Monday, 30th July, 2018

The Silence of the Sirens

The identities of the sirens are as slippery and amorphous as water itself. Only the frames of history, art, and culture did contain them, giving them shape, contour, substance, and specificity. Mythically, the sirens are created from an act of violence. According to Ovid, repentant of not having prevented the abduction of their friend Persephone by Hades while they were gathering daffodils, the sirens asked the gods to be turned into birds in order to better search for their lost friend at sea. Later, the siren came to embody the dismay that the greeks felt for chthonic women (female deities belonging to a religious order prior to the Gods, but also women in flesh and blood, feared because sources of mysterious wisdom).

The sirens become threatening marine creatures only during the Middle Ages, when the myth was instrumentalised by religion, transforming their femininity into a symbol of lust and temptation. In Sicily, on the other hand, they did not seem to exercise particular powers but were closer to ordinary women. Reading the anthropologist Giuseppe Pitrè, we often see them succumb to the astuteness of the sailors who involve them in love games, often with a tragic outcome: “the sailor threw a ring into the sea, and she [the siren] dived in to retrieve it: but she wasn’t coming back, and after half an hour some blood had emerged. The sailor understood, and went free minding his own business”.

Even today our seabeds are inhabited by nameless bodies. Last June the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto published an integral ‘list’ of the 34,361 ascertained victims during the trip to reach the European coasts in the last 15 years. The real number of refugees who died in these circumstances is unfortunately enormously superior, but the Dutch association UNITED for Intercultural Action (together with the Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu) has managed to compile the most complete list so far. Although the majority of victims remain unfortunately still anonymous, we know that there were at least 13 women from North Africa who lost their lives at sea trying to reach the shores of Sicily.

The ‘smooth’ space of the sea of ​​the sirens, moved by the wind, the sun and the stars, in turn contains a ‘striated’ space, punctuated by nautical charts that mark and regulate the surface of the water in calculable distances: those of the great explorations, of colonialism, of wars, of migrations. In Africa the mythical image of the siren could have originated in this context, inspired by the surprise and the dismay provoked at the sight of the incisions of the silhouettes of fish-women on the prows of traders and slavers. The cult of Mami Wata (this is the name in Pidgin English of the most known sea deity of Africa) spread right between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century, the era of the great trades and colonialism. The African siren embodies both the suggestive power of the fear of the white spirits of the dominators (white is traditionally associated with the spirit world in many cultures of Nigeria where people often whiten their skin with talcum or other substances for rituals) as well as that of their promises of wealth and fortune.

Mami Wata, Adolph Friedlander Company, Der Schlangenbändiger (The Snake Charmer), c. 1880–1887.

Myth, wrote Italian philosopher Furio Jesi, “is important not so much for its essence, but for its existence: not so much for what it is but rather for the function it performs. This function is primarily a juridical function”. The complicated history of the sirens, creatures in continuous transformation, suggests that the sea is a complex territory, able to contain distinct surfaces–such as the smooth of the myth and the striated of colonialism and migratory movements–but still intersected (the etymology of siren comes, among other things, from the Greek σειρά, rope, lace). But the sea, as we are tragically reminded by the thousands of dead, is not just surface: from top to bottom is an abyss.

Stranded carrack at Ballarò market in Palermo.

In front of the abyss, Kafka reminds us, even the sirens, offended by Ulysses’ presumptuous trick, remained silent: the hero covered his ears with wax to navigate pass them, but the sirens did not sing and Ulysses succeeded, overcoming the abyss unscathed. Maybe that of the sirens was a silent song because of the devastating absence of their friend Persephone, never found back from the sea? In front of this loss–as in front that of the 34,361 confirmed victims–the hero (the powerful man on service), because he is tied up and deaf, still arrives back to his ‘port’ unvanquished. But Kafka warns: “against the feeling of having triumphed over them by one’s own strength, and the consequent exaltation that bears down everything before it, no earthly powers can remain intact”.

Colophon: Nostre Signore del Fuori (Our Ladies from the Outside) is a complementary column to the performative work of Nora Turato,
published in the Giornale di Sicilia every once in a while throughout Manifesta 12. Written as a series of eight microhistories of women related to the city of Palermo, this column aims to explore the theme of the outside through ‘minor’ voices, mumblings and mutterings, popular myths, clichés and platitudes, potential forms of reflection on the linguistic and cultural syncretism of the city.
Edited by Andrea di Serego Alighieri. Italian proofreading by Emilia Cantieri.
Typesetting by Robert Milne. Contact: Made possible with the support of Mondriaan Fonds.