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UGA Attractive Leniency Effect on Legal Decision Making Essay


Chapter 3

“The Evolving Legend of La Llorona 

Amy Fuller 

The character of La Llorona, the Wailing Woman, is prominent in Mexican culture, particularly making appearances at Day of the Dead festivals held at the start of each November. She is a tragic figure: a woman who has killed her own children, after their father leaves her for another woman, typically one of higher status. She is now doomed to wander, looking for them, crying out, “¡ Mis hijos!” (“ My children!”). This folk tale has ancient predecessors such as Ciuacoatl and Coatlicue in ancient Aztec mythology as well as Medea in Greek mythology. However, the tale of La Llorona can also be seen as symbolic of the creation of Mexico—the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs, married or cohabited with indigenous indigenous women, but later left them (and their children) when more Spanish women arrived in the New World. Amy Fuller is a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University who teaches the History of the Americas, 1400–1700. She specializes in the history of early modern Mexico and is the author of Between Two Worlds: The Autos Sacramentales of Sor Inés de la Cruz (2015). This article (excerpted here) originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of History Today. A Mexican woman, Juana Léija, attempted to kill her seven children by throwing them into the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas in 1986. A victim of domestic violence, she was apparently trying to end her suffering and that of her children, two of whom died. During an interview Léija declared that she was La Llorona. La Llorona is a legendary figure with various incarnations. Usually translated into English as “the wailing woman,” she is often presented as a banshee-type: an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often found by lakes or rivers, sometimes at crossroads, who cries into the night for her lost children, whom she has killed. The infanticide is sometimes carried out with a knife or dagger, but very often the children have been drowned. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realizing what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever. To some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to scare children into good behavior. This folk story has been represented artistically in various guises: in film, animation, art, poetry, theatre and in literature aimed at both adults and children alike. The legend is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and among the Chicano Mexican population of the United States. The origins of the legend are uncertain, but it has been presented as having pre-Hispanic roots. La Llorona is thought to be one of ten omens foretelling the Conquest of Mexico and has also been linked to Aztec goddesses. In the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic work on the Nahua peoples of Mexico completed during the 16th century by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, we find two Aztec goddesses who could be linked to La Llorona. The first is Ciuacoatl (Snake-woman), described as “a savage beast and an evil omen” who “appeared in white” and who would walk at night “weeping and wailing.” She is also described as an “omen of war.” This goddess could also be linked to the sixth of ten omens that are recorded in the codexi as having foretold the Conquest: the voice of a woman heard wailing at night, crying about the fate of her children. 5 A later codex by a Dominican friar, Diego Durán, details the origin myths of the Aztec gods and discusses a goddess, Coatlicue, who is often linked to or thought to be the same as Ciuacoatl. Coatlicue (she of the snaky skirt) was the mother of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Durán describes her as “the ugliest and dirtiest that one could possibly imagine. Her face was so black and covered with filth that she looked like something straight out of Hell.” She waits for her son to return to her from war and weeps and mourns for him while he is gone. Durán also provides detail of some strange occurrences ahead of the Conquest that were purported to have troubled Moctezuma. Among these is a “woman who roams the streets weeping and moaning.” Though these accounts fulfil some elements of the La Llorona legend, we need to look to another goddess in order to find the links to water and infanticide. According to the Florentine Codex, Chalchiuhtlicue (the Jade-skirted one) was goddess of the waters and the elder sister of the rain god, Tlaloc. Sahagún describes her as one who was “feared” and “caused terror.” She was said to drown people and overturn boats. Ceremonies in honor of the rain gods, including Chalchiuhtlicue, involved the sacrifice of children. These sacrificial victims were bought from their mothers and the more the children cried, the more successful the sacrifice was thought to have been. La Llorona has also been conflated with La Malinche, Cortés’ translator and concubine. As such she is often portrayed as an indigenous woman jilted by a Spanish lover. However, there are many similar European and Old World motifs that she could also be linked to: the “White Woman” of the Germanic and Slavic tradition, the Lorelei and, of course, the banshee. The tropeii of the barbarian girl who kills her children after being betrayed by her lover and discarded for a woman of higher status or more “appropriate” race also has roots in the Greek tradition, in the legend of Medea and Jason. It is strange that such a pervasive myth could have such different features, but still be known by the same name. Indeed, the variations in the folk story seem to be geographical, with different regions having their own slightly different versions of the wailing woman. In addition, the legend has changed over time, seemingly to reflect the socio-political climate. Just as a source will often tell us more about the author than the subject, we can glean a lot about the story-tellers’ points of view when examining the development of this particular legend. It is not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the folk story can be found in print. However, when we look at them, far from finding an official version, we can clearly see that many elements of the La Llorona story change over time. La Llorona, a 1917 play by Francisco C. Neve, is set during the reign of Philip II (1556–98). The protagonist is Luisa. She has a son with her lover, Ramiro, the son of Cortés, who is of much higher social status. Though they have been together for six years, Ramiro is due to marry the very wealthy daughter of a judge. Luisa is unaware of this and Ramiro believes that he can continue his relationship with her, if he marries in secret. Luisa is told of Ramiro’s impending wedding by a rival suitor and she is driven mad, not only by Ramiro’s infidelity and his decision to marry someone else for honor and status, but by his desire to take their son away from her. When he comes for their child after she breaks up their wedding, Luisa eventually tells him that he can have his son’s life and kills him with a dagger, offering Ramiro his body in a fit of delirium, saying that she killed him after Ramiro had killed her soul. Luisa is hanged for her crime in a public execution during which she is vilified as a witch. Ramiro is presented as very remorseful and dies of sorrow and grief when La Llorona appears to haunt him. 10 The play satirises the class system to an extent and especially masculine ideas of honor. Ramiro’s mistress and son are an open secret among court society and whispers of gossip surrounding his love life are a prominent theme at his sham wedding. He does not garner respect from his peers and courtly society in New Spain is presented as a place of back-stabbing and chaos. The story would appear to reflect life in colonial Mexico. Although initially there was a shortage of Spanish women in New Spain, which meant that unions between indigenous women and Spanish men were quite common and not frowned upon, by the end of 16th century the population of European women was on the rise and the status of indigenous or mestiza (mixed race) women fell considerably. Upon their arrival in Tenochtitlan, the imperial rulers of the Aztecs offered women, usually their female relatives, to the Spaniards and marrying an Indian