The Sound Of Sirens

sea nymph ebj

Edward Burne Jones, “The Sea Nymph”, 1881

For some time I have been thinking of mermaids. These alluring creatures embody many aspects of the current which animates the Haunted Shoreline, and there is also a strong local connection: the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones lived on this stretch of coastline, at Rottingdean, for the last 18 years of his life, and while residing here he seems to have been rather preoccupied (perhaps even haunted) by sea sirens, which appear in many of his paintings of this period (the wonderfully named blog The Kissed Mouth has an excellent post on this topic).

However, in order to be faithful to the spirit(s) of this adventure, I decided to delay writing about mermaids until such time as the Shoreline itself gave me a sign to proceed. And so it came to pass: I did not, alas, find an actual mermaid washed ashore, but I did find this:


This is an egg case, probably from a dogfish or ray (anyone able to identify the precise species is invited to get in touch through the comments), but the relevance here comes from the name given to such egg cases in folklore… mermaid’s purses. 

The Shoreline having spoken, I headed into Rottingdean village, to St Margaret’s Church, which has a number of stained glass windows by Burne Jones (more on these in a future post) and memorial stones for the artist and his wife Georgiana set into the church wall:


I was told that nobody is sure whether Burne Jones is actually buried there- “probably his ashes” said the vicar. What is not in doubt is where he lived: he and his wife purchased two adjoining houses, Prospect Cottage and Aubrey Cottage, opposite the church, and later acquired a third – this last was called Gothic House, but the couple renamed it North End House, apparently in reference to North End Road, Fulham, where they had lived prior to their move to the coast (also, the house is the most northerly of the three). All these buildings still stand:


Left to right: Prospect Cottage, Aubrey Cottage, North End House

The blue plaque on Prospect Cottage:


So what it is about mermaids? Of course there is an erotic element, but it is an ambiguous eroticism: the mermaid, after all, is sexually unattainable, for obvious anatomical reasons. As such, she may be the epitome of the goddess/temptress dichotomy: able to drive men mad with a desire that can never be sated. But more than this, she is a liminal creature, simultaneously of both the visible human world and the unknowable occult depths (for previous consideration of liminal creatures- that is, Shoreline creatures, see here and here).

Regular readers will know that Surrealist, rather than pre-Rapaelite, art is the house style here at the Shoreline- there are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Surrealism was explicitly concerned with the threshold between the seen and unseen, the daytime world of waking consciousness and the dark dreamzone of the Unconscious, the land and the sea… the Shoreline. So here I present a few Surrealist mermaids. The first, by Andre Masson, is particularly apposite, as it was produced by the process of automatic drawing, one of the key Surrealist techniques for allowing the contents of the Unconscious to cross the liminal threshold and emerge into daylight:

Sirens 1947 by André Masson 1896-1987

Andre Masson, “Sirens”, 1947

That scoundrel Salvador Dali, meanwhile, painted an idiosyncratic vision of The Little Mermaid for a 1966 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, which I haven’t included in this post as it seems such an inferior example of his work, but it can be seen here. Instead I much prefer this, from 1939, in which Dali’s depiction of the mermaid’s dangerous eroticism appears to anticipate future trends in fetishwear:


Salvador Dali, “Masked Mermaid in Black”, 1939

Finally something from one of the Shoreline’s presiding goddesses, Leonora Carrington – in fact I have posted this painting before, when I mused on the fact that the progression of colours, black-white-red, refers to the three stages of alchemy. But some things bear repeating:

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Now returning, like the Fools we are, to where we began- it may be of note that another folkloric name for a dogfish egg case, a mermaid’s purse,  is devil’s purse. For not only can the mermaid torment a man with impossible desire, she may also drag him to his doom. Plunging into the hazardous waters of love, a man may be utterly undone, as Burne Jones’ most famous mermaid image, The Depths of the Sea (1881) illustrates. I leave you to ponder it, and ponder it well.


Le Dauphin Acéphale

Number 13

Today is Friday 13th and this is the 13th post on the Shoreline. An appropriate time to consider this recent event on Saltdean beach:

Decapitated dolphin found on Saltdean beach

Saltdean resident Gilles Guichard made the grisly discovery on Tuesday afternoon. He said: “It was quite shocking. The head had completely gone and it was lying on a rock.”

The rest of the article talks up the possibility that the unfortunate dolphin may have been attacked by a shark, then talks it down again:

Steve Strange, the Sussex representative for the Seawatch Foundation, said: “There are cases of whales and dolphins that have died elsewhere floating around and then been hit by a boat. We do get sharks in the area but normally in the summer. They are likely to have moved somewhere they are more likely to find food.”

(Surely not that Steve Strange?)

(It is, frankly, unlikely to have been a shark attack, though if more local finds suggest otherwise, rest assured the Shoreline will be on the case: watching the waters, sensing the chthonic eddies, and generally smelling the breath of the beast.)

