Naples, Lamezia, Copenhagen and Warsaw: the cities of mermaids

by Federico Quagliuolo

Three sirens for three European capitals. It is not the name of a new extravagant television program, but a strange kinship that binds European cities that have linked their history to the mythological figure of the siren.
In fact, we are talking about the capital of Denmark, the capital of Poland and the former capital of the Two Sicilies: all cities linked to water, an element that represents life par excellence.
And the Siren, in turn, represents motherhood, with its feminine forms and with its protective or generating function of cities.

Naples Partenope sirens
The Parthenope siren. Drawing by our Antonio Inglese

Partenope, Ligea and Leucosia: the sirens of Naples, Castellabate and Lamezia Terme

Three versions of the myth are known.
Partenope would in fact be the first of three mermaid sisters, as told in the Odyssey. They were women with monstrous, birdlike features.
From the depths of the sea they reached the shores of Naples and, with their song, bewitched and captured the sailors. At least until Ulysses passed, who managed to resist the siren song after being tied to a ship's mast.
The three sisters, desperate to have been defeated, decided to commit suicide by throwing themselves off a cliff: Partenope ended up near the islet of Megaride, today the Castel dell'Ovo (although it seems that his tomb is under San Giovanni Maggiore); Ligea ended up on the shores of the Okinaros river (today it is called Bagni), near Lamezia Terme, and was buried right there and today there is a statue that remembers her; Leucosia instead ended up in the parts of Castellabate and the promontory in which it is buried took the name of Punta Licosa.

The myth of Partenope and Vesuvius and instead very similar to another involving the volcano.
The mermaid was actually a girl and Vesuvius a centaur. The two were very much in love but Zeus, who wished to join Partenope, decided to eliminate the competitor of love by transforming Vesuvius into a mountain.
Partenope, destroyed by grief, committed suicide by throwing herself into the water, but her body was brought ashore and turned into the islet of Megaride. And around her a wonderful city was born.

The third myth Matilde Serao tells it: Partenope and Cimone were two Greek boys very much in love, but who could not marry due to a ban on families. So they decided to flee to the coasts of Campania, which at the time was a Greek colony. They gave birth to 12 children and founded the city of Naples.

Syrenka, the Warsaw fighter

The Warsaw Mermaid is a warrior, a worthy representative of the Polish people. Its image is practically omnipresent in the city: it can be found on manholes, on lamp post boxes, in graffiti and even on road signs. Although its most famous representation is related to the statue of the Syrenka, located at the Old Town Square.

Asking the story of the Warsaw siren from a Pole is an experience in itself: each person knows a different version of the legend and claims that it is the only correct interpretation.
The stories, however, always have a common structure: it is said that, in the mists of time, a mermaid who swam in the Baltic Sea ventured into the Vistula River, the watercourse on which Warsaw was born. One day, tired of the long swim, she stopped near the old city and began to sing, but was captured by a ruthless merchant who exhibited her at the market as a freak.
A young fisherman was moved to see the young mermaid cry and decided to free her. She, to thank him, decided to stay and live in Warsaw to defend the city from every evil man. And in fact, since the 14th century, the year of its first appearance in the city heraldry, it is represented with a sword and shield.

Copenhagen siren
The Copenhagen mermaid

Copenhagen, the tormented one

Apparently the mermaid family is quite prolific. And it seems that the Copenhagen siren is the sister of the Warsaw one. Compared to Syrenka, however, it seems that the Danish relative is as famous as she is unlucky.

The statue, which today is the undisputed symbol of the city, was placed in 1913 by Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of the Carlsberg brewery, in homage to the tale of the Little Mermaid invented by his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen: the tale of the fish-woman who, out of love, she decides to sacrifice her life to walk on land and reach the man of her dreams, with a tragic ending. A story that certainly draws on a Greek-oriental cultural heritage.

Even the statue of the Little Mermaid did not look good in her life: she was beheaded three times, her limbs were amputated at least four times and, in 2003, a madman even decided to blow her up with an explosive charge. But the statue was promptly restored and returned to observe the sea on its rock.
It is also one of the most copied monuments in the world, with thirteen copies scattered across the five continents: there are mermaids in Vancouver, Madrid, Giardini Naxos, Seoul and several other cities.

Pania New Zealand

Not just Europe

The symbol of the fish-woman is not only linked to European culture, but is spread all over the world in legends with very similar plots.

For example in New Zeland the story of one woman is famous Pania, a fish-woman who, every day, went up to land and at night returned to her home on the seabed. Due to the constant raids out of the water, she was disowned by her people and, out of love, she decided to live among men. Then she repented and suddenly ran away back into the world that really belonged to her. Practically the opposite of our good Colapesce, the boy who, in love with the sea, left the mainland to turn into a fish and wander around the seas of Naples and Sicily for 4000 years.

The Siren symbol was also used by knights Templars and from religious orders, as can be seen in a small representation of a woman with two fish tails in the Duomo of Milan, or even in symbols scattered in the churches of the entire Valle d'Orcia.
Lastly, the Mermaid has even become fashionable: it is in fact the symbol of Starbucks, the American coffee chain. In fact, it had to be a logo of a beautiful and bewitching place, just like the siren's song.

A similarity between Colapesce and the sirens are there: they too have worked hard to populate the coasts of all continents. Who knows if mermaid gatherings are not organized in the deepest seas.

-Federico Quagliuolo

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