heiress became a familiar path to success. Cohabiting was also common and in some cases Spanish men would take advantage of the indigenous practice of polygamy by having a number of concubines. The fates of these indigenous and mestiza women were mixed. Some enjoyed stability and enhanced status and, therefore, benefited from these unions, but more often than not they were cast aside after a few years for younger women or, more often, a Spanish wife. More alarmingly, the children resulting from the union were sometimes taken away from their indigenous or mestiza mothers in a practice that derived from a Spanish tradition of relieving so-called “wayward” women of their children. The historian Karen Vieira Powers explains that “When this practice found its way to the New World and was applied to indigenous mothers who had borne children with Spanish men, their prescribed racial ‘inferiority’ was combined with the ‘natural’ inferiority of their gender to produce a generalized negative attitude toward their ability to socialise their children properly.” This was more often the case for daughters as “doubts about native women’s capacity to raise their mestizo daughters were especially acute, as the Spanish emphasis on sexual purity was not valued in Mexica society.” Generations of children were, therefore, raised as “Spanish” despite their mixed heritage and taught to believe that their mothers’ indigenous culture was inferior. [ . . . ] A young woman dressed as La Llorona for a Day of the Dead celebration in Morelia, Mexico, in 2012. Later versions of the wailing woman story present the villain as Spain and have created heroes in the mestizo and indigenous cultures. Carmen Toscano’s 1959 one-act play, La Llorona, for example, presents a harsh critique of the Conquest and colonial period, with special attention paid to the treatment of the indigenous people by the Spanish conquistadors. The spiritual Conquest is also presented as fairly shamboliciii and, overall, New Spain is shown to be a place of chaos with great tensions between clergy and secular authorities. The protagonist is Luisa, a mestiza, and her lover, Nuño, is a Spanish conquistador who marries Ana, a wealthy Spanish lady in secret, planning then to return to Spain. He does not appear to care for Luisa and neither are particularly interested in their children. Luisa stabs them to death and throws their bodies into the canal without much remorse. Nuño does not seem at all affected by this. Luisa is tried and hanged in the city’s main plaza, though before she is executed she gives a monologue stating that all blood is the same and that as a mestiza she does not know where she belongs or which traditions to adopt. Purity of blood is a motif throughout the play, with the conquistadors not wishing to dirty the blades of their swords with Indian blood and Luisa exclaiming that Nuño only wishes to marry Ana as they have the same blood. Luisa is glad that her children are dead so they won’t suffer like she has: having to work like a slave despite the glory of both her ancestors. She cries for her children. After her execution, Luisa takes her revenge as Nuño collapses and dies. A poet describes his sad soul and the ruins of Tenochtitlan. It would seem that the abandonment of Luisa represents the abandonment of Mexico by Spain, once its land had been exhausted of resources. “This anachronistic and highly misogynistic view that lays the blame for the defeat of a civilization at the feet of one (disenfranchised) woman has remained popular to this day.” Here we find a return to many of the ideas expressed in the 1917 play, though the imagery is much more explicit and seems to be representative of the ideas of Nobel prize-winner, Octavio Paz. In his 1950 essay, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz describes La Llorona as “one of the Mexican representations of Maternity” and, as such, she is presented as a symbol of Mexican identity. This identity, according to Paz, revolves around Mexicans’ view of themselves as hijos de la Chingada. Paz explains that: “The verb [chingar] denotes violence, an emergence from oneself to penetrate another by force. . . . The Chingada is the Mother forcibly opened, violated or deceived. The hijo de la Chingada is the offspring of violation, abduction or deceit.” This violation is the Conquest, the quintessential symbol of which is La Malinche, or Doña Marina, who despite having been sold into slavery and given to the conquistadors—and therefore having limited agency of her own—has been painted as a traitor to “her people.” This anachronistic and highly misogynistic view that lays the blame for the defeat of a civilization at the feet of one (disenfranchised) woman has remained popular to this day. Indeed, Paz himself states that “the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal.” This is in the face of indisputable evidence that the Aztecs were defeated by a Spanish force aided by thousands of indigenous allies, a fact often conveniently forgotten in popular culture. 15 In Mexico’s creation myth, La Malinche has become Eve. In regard to her relationship with Cortés, Paz insists that “she gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador, but he forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over” and so it is easy to see how she could be merged with the legend of the wailing woman. The fact that she bore Cortés a son has also fuelled this conflation: their union symbolises the birth of Mexico as a nation of forcibly mixed-race people. The annual performance of La Llorona on Mexico City’s Lake Xochimilco most explicitly presents the importance of the legend as an expression of Mexican identity. For example, one advert for the production states that: “Our nation was born from the tears of La Llorona.” This version of the play runs for two weeks at the end of October and beginning of November, overlapping with the Day of the Dead celebrations, and has been performed for over 20 years. [ . . . ] This current version of the La Llorona story is another rehashing of the Cortés/ Malinche story. La Llorona is portrayed as a traitor to her people by passing information to the Spaniards, which leads to their defeat. This has now become a common element of the legend. Along with providing a nod to Doña Marina, the play also contains another element of the folk story, as it opens with an Aztec mother goddess wailing a lament for her children as a forewarning of the Conquest. This is the fullest version of the La Llorona story. Here we find the jilted woman trope finally united with the imagery of the Aztec goddess along with the act of warning her people about their impending doom and lamenting the birth of the modern Mexican nation through the mixing of blood. It is purported by the production company to be the “original” version of the legend, but the evidence does not stack up; the codices in which we find the supposed origins for the folk story remained unpublished until the 19th century. Furthermore, the timing of the performance is telling. Though in essence Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a version of the Roman Catholic feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Days, the festival, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, has contested origins. It is thought by some to be an indigenous tradition appropriated by the colonizers and by others as a colonial practice that has retrospectively claimed an indigenous origin in order to promote a “pure” Mexican identity. According to Paz, this identity revolves around Mexicans’ distinctive, jovial attitude towards death, which is bolstered by the Day of the Dead celebrations. However, the family traditions of the Day of the Dead—decorating graves and constructing altars in homes dedicated to deceased family members—are rather different to the exuberant festivities displayed in town centers for tourists to enjoy. [ . . .] 20 The evidence would suggest that La Llorona, as she is now known, is a fairly modern myth that has evolved over time and has been used since the late 19th century to reflect and comment upon the socio-political situation of Mexico. By presenting La Llorona during the Day of the Dead celebrations, both of which have disputed origins but are thought to be “quintessentially Mexican,” it can be used to present to the world a new version of Mexico’s history and an official representation of Mexican identity. Understanding the Text 

