Sirenas, Songstresses of the Philippine Seas
In 1493, Christopher Columbus claimed to have spotted a few mermaids and left decidedly unimpressed, writing that they: “were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men”. Despite their failure to impress Columbus, mermaids have been both worshipped and despised for centuries all over the globe and in different cultures.
Engraving of an Assyrian Cylinder, with Dagon, or the Fish-god (Public Domain)
Ancient cultures around the world regarded the sea as a dangerous place populated with beings who preyed upon people - men in particular. Even centuries before Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder famously wrote that the nereids are sea nymphs, recognizable as half-human and half-fish, there already existed the Mesopotamian Dagon and the Babylonian Oannes - both deities with human heads and fish bodies. Atargatis, the chief goddess of northern Syria, was human above the waist and fish below it. Accordingly associated with water, Atargatis watched over the fertility of her people as well as their general well-being. The Syrians venerated Atargatis with the biggest temple they could build complete with a pond for sacred fish.
The sirens, who appeared for the first time in Homer’s description in book 12 of the Odyssey as singing creatures that lured the enchanted sailors to their death, were legendary creatures with bird bodies and human female heads. Although they serenaded mariners, the sirens were not half-fish maidens who lived in the sea. They were half-bird – half-woman creatures who lived on an island in a flowery meadow. However, in later folklore, the ancient Greek sirens are more often portrayed as fully aquatic and mermaid-like. The fact that in many languages in the world such as Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Portuguese and Philippine the word for ‘mermaid’ is respectively sirena, sirène, sirena, syrena, sirenă, sereia and sirena may have added to the visual confusion.
Odysseus and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891) National Gallery of Victoria (Public Domain)
A sirena in the Philippine mythology is a mythological aquatic creature with the head and torso of a human female and the tail of a fish. Unlike the ancient Greek’s sirens, sirenas are actually portrayed as mermaid-like creatures who live under the sea.
Precocious Mermaids of the Philippines
In some regions of the Philippines, sirenas are portrayed as evil mermaids. Their method of harming humans varied.
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