Mermaids, Sirens, or Goddesses?

The hybrid ‘mermaid’ originates in the east where ancient fertility goddesses were depicted in that form, for example, the Syrian Atergatis (Derketo) was a fish goddess. In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, there are displayed, in Case 30b, eleven silver amulets representing six ‘mermaids’.

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Superstitious belief in the influence of mal’occhio (evil-eye) in Neapolitan terms requires amuletic protection against jettatura (jettatori, bringers of ill-luck). Neapolitan for evil-eye is maluocchje. These charms were especially dedicated to infants and come  in two forms – sea-horses (cavallo marino) and sirena.  These ‘mermaids’ are not cimaruta.  A cimaruta, (cima di ruta or sprig of rue) is the ‘herb of grace’, an asymmetrical composite silver charm, of great antiquity, for children and possibly inspired by ancient tree cults.

Mythologically the goddess Demeter begged the assistance of sirens when her daughter Persephone (Proserpine) was abducted by Hades. Mounting Hippocampi (sea-horses) and flying over land and sea they located Persephone in the Underworld.  The ancient name of Naples comes from Parthenope (maiden voice) and most beautiful of sirens, buried in countryside imbued with sirenic folklore. Parthenope’s remains (in the legend she escaped into an amulet) were mythically found on the Naples shoreline.

Neapolitan hippocampi were later used as silver bell ornamented babies jingles. The twin-tailed Sirene are usually window suspended or worn by women, the bifurcated tail amulets being peculiarly Neapolitan. The grasping of the twin tails shows influence of first millennium BC Assyrian art. Sirene are probably middle-eastern in origin and possibly brought to Italy by Phoenician and Nabatean (Arabian Petra) seafarers.

Modern Sirene amulets are always silver and symmetrical, all for suspension, and determinedly contra-jettatori. Neapolitan for amulet is corno and designated Sirene or Cavalla Marini respectively. Sirene are crowned and seated on two sea-horses represented by their tails.

The shape of the Sirene connect with Proserpine (Diana-Proserpine was a sea goddess of Phoenician provenance) through Egyptian goddess Hathor when in her bird-woman representation. Hathor was to Isis what Proserpine was to Diana. Diana, as protectress of women during childbirth, was thus an appropriate amulet to protect against the evil-eye. The Siren, as bird-woman Parthenope, is Hathor to Isis with wings. It is notable that a temple to Diana is 16 miles from Naples.

Modern Neapolitan charms derive ultimately from middle-eastern antiquity. Our ‘mermaids’  are Sirens whose ancestry recalls goddess worship, invoking protection for women and children, and Parthenope who enticed, but drowned instead, for the unrequited love of Odysseus.

Gunther, R. T. (1905). The Cimaruta: Its structure and development. Folklore. XVI, (2).

Barry, V.  (1968). Neapolitan Charms Against the evil eye. Folklore, LXXXIX, (40).

Elworthy, F.  (1958). The Evil Eye. New York.

Burnell, F. S. (1949). Ino and her Veil. Folklore,  LX, (10).

Lempriere, J. (1994)Classical Dictionary. Bracken books, London.

First printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum. November 2006.


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