  1. How does Fuller relate the tale of La Llorona to ancient Aztec goddesses? How are the goddesses similar to La Llorona, and how are they different? 
  2. How is the 1917 play La Llorona a satire? Be specific. 
  3. What is it about the character of Luisa in the 1959 version of La Llorona that makes her different from other portrayals of women in the La Llorona myth? How does that affect the message of the play? 
  4. How is La Llorona connected to Mexico’s celebration of the Day of the Dead? 
  5. This article first appeared in History Today, which describes itself as a “serious” magazine. What about the article—its language, its use of evidence, its tone—separates it from less serious publications and from peer-reviewed journals intended to be read by other historians? 
  6. In your opinion, is La Llorona a sympathetic figure? Why or why not? 
  7. How do gender and power work to construct the figure of La Llorona? Examine the roles that women and men are expected to fulfill in terms of love, marriage, and children. What does the tale tell us about those roles? Do later versions of the tale, as described by Fuller, change those dynamics? How? Making Connections 
  8. The article draws many connections between the story of La Llorona and the conquest by Spain of the lands now referred to as Mexico. Research further the history of the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish and the subsequent treatment of the indigenous population. Argue whether or not the connections Fuller is making are valid. Be specific. 
  9. One of the mythological characters Fuller mentions who does not come from the Aztec tradition is Medea, a character from ancient Greek mythology (par. 7). Read the story of Medea and argue whether or not she serves as an adequate comparison to La Llorona. 
  10. Research contemporary, real-life stories of women who have murdered their own children. Are the circumstances behind these murders similar to or different from the story line of La Llorona? Do these real-life killings reflect historical changes in traditional gender-role dynamics or not? What do you make of that?”

From The Odyssey 


After the ten-year war in Troy, described in Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, is thwarted in his attempt to sail home by the god Poseidon. This journey, which takes an additional ten years, is the subject of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The following passage is from Book 12, in which Odysseus resumes his journey after spending a year as the witch Circe’s lover. Circe warns him about the Sirens—half-woman, half-bird creatures whose singing lures sailors to their deaths—and tells him that only he must hear their song. There is much uncertainty about the dates of Homer’s life, and consequently the dates of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but he is generally thought to have lived in the eighth or ninth century BCE. [Editor’s note: line numbers follow the Fagles translation.] At those words Dawn rose on her golden throne and lustrous Circe made her way back up the island. 155 I went straight to my ship, commanding all hands to take to the decks and cast off cables quickly. They swung aboard at once, they sat to the oars in ranks and in rhythm churned the water white with stroke on stroke. And Circe the nymph with glossy braids, the awesome one 160 who speaks with human voice, sent us a hardy shipmate, yes, a fresh following wind ruffling up in our wake, bellying out our sail to drive our blue prow on as we, securing the running gear from stem to stern, sat back “We must steer clear of the Sirens, their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers.” while the wind and helmsman kept her true on course. 165 At last, and sore at heart, I told my shipmates, “Friends . . . it’s wrong for only one or two to know the revelations that lovely Circe made to me alone. I’ll tell you all, so we can die with our eyes wide open now 170 or escape our fate and certain death together. First, she warns, we must steer clear of the Sirens, their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers. I alone was to hear their voices, so she said, but you must bind me with tight chafing ropes 175 so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot, erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast. And if I plead, commanding you to set me free, then lash me faster, iv rope on pressing rope.” So I informed my shipmates point by point, 180 all the while our trim ship was speeding toward the Sirens’ island, driven on by the brisk wind. But then—the wind fell in an instant, all glazed to a dead calm . . . a mysterious power hushed the heaving swells. 185 The oarsmen leapt to their feet, struck the sail, stowed it deep in the hold and sat to the oarlocks, thrashing with polished oars, frothing the water white. Now with a sharp sword I sliced an ample wheel of beeswax down into pieces, kneaded them in my two strong hands 190 and the wax soon grew soft, worked by my strength and Helios’v burning rays, the sun at high noon, and I stopped the ears of my comrades one by one. They bound me hand and foot in the tight ship—erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast—195 and rowed and churned the whitecaps stroke on stroke. We were just offshore as far as a man’s shout can carry, scuddingvi close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship was racing past and burst into their high, thrilling song: “Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’svii pride and glory—200 moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song! Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips, and once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man. We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured 205 on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!” So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer. I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free—210 they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder, Perimedes and Eurylochus springing up at once to bind me faster with rope on chafing rope. But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake, once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call—215 my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me. 