The news report is, of course, entirely silent regarding the esoteric ripples and resonances of this event, leaving it to the Shoreline to- how can I put it- read the entrails. So grab yourself a bit of driftwood, and let’s have a hack at the carcass.

In Greek mythology, dolphins were associated with Apollo, whose sanctuary was at Delphi: the name itself is probably a dolphin reference. Apollo rode to Deplhi on a dolphin (or swam there in the guise of one, depending on the version), before confronting and slaying the serpent Python, a monstrous snake-dragon which had prevented access to the sanctuary and which no mortal could defeat. Having killed Python with a single arrow, Apollo claimed the sanctuary.

The Ancient Greeks believed Deplhi was the Omphalos, the Navel (here synonymous with Centre) of the World. This sacred site is most famous for the Delphic Oracle:

The Delphic Oracle, known as the “Pythia”. This priestess would be seated on a tripod (Apollo’s symbol of prophecy) in a state of trance, the position of the tripod was situated above a fissure in the floor of the temple, from which arose strange hallucinating vapors. She would also be chewing laurel leaves, while in this trance she only mumbled her answer, which a high priest would translate into Apollo’s prophecy. Before this took place the supplicants (male only), which were known as Theopropes, had to be purified in a ritual washing ceremony which took place in the Castalian Spring. The Pythia also had to purify herself in the same manner before she performed her duties. The consultation would begin with a ritual sacrifice of an animal, but if the offering was not in a favorable condition and if cold water sprinkled onto the animal made it tremble the supplicant and the animal were turned away. From here the petitioners would enter the sanctum of the temple. Here the question, which had been previously written, was handed to the priest, who in turn asked the Pythia for Apollo’s answer. From her sometimes garbled muttering, the priest would translate into hexameter verse. The Pythia never gave a straight answer, Heraclitus the philosopher (circa 500 BCE) said. The oracle neither conceals nor reveals the truth, but only hints at it.

Rather like this blog then.

Could a decapitated dolphin represent vengeance for Python? A brutal eruption of serpent energy here on the Shoreline? Recently we considered the great World Serpent Ouroboros, its manifestations in this locality and its symbolism of recurrence and renewal. Is this the dark side of that current?

For the Greeks, dolphins were themselves associated with notions of renewal. They were conveyors of souls: the Cretans and Etruscans depicted dolphins as carriers of the dead, bringing the newly deceased to the Isles of the Blessed. Thus they were creatures with the power to cross the liminal threshold between worlds, and in this role were symbols of regeneration.

Ah, regeneration. The Eternal Wheel turns once again, and the phoenix rises in glory from the flames. Life triumphs over stasis, and all is well. Isn’t it wonderful? Well, yes it is. But in the face of this there can be no retreat into warm fuzzy feelgood mysticism: pain, fear,  suffering, death, decay and putrefaction are all very real parts of the cycle- just as much as birth, love, art, music and the pursuit of knowledge. If we try to explain away the pain of the World as ‘just another part of the the cycle’ we diminish, gloss over, or even entirely deny it.

The symbolism of the Death card in the Tarot is often discussed in terms of regeneration- something is ending, but something new will arise in its place. Search online for discussion of Major Arcanum number 13, and you’ll see much reassuring talk of ‘new beginnings’, ‘fresh starts’, and the like. Well, OK. But let’s not forget the Death.  And a decapitated dolphin is one hell of a memento mori.

Georges Bataille, with his base materialism, would doubtless have agreed with these sentiments, and there is a link here with Bataille’s Acephale (Headless), which was both a cultural journal and a secret society. There were five issues of Acephale, the journal, between 1936 and 1939. It was mostly written by Bataille himself, but also included contributions from the likes of Andre Masson and Roger Caillois. It was largely concerned with the ideas of Nietzsche, and with claiming Nietzsche back from the Fascists, who were by now rampant across Europe. And, by extension, it attempted to imbue the Left with a radical re-imagining of the powerful mythic forces so successfully appropriated and channelled by the far Right in this period. Bataille recognised that the Left’s po-faced secularism was lacking something in terms of magnetic appeal. A reproduction of Acephale 2 can be seen here (ignore the ads and download buttons though).

Acephale, the secret society, included the same people, more or less, and had the same agenda of radicalising the sacred… probably. No-one seems to know exactly what they got up to: phrases like ‘secret rites’ and ‘occult rituals’ come up in the brief accounts that are available,  but I can find no detail beyond that. Legend has it that all the members of the group were intrigued by the notion of ritual sacrifice by beheading, and all agreed to be the victim in such a rite. But none would agree to be the executioner.

Whatever the truth, it seems clear that, for Bataille, a complete rejection of religion and mysticism could readily co-exist with an intense interest in these things for what they could reveal about the base material of the human condition. Contradiction? Well, the Shoreline is familiar with such contradictions, and offers the following advice: when you find yourself having to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable worldviews, zoom out, until you find a vantage point that gives a view that can encompass both, and hopefully many more besides.