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A Book of Myths

Page: 107

Many are the tales of sea-maidens who have stolen men’s lives from them and sent their bodies to move up and down amidst the wrack, like broken toys with which a child has grown tired of playing and cast away in weariness. In an eighth-century chronicle concerning St. Fechin, we read of evil powers whose rage is “seen in that watery fury and their hellish hate and turbulence in the beating of the sea against the rocks.” “The bitter gifts of our lord Poseidon” is the name [Pg 223] given to them by one of the earliest poets of Greece[7] and a poet of our own time—poet of the sea, of running water, and of lonely places—quotes from the saying of a fisherman of the isle of Ulva words that show why simple minds have so many times materialised the restless, devouring element into the form of a woman who is very beautiful, but whose tender mercies are very cruel. “She is like a woman of the old tales whose beauty is dreadful,” said Seumas, the islander, “and who breaks your heart at last whether she smiles or frowns. But she doesn’t care about that, or whether you are hurt or not. It’s because she has no heart, being all a wild water.”[8]

Treacherous, beautiful, remorseless, that is how men regard the sea and the rushing rivers, of whom the sirens and mermaids of old tradition have come to stand as symbols. Treacherous and pitiless, yet with a fascination that can draw even the moon and the stars to her breast:


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