Understanding the Text

  1. Homer’s poem says that Circe sent a gift, “a fresh following wind ruffling up in our wake” (l. 162). Why, then, are the men later paddling with their oars? 
  2. What do the Sirens say they know and will reveal to Odysseus in their song? What do they say happens to those who hear their voices? 
  3. How does Odysseus respond to hearing the Sirens’ song? 
  4. This passage is part of the much longer epic poem, The Odyssey. Examine closely the use of language to create the world of Odysseus. In what ways is reading a story in poetry different from reading it in ordinary prose?
  5. Homer does not spend any time on descriptions of the Sirens, so presumably he expected that his audience would already know that they were half-woman, half-bird creatures. What about the woman-bird combination seems particularly suited to the type of danger they represent? 
  6. The Sirens sing, “All that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!” (l. 207). Note that Odysseus, listening to them, wishes to be freed of his bonds and sail to them. Why is the temptation of knowledge so alluring? Can you think of other similar examples of people being tempted by knowledge? What does this say about the human condition?

Reclaiming the Mermaid

Sophia Kingshill 

One of most common monsters in the human imagination is the mermaid. Tales of women who live in the water have been told around the world for millennia. Although there are also stories of mermen, the character of the mermaid, with her human upper body and fishtail lower body, is far more popular. She served sailors as an omen of impending doom, and the medieval church viewed her as a soulless creature, a symbol of sin and temptation. Modern interpretations of the mermaid have been influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” reinterpreted by Disney in the animated film. In recent portrayals, however, the mermaid may be surfacing as a new symbol of feminist empowerment. Sophia Kingshill, a British writer interested in folklore, is the coauthor of The Lore of Scotland (2009) and The Fabled Coast (2012). Her other works include the history of mermaids in the book Mermaids (2015) and a young adult fiction novel, Between the Raven and the Dove (2017), as well as plays about the Brontës, William Morris, and Sinbad. This article was published in the October 2015 issue of Fortean Times. The enduring popularity of mermaids as a cultural phenomenon means that their story spans eras, continents and art forms. The earliest surviving images date from over three thousand years ago; since then, mermaids have been carved in temples and churches, decorated fountains and palaces, and been used as inn signs, figureheads and tattoos. Sightings of fishy humanoids were reported by the first sailors in the Mediterranean and by pioneers to the New World, and are still rumoured around busy modern coasts. Mermaids can be emblems of maritime trade, of the sea’s beauty and terror, or of feminine seduction, and legends of water-spirits, both romantic and frightening, are told worldwide. A mermaid’s meaning depends on who’s interpreting her. To a mariner, traditionally, she’s an omen of storm; poets have employed her as a symbol of fickle womanhood, her sinuous tail meaning she’s slippery by nature; a showman might advertise a stuffed specimen as a marvel, to bring in the crowds. Representations change over time, too. Whereas in antiquity, a hybrid woman-fish was an image of a goddess or at least an attendant on the deities of the sea, later iconography made her signify sin and temptation, a metaphor reworked by Pre-Raphaelite artists to whom a Siren was a sexy model. In December 2013, I saw a mermaid in Madrid. She was about four foot long from her waving curls to her tail-fin, scrawled on a wall in red spray paint. Instead of a mirror she had a heart in her hand, next to the feminist symbol of a circle and cross; beneath her was the slogan Abajo el patriarcado!—“Down with patriarchy!” Alongside, another message read: No dejes a tu vida, sea escenario!—“Don’t give up on your life, take center stage!” My Spanish Siren was neither vamp nor victim, but a self-aware female, angry and confident. Siren Songs 5 In 2012, an Internet article identified mermaid novels as the “hottest new trend” of Young Adult fiction, but concluded that they were unlikely to oust vampires or schoolboy magicians from the bestseller lists “because they are, to put it bluntly, girls’ books.” Of the authors mentioned in the article, one is a man, 16 are women. A few of the books cited are actually about sea boys, but the article’s title refers to mermaids alone. This is standard usage, in spite of the fact that mermen have as ancient a presence, in legend and in art, as mermaids. Although witnesses report seeing bearded as well as breasted creatures in the waves, and if merfolk have a gender at all (given their lack of equipment), there’s nothing to say that their chromosomes should be more X than Y, the people of the sea are just about unique among creatures real or fabulous, in that the female term covers both sexes: as a collective noun, we’re far likelier to talk about “mermaids” than “merfolk.” Mermaids, moreover, get more publicity than their he-counterparts. A Google search for “merman” yields around 800,000 results, “mermaid” well over 20 million. Males are, for once, the second sex. That doesn’t automatically empower the mermaid: quite the reverse. For most of her history, she’s been depicted, described, and voiced by male artists, seafarers, theologians and storytellers, and whether as object of desire or figure of fear, a half-naked woman is, or has been, obviously intended to delight or disquiet a largely male audience. Now the pendulum’s swung the other way, and mermaids are inspiring women not just in Young Adult Fish Lit, but across the media. Artist Wangechi Mutu mounted a London exhibition of paintings, sculpture and video in 2014 under the title “Nguva na Nyoka” (Sirens and Serpents). The nguva or dugong is an aquatic mammal that is the equivalent of the Siren in Kenyan coastal legend; Mutu uses images of the nguva to explore questions of feminism, ecology and metamorphosis, and contrasts its intense and sometimes savage powers with “the sanitised mermaid of popular European culture.” Singer Mariah Carey recorded her 1999 album Rainbow in Capri, and in an interview she recalled her pleasure when she saw the Scoglio delle Sirene, “Sirens’ Rock”: The Sirens would sit there and lure in the men. They gave them this rock because women were considered less important than men, and that’s their revenge: they sexually entice men with their voices to come to this rock. I just fell in love with that. The idea that the Sirens’ magnetism helped them get even with men has obvious relevance to the career of a pop diva like Carey, whose appearance and sexuality are exploited to market her singing. “A pattern has been established of women reclaiming the mermaid, reacting against male-dominated traditions defining her as submissive or seductive.” The mermaid as spokeswoman for equality, typified by the Madrid graffiti I saw in 2013, goes back at least to the 1970s when the name Siren was used for a feminist magazine in Chicago. A pattern has been established of women reclaiming the mermaid, reacting against male-dominated traditions defining her as submissive or seductive. 10 There are earlier examples of the belligerent mermaid, without any particular sex bias. Warsaw’s city crest, which evolved from a bird-legged, scaly monster (a classical Siren, in fact) to become, by the 18th century, a recognizable mermaid with a woman’s body and a fish’s tail, has remained militant throughout, carrying a shield and brandishing a sword. Between 1811 and 1915, under the Fourth Partition of Poland, the Syrenka, as she’s known, was officially banned, but was displayed in many places as an assertion of the city’s identity, and in the Second World War she was adopted as the badge of the Polish II Corps. Pablo Picasso, visiting a Warsaw apartment block under construction in 1948, drew the Syrenka on an interior wall, giving her the Communist hammer to hold instead of a sword. This image survives only in photographs, since the mural wasn’t universally admired. The first person offered the flat in question refused it, on the grounds that he had small children and the mermaid had bare breasts, while the next (childless) candidates were equally horrified: “It was huge, my God was it huge. Her bosom was like two balloons, the eyes were triangular, at the end of her long, oddly long arm she held a hammer; and she had a short, tapering tail at the back.” Statue of the Syrenka, the warrior mermaid, on the banks of the Vistula River in Warsaw, Poland. Description Her upper body appears like a woman, while her lower body is in the shape of a fish tail. The shield held by her has the engraving of an eagle with its wings spread and a crown on its heads. Engraved text on the shield reads Warszawa. After a couple of years, the flat’s tenants quietly had their private Picasso whitewashed, but the Syrena has continued to appear as a political symbol, employed by supporters of Solidarity in the 1980s, and more recently by the Warsaw Gay Movement. Little Mermaids The common modern perception of the mermaid, however, is of a whimsical and child-friendly fantasy. This image is based to a great extent on the ubiquitous kitsch spawned by the Disney cartoon: but the Little Mermaid herself is not so wholesome, on closer inspection. Ariel, as she’s christened in the film, is drawn with a girlish figure and a pertly pretty face. Her hair is neither seaweed-green nor princess-golden, but a vibrant red, and she hides her breasts in a bikini top, modest for the family market. Ariel’s inquisitive nature leads her to take an interest in the human world, and while people-watching, she falls in love with the young Prince Eric. When his ship sinks in a storm she saves his life, but swims away before he can see her. She bargains with the sea-witch Ursula for a spell allowing her to exchange her tail temporarily for a pair of legs, in return giving up her voice, which Ursula magically traps in a shell. 15 Unless she receives a kiss of true love, the mermaid is told, she must remain in the witch’s power forever. The wicked Ursula then transforms herself into an attractive woman, and sings in Ariel’s voice to bewitch Eric. True identities are eventually discovered, the witch is killed, and Ariel, having regained her voice and become fully human with the help of her father the sea-king, marries her prince. The Danish original is an altogether darker affair, with a stern message about redemption through suffering. Early in Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” as in the film, its teenage heroine (here nameless) rescues the prince from a shipwreck. Then, however, it is not love alone that impels her to beg for a human shape, but the desire for an immortal afterlife. Her grandmother tells her that this can be achieved if a man marries her: at the moment the priest joins their hands, she will be granted a share of her husband’s soul. In order to win her prince and thus her chance of eternal life, the mermaid visits a witch. She is warned that having her tail split into two legs will mean continuous agony—every step she takes will feel as if she is treading on a blade sharp enough to make her bleed—and, moreover, that becoming human is a one-way journey. She will never be a mermaid again. In payment for her spell, the witch demands the mermaid’s voice, which she takes not with a reversible charm, but by cutting out her tongue. Dumb, and in terrible pain, the mermaid reaches the palace, where she is kept as a kind of pet, allowed to sleep on a cushion outside her prince’s door. The prince is fond of her, but his love is bestowed on a princess he believes to be the girl who saved him from drowning. He marries the princess, and the mermaid acts as bridesmaid at the wedding. 20 Her sisters, meanwhile, longing to bring her back to them, have acquired a magic knife from the witch. This, they tell the mermaid, must be plunged into the prince’s heart, and his blood will turn her feet back into a fish-tail. She can’t bring herself to kill him. Instead she throws the knife into the sea, then dives in herself, and feels her body melt into foam, a mermaid’s death. Nevertheless she does not die, but is transformed into a spirit of the air, who can gain a soul by three centuries of good deeds. One of her ethereal companions tells her that for every good child she visits, the 300 years will be shortened by one year, but at the sight of a naughty child she will cry, and every tear shed will add a day to her probation. The religious trappings do have a certain authority behind them. Medieval theologians had speculated as to whether mermaids and other “monsters” possessed souls, and some concluded that a mermaid did not, but wished she did. The idea that she could gain one by marrying a human being was proposed by authors earlier than Andersen, and the Little Mermaid’s metamorphosis into an airy form is based on philosophical concepts of the four elements—earth, air, fire and water. The physical and emotional torments that the mermaid undergoes are Andersen’s own invention, and however unpleasant to read, they are what gives the story its power both as tragic romance and as parable of a female rite of passage. Writing for children in the early 19th century, Andersen could not say straight out that in order to be a man’s wife, the mermaid would have to be able to have sex, and therefore must have sex organs. Instead, he has the wise grandmother point out that humans consider tails ugly, hence the need for legs. Then, whether intentionally or not, he invests the splitting of the mermaid’s tail with all the pain and secret mess of puberty and loss of virginity, her feet standing in for what in a woman is hidden and below. Wordless, in pain, though no one sees you bleeding, unrequitedly in love, longing for a better world than this one: what adolescent can’t identify? Sadistic and didactic, the tale makes uneasy reading, and one can readily understand Disney’s changes to make the plot palatable, but it was widely loved long before the studio got their hands on it. Operas and ballets have been based on it, Shirley Temple starred in it on television, and comic-book, manga and anime versions have been produced. Illustrations have tended to emphasize the mermaid’s virginal purity and wistful charm, although one sketch by Lorenz Frølich hides her breasts but gives her a suggestively cleft bum above her fishtail. 25 Most famous of all visual interpretations must be the statue which has become a national symbol of Copenhagen. After seeing a ballet based on Andersen’s tale, Carl Jacobsen, head of Carlsberg Breweries and a great patron of the arts, commissioned Edvard Eriksen’s sculpture, which was unveiled in 1913. Eriksen wanted to give his Little Mermaid legs, but Jacobsen held out for a tail, and a compromise was reached: the Copenhagen mermaid has clearly defined thighs, knees and calves, terminating in two large graceful fins. The sculptor may have realized how vital it was for Andersen’s heroine to be a forked animal—although locals have explained the legs as allowing their Mermaid to ride a bicycle, like the rest of the Danes. In fact the double-tailed mermaid is not a novelty, but a very old motif. Despite being visited and admired by countless tourists, the Copenhagen Little Mermaid, like her fairytale original, has suffered. In 1964, her head was sawn off, although it was quickly replaced using a cast from the original model. An arm was removed in 1984, she was decapitated again in 1998, and in 2003 she was blown right off her base by an explosive charge, while more superficial damage has been achieved with paint. At least some of this vandalism has been motivated by protest. In one of the latest episodes, March 8—the date of International Women’s Day—was painted on the Mermaid, and she was given a dildo to hold. You could say she’s an obvious target for feminist reinterpretation. Andersen’s Little Mermaid is a willing sacrifice, both to the insensitive prince, and more importantly to the Church, which denies her a soul except at the cost of anguish. Mermaids of the Caribbean Older than either the radical or the meek mermaid is the rapacious variety, of which the fearsome creatures who appear in Pirates of the Caribbean are recent avatars. The film does feature one “good” mermaid who falls in love with a human being, but the rest of the breed are carnivorous and merciless. At their first appearance, a couple of nymphs raise heads and arms from the sea to beguile a boatful of sailors with their sweet voices and youthful faces; then the picture pulls back, to reveal more and more converging on the boat like minnows to bait, and finally we see shoals of them leaping around their terrified prey. On dry land they appear as luscious women, legs and all (what’s between is never on display, and their breasts are obscured by long hair), but underwater they are seen to have tails, and fanged mouths like vampires. Although they use their sex to entice, they only want men as food. 30 Much of this, including their appetite to consume men in the literal sense, is longstanding legend. Homer’s Sirens—who are not mermaids at all, but who significantly inform the tradition—strew their surroundings with human bones. Themes of homicide and lust intertwine from an early date: a work of the third or second century BC, purporting to record the adventures of Alexander the Great in India, mentions women living immersed in a river, who were beautiful—“Their complexion was snow-white, like nymphs their hair spread over their backs”—but who suffocated Alexander’s soldiers during or after the act of love. A 13th-century encyclopedia (in 16th-century translation from Latin) describes the Siren as temptress and cannibal: A beast of the sea wonderfully shapen as a maid from the navell upward, and a fish from the navell downeward, and this wonderfull beast is gladde and merrie in tempest, and sadde and heavie in fayre weather. With sweetnesse of song this beast maketh shipmen to sleepe, and when shee seeth that they be asleepe, she goeth into the ship, and ravisheth which she may take with her, and bringeth him into a drye place, and maketh him first lye by her, and doe the deede of lechery, and if he will not or may not, then she slaieth him and eateth his flesh. Pirates of the Caribbean presents an authentic characterization and an unusually forthright one for the cinema. More commonly, films have expressed a mermaid’s predatory nature in terms of seduction: in Miranda (1948), Glynis Johns’s character creates emotional havoc among her string of suitors before returning to the sea, and in Splash! (1984), Madison (Daryl Hannah) ultimately takes her lover (Tom Hanks) under the waves with her. Although this is presented as a happy ending, it’s made clear that he can never come back to the world of humans. It’s always a risk to meet a mermaid. 

Understanding the Text

1.   What is the point of the graffiti image of the mermaid Kingshill saw in Madrid? How is that a redefinition of the traditional mermaid? What are some other examples of this redefinition that Kingshill presents? 

  1. In what key ways does the Disney presentation of Ariel in The Little Mermaid differ from the original story by Hans Christian Andersen? 
  2. How are those differences significant? 
  3. How and why has the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen been a target of protestors? 
  4. How has Kingshill balanced pop culture with academic research in creating this article? Cite specific examples of both.
  5. Kingshill points out that throughout history, the mermaid has reflected social and religious teachings about women’s role in society, the question of the soul, and the importance of control of female sexuality. 
  6. How has this been expressed, and how might the mermaid also been seen to subvert those teachings? Be specific. How can the mermaid be a symbol of female empowerment? Explain.

The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs Ovid 

The legendary Greek hero Nestor tells Achilles the story of a wedding banquet gone terribly wrong. Invited to the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamía are the centaurs—half-man, half-horse creatures. When the centaurs get drunk, they attempt to abduct the women at the banquet. A pitched battle ensues, in which many humans and centaurs are killed. The story is told by Ovid in Book 12 of Metamorphoses, one of the most important works of mythology. Along with Virgil and Horace, Ovid is considered one of the most important writers of the Roman era. [Editor’s note: line numbers follow the Raeburn translation.] “Piríthoüs, son of Ixíon and king of the Lapiths, 210 had married Hippodamía. He invited the cloud-born centaurs to join the banquet at tables arranged in a leafy glen. The chieftains of Thessaly came; I, Nestor, also attended. The palace was filled with the festive hubbub of thronging guests. Now hark to the wedding-hymn! Torches and rising smoke in the great hall! 215 Enter the bride, escorted by matrons and younger women, and looking a picture. We all declared how blessed Piríthoüs was in his beautiful wife. But our praise’s effect as a lucky omen was almost undone, when the wildest of all the wild centaurs, Eúrytus, drunk already, was further inflamed by the sight 220 of the bride, and the power of wine reinforced by desire took over. Tables were upside down in a flash, the feast was reduced to a shambles, as Eúrytus seized Piríthoüs’ newly-wed bride by the hair and forced her away, while each of the other centaurs grabbed any woman he fancied or found. The chaos resembled 225 a captured city, and women were screaming all over the palace. We quickly rose from our couches. ‘Eúrytus!’ shouted Théseus, taking the lead, ‘you must be crazy! How dare you provoke Piríthoüs while I live and foolishly injure us both?’ The centaur said nothing—he couldn’t defend his outrageous behavior 230 by words—but used his unruly fists to punch the prince on the jaw and to pummel his chest. On a table nearby there chanced to be lying an antique wine-bowl, richly embossed with figures in high relief. The bowl was huge, but Theseus was huger; he lifted it up and hurled it directly in Eúrytus’ face. 235 As globules of blood and fragments of brain poured out of the wound, the centaur, vomiting wine from his mouth, fell backwards and drummed with his heels on the sodden sand. His brothers, enraged by the carnage, “Eúrytus, drunk already, was further inflamed by the sight of the bride, and the power of wine reinforced by desire took over.” vied with each other in shouting as one, ‘To arms, to arms!’ Inspired by the wine with courage, they started the battle by sending 240 their goblets flying, then breakable jars and round-lipped vessels, objects intended for feasts, now used for war and for slaughter. “Amycus, son of Ophíon, was first among the rampaging centaurs to raid the inner rooms of the palace and plunder an iron stand which supported a cluster of burning candles. 245 He lifted the whole thing high, like a priest at a sacrifice straining to raise the axe which will cleave the neck of a pure white bull, then dashed it down on the forehead of Céladon, one of the Lapiths. This fractured his skull and mangled his face past all recognition. His eyes burst out of their sockets, the bones of his cheeks were shattered, 250 the nose smashed inwards and jammed beneath the roof of his mouth. But another Lapith called Pélates wrenched the leg from a maplewood table and used it to hammer Amycus down to the ground, with his chin forced into his chest. As the centaur sputtered his teeth out mingled with gore, a second blow dispatched him to Hades. 255 “Next to the fore came Grýneus, who’d stood there, grimly inspecting the smoking altar and said, ‘Why don’t we make use of this?’ With a frightening glare in his eyes, he lifted the hefty structure, fires and all, and hurled it into a group of the Lapiths. Two were crushed by the mountainous weight, Bróteas and Oríos 260 (Oríos’ mother was Mýcale, said to have often succeeded in drawing down the horns of the moon with her incantations). ‘You won’t get away with this, if I can get hold of a weapon!’ Exádius said, and then caught sight of some antlers nailed to a tall pine tree as a votive offering. There was his weapon! 265 Armed with the horns of a stag, Exádius aimed for the centaur’s eyeballs and gouged them out. One eye stuck fast on the antlers, and one rolled down on to Gryneus’ beard, blood-coated, and clung there. • • • “How about Caeneus? He killed five centaurs: Antímachus, Stýphelus, Élymus, Bromus and lastly Pyrácmus, who fought with an axe. 460 (I can’t remember their wounds, but only their names and the number.) Then Látreus, a centaur of massive physique, rushed forward to face him, armed with the spoils of Halésus, a Macedonian he’d slaughtered. In age he was past his youth and his temples were flecked with gray, but his strength was still a young man’s. His helmet, shield and exotic 465 pike attracted all eyes as he proudly turned to each army, brandished his weapons and pranced around in a well-traced circle, flinging a torrent of insolent taunts in the empty air: ‘Caenis, viii you bitch! Must I tolerate you? You will always be female and Caenis to me. Perhaps you forget your original sex. 470 Do you ever recall what you did to deserve your reward? Do you think of the price which you paid to achieve this specious masculine body? Look at the girl you were born and the shame that she suffered. Then go, return to your distaff and basket of wool. Go back to your spinning, and leave the fighting to men!’ As Látreus was galloping past him, 475 shouting these insults, Caeneus let fly with his spear, which made a great gash in the mocker’s side where man and horse are united. Maddened by pain, the centaur cast at the hero’s uncovered head with his pike. The weapon rebounded like hail off a rooftop or pebbles dropped on a drum. Then Látreus attacked at close quarters 480 and struggled to bury his sword in the young man’s side, but the side was too hard; there was no way in. ‘You won’t escape me,’ he shouted. ‘You’ll die on the edge of my sword, since the point’s been blunted!’ So turning A marble tablet with a sculpture relief from the Parthenon in Athens, depicting the battle between the Lapiths and centaurs. Description The bearded centaur with a human torso and a horse’s lower body has his right arm and right hind limb broken. He grabs the human’s neck using his left hand. The human’s left hand and foot are missing. He has his right leg locked in battle with the Centaur’s frontal limbs. his weapon sideways, he reached to slash him around his thighs, but the blow produced no more than a thud—the flesh might well have been 485 marble. The metal was broken to splinters on striking such tough skin. Caeneus was tired of exposing his still unwounded limbs to the stupefied centaur. ‘Come on!’ he said to him, ‘now let’s see how your body responds to my steel’; and he plunged his death-dealing sword right up to the hilt in his enemy’s trunk and compounded the damage 490 by turning and twisting the sunken blade right into his vitals. On came the centaurs, shouting and yelling, rushing in frenzy, everyone hurling or thrusting their weapons against one foe. Those weapons were blunted and fell to the ground, while Caeneus remained unscathed by all of their blows; not a drop of his blood had been spilt. 495 “This turn of events left the centaurs dumbfounded. ‘Shameful, disgraceful!’ Mónychus cried. ‘Our whole tribe worsted by one man, hardly a man at that! No, he is a man and we are behaving as feebly as women. What use is this massive girth of our bodies? What of our double strength? Has nature combined in ourselves 500 the courage and force of the world’s two mightiest creatures for nothing? Our mother a goddess? I don’t believe it. Our father cannot have been Ixíon, a mortal with pride enough to aspire to sleep with Juno on high, when we are defeated by someone whose sex is in doubt! Let us roll the boulders, the trees, whole mountains 505 on top of this upstart. Let’s hurl the forests and crush the life from his living body. His throat will be choked by the bulk of it all, and the weight will prove as good as a wound.’ So saying, he seized a trunk knocked down, as it chanced, by the south wind’s fury, and threw it against his unwoundable foe. The rest did the same; in a short while 510 Othrysix was stripped of its trees and Pelionx empty of shade. Crushed beneath that enormous layer, the hero sweltered under the weight of the trees, and heaved with his sturdy shoulders to raise the pile, but after the load grew greater and greater over his head and he couldn’t breathe through his mouth any longer, 515 consciousness left him. But then he recovered and vainly attempted to roll the trees off his body and lift himself up to obtain some air. For a while he succeeded in moving the surface, as if Mount Ida, which look! we can see over there, was disturbed by an earthquake. No one is certain what happened next. Some said that his body 520 was thrust right down by the mass of the trees to the shadows of Hades. Mopsus the seer said no. He’d noticed a rust-winged bird emerging out of the pile and soaring into the air. I also sighted the bird that day for the first and the last time. Mopsus watched it gently circling the camp and he heard it 525 loudly clapping its wings. As he thoughtfully followed it round with his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘All hail! Hail Caeneus, pride of the Lapiths, once unique among men, and now sole bird of your kind.’ The prophet said it and we believed it. Grief made our anger all the more bitter. That one man’s life should be crushed by so many! 530 To vent our sorrow, we turned on the centaurs and didn’t cease fighting till most had been killed and the rest were in rout or were rescued by night.

  1. What is special about a wedding celebration, