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts Herbert James Draper (1864-1920) Painting

Last modified 15 March 2002