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Saunterings - The Myth Of The Sirens Post by :pujangga Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2101

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Saunterings - The Myth Of The Sirens

I like to walk upon the encircling ridge behind Sorrento, which commands both bays. From there I can look down upon the Isles of the Sirens. The top is a broad, windy strip of pasture, which falls off abruptly to the Bay of Salerno on the south: a regular embankment of earth runs along the side of the precipitous steeps, towards Sorrento. It appears to be a line of defence for musketry, such as our armies used to throw up: whether the French, who conducted siege operations from this promontory on Capri, under Murat, had anything to do with it, does not appear.

Walking there yesterday, we met a woman shepherdess, cowherd, or siren--standing guard over three steers while they fed; a scantily-clad, brown woman, who had a distaff in her hand, and spun the flax as she watched the straying cattle, an example of double industry which the men who tend herds never imitate. Very likely her ancestors so spun and tended cattle on the plains of Thessaly. We gave the rigid woman good-morning, but she did not heed or reply; we made some inquiries as to paths, but she ignored us; we bade her good-day, and she scowled at us: she only spun. She was so out of tune with the people, and the gentle influences of this region, that we could only regard her as an anomaly,--the representative of some perversity and evil genius, which, no doubt, lurks here as it does elsewhere in the world. She could not have descended from either of the groups of the Sirens; for she was not fascinating enough to be fatal.

I like to look upon these islets or rocks of the Sirens, barren and desolate, with a few ruins of the Roman time and remains of the Middle-Age prisons of the doges of Amalfi; but I do not care to dissipate any illusions by going to them. I remember how the Sirens sat on flowery meads by the shore and sang, and are vulgarly supposed to have allured passing mariners to a life of ignoble pleasure, and then let them perish, hungry with all unsatisfied longings. The bones of these unfortunates, whitening on the rocks, of which Virgil speaks, I could not see. Indeed, I think any one who lingers long in this region will doubt if they were ever there, and will come to believe that the characters of the Sirens are popularly misconceived. Allowing Ulysses to be only another name for the sun-god, who appears in myths as Indra, Apollo, William Tell, the sure-hitter, the great archer, whose arrows are sunbeams, it is a degrading conception of him that he was obliged to lash himself to the mast when he went into action with the Sirens, like Farragut at Mobile, though for a very different reason. We should be forced to believe that Ulysses was not free from the basest mortal longings, and that he had not strength of mind to resist them, but must put himself in durance; as our moderns who cannot control their desires go into inebriate asylums.

Mr. Ruskin says that "the Sirens are the great constant desires, the infinite sicknesses of heart, which, rightly placed, give life, and, wrongly placed, waste it away; so that there are two groups of Sirens, one noble and saving, as the other is fatal." Unfortunately we are all, as were the Greeks, ministered unto by both these groups, but can fortunately, on the other hand, choose which group we will listen to the singing of, though the strains are somewhat mingled; as, for instance, in the modern opera, where the music quite as often wastes life away, as gives to it the energy of pure desire. Yet, if I were to locate the Sirens geographically, I should place the beneficent desires on this coast, and the dangerous ones on that of wicked Baiae; to which group the founder of Naples no doubt belonged.

Nowhere, perhaps, can one come nearer to the beautiful myths of Greece, the springlike freshness of the idyllic and heroic age, than on this Sorrentine promontory. It was no chance that made these coasts the home of the kind old monarch Eolus, inventor of sails and storm-signals. On the Telegrafo di Mare Cuccola is a rude signal-apparatus for communication with Capri,--to ascertain if wind and wave are propitious for entrance to the Blue Grotto,--which probably was not erected by Eolus, although he doubtless used this sightly spot as one of his stations. That he dwelt here, in great content, with his six sons and six daughters, the Months, is nearly certain; and I feel as sure that the Sirens, whose islands were close at hand, were elevators and not destroyers of the primitive races living here.

It seems to me this must be so; because the pilgrim who surrenders himself to the influences of these peaceful and sun-inundated coasts, under this sky which the bright Athena loved and loves, loses, by and by, those longings and heart-sicknesses which waste away his life, and comes under the dominion, more and more, of those constant desires after that which is peaceful and enduring and has the saving quality of purity. I know, indeed, that it is not always so; and that, as Boreas is a better nurse of rugged virtue than Zephyr, so the soft influences of this clime only minister to the fatal desires of some: and such are likely to sail speedily back to Naples.

The Sirens, indeed, are everywhere; and I do not know that we can go anywhere that we shall escape the infinite longings, or satisfy them. Here, in the purple twilight of history, they offered men the choice of good and evil. I have a fancy, that, in stepping out of the whirl of modern life upon a quiet headland, so blessed of two powers, the air and the sea, we are able to come to a truer perception of the drift of the eternal desires within us. But I cannot say whether it is a subtle fascination, linked with these mythic and moral influences, or only the physical loveliness of this promontory, that lures travelers hither, and detains them on flowery meads.

Charles Dudley Warner's Book: Saunterings

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