Her lifeless body washed up on the rocks of the island of Megaride, on the Bay of Naples, where the earliest Greek colonists discovered her corpse and arranged for a reverent burial on Pizzofalcone hill. This was how Naples began. Parthenope was one of the Sirens who tried to lure Odysseus on to their rocks as he sailed toward home.
The Sirens sang and promised the future and Odysseus struggled to respond to their call, but forewarned by Circe he was tied to the mast and his men had their ears blocked with bees' wax and rowed on. A sirena is a mermaid, as in the little image of the mermaid on the yellow and red tin of Sirena tuna sold in Australia. It is probably a coincidence that red and yellow are the city colours of Naples, the colours that make its festive bunting flame against the blue of the sea and the sky on a clear day.
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Sirena classico tuna in oil Italian style. Her bluish silver tail, with twin flared flukes like a diving whale's, is folded back under her. Her raised left elbow reaches just outside the red disc at the top. The curved part of her lower body, which would be her shin if she were merely human, touches the lower inside of the disc directly opposite at seven o'clock. Her silvery blue scales begin, faintly, almost imperceptibly, with superb verisimilitude, on the lower side of her visible buttock, lightly caressed by the splendid forked tail.
As it is, supported by unseen water, she seems to have picked up a few lessons in posture from her fellow marine anomaly the tiny seahorse. Columbus was disgusted when he crossed the Atlantic and in January saw three mermaids who were Creatures Columbus seems to have been describing dugongs or manatees and thus rather understating his disappointment.
Histories of Naples always began with Parthenope and thus I imagined her. Parthenope got no personal mention in the Odyssey , where in any case the Sirens were only two. When not trying to attract the attention of a passing boat, they lounged in their meadow on an island, among the mouldering bones of the seamen they had lured to their death.
Homer didn't say what they looked like.
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Their appeal was not their bodies and their only mentioned attraction the irresistible call of their high, thrilling song , which was not just seductive music but a promise of knowing the past, the future, the elsewhere. Homer didn't describe them, leaving us to infer that they were purely human.
Eugenio Montale-Collected Poems, 1920-1954 Revised Bilingual Edition(2000)
It was a shock to find the Sirens shown on ancient vases as hideous and slightly absurd vulturelike birds, short and flightless, clumsy half-plucked chooks suspended in the air in most surviving images — the plucked look belonging to the human upper body, the feathers and talons showing from the thighs — who might have been sketched by Edward Lear. You could imagine how their unearthly music might invite thoughts of sea birds wheeling and calling above the surf and the rocks with the promise of something beyond the shore.
But a seagull is beautiful and as shown on pots the Sirens were hideous fat carrion birds with stumpy wings, hardly relieved by their young girls' faces. Something bad happened when they tried to save their friend, or maybe because they failed to save her. Or maybe it was because they intended to remain virgins. The something bad was the carrion bird body and the great predators' talons. They might have been plucked by the muses after losing a singing contest. Sometimes they had beards as well. Harpies too were killer women with wings and talons, flying embodiments of the vagina dentata to the hallucinating stressed-out sailor, but they lacked the lure of song.
Harpies — the snatchers — were attack birds, or attack women, and they came on like sudden fatal storms out of a clear day at sea. They too began as only two and became more numerous but lacking music and insight, they never won acceptance the way the Sirens did in the end. Music had a way of overcoming obstacles. The bird women took off from their eyrie and wheeled over passing boats.
The island offered powerful settings for their suicide when they failed to lure Odysseus to his destruction. One cliff rose sheer hundreds of meters out of the water. Homer was silent on the Sirens' physiology and on their deaths, interested only in how Odysseus could hear their amazing music and live. He knew when not to elaborate. They threw themselves into the sea and Parthenope's body was carried ashore at the place where Naples now is, more precisely on that tiny island a few meters offshore the Greeks called Megaris, later covered by the Castel dell'Ovo.
What did she look like?
Were the Greek settlers who found her immediately aware she was a Siren? Did they know what they were dealing with? She would have looked like the very old man with enormous wings whom Gabriel Garda Marquez once described as brought down by torrential rains in another and later remote settlement of Mediterranean origin, on the Caribbean coast of South America. Or a large fruit bat.
Bald and toothless, he was an angel rather than a siren, being male and arriving into a postclassical and Christian community, a tattooed seaman who spoke Norwegian. The locals put him in the hen coop with the other chooks and fed him on kitchen scraps, making money out of him while the church thought out its position on angels in the community. Parthenope too, like the old man, was perhaps still alive and lying face down in the mud, impeded by his enormous wings Something already quite dead washed up on a beach, looking like a drowned bird with a human face, bloated and disintegrating and previously gnawed at by sea creatures in the water, was less likely to elicit intense feelings of sympathy and identification, even devotion, than a creature still palpitating with a life of its own, however faintly, a young female who might have chosen that particular place to come ashore.
Why else would settlers have given the new place her name, and seen themselves in her? A dead Parthenope would have been like the creature that appalled Fellini's corrupted white-suited Marcello on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita.
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Day had just broken, he'd been up all night again, and the sea was too calm, an enormous yellowish puddle. Fishermen had just dragged ashore something between a rat and a pregnant woman, nearly two meters long and bearing monstrous flippers. A few crabs are crawling up its big belly, white and obscene. Fellini's fishermen, like the Caribbean people in Garcia Marquez, flared up in brief excitement at the commercial possibilities of their catch. One of them had seen people paying to see one of these in a sideshow at Gaeta. Only, like the angel on the other side of the Atlantic, the sideshow monster had been alive.
Now, throw it back The protoNeapolitans would have done the same with an already dead Parthenope. A live Parthenope, however bedraggled, however grotesque as she neared her end, would have seemed, like the old man with enormous wings, familiar. Parthenope, too, stayed around long enough for the locals to feel she was one of themselves, before they buried her on the high point where they'd built their central citadel, protected on nearly every side by sheer cliffs, the steep promontory now called Pizzofalcone where the city began, which dropped away to the sea and the tiny island where Parthenope came ashore.
Parthenope was eros and death. Dying at the moment of arrival, she reached orgasm and expiration at once. As a founding figure, she embodied the peculiarly Neapolitan sense of happiness glimpsed and never quite reached, of voluptuousness snatched away just as it was being realized. Love, death and the dangerous powers of music and knowledge. Mediterranean dreams frustrated the adolescent Humbert Humbert, whose murderous involutions would deprive Lolita of her childhood and her life. Some ancients said the Sirens themselves were nymphs. Somewhere in her long afterlife as the presiding spirit of the city that was called after her, Parthenope changed from being a drowned half-bird to a beautiful longhaired fishtailed woman.
She survived the coming of Christianity and the long centuries before ancient learning revived. Five centuries after the founding of her city, a kneeling terracotta figure from Athens showed a siren as all woman, apart from a large and shapely pair of angel's wings and a fishtail below her ankles.
Fish sirens were postdassical, Hellenistic at best, but largely medieval. Parthenope's transformation in the middle ages might have been accelerated by medieval masons' difficulties with feathers. Stone needed to be finely carved to show skin covered with feathers. The sleek tail, powerful, tapering, flexed and flaring into a bow at the end, was powerfully suggestive and less technically challenging than a pair of wings.
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Siren ambiguity went back to origins and was also linguistic. In Greek, wings and flippers shared the same word, and in Latin and then in Italian, feathers and fins were almost identical, penne e pinne. Sea people of both sexes haunted the Mediterranean from the very earliest time, and the Sirens were assimilated to them, as their harmonies and the knowledge they promised became more and more intimately a part of the sensual and sexual nature of the fish women themselves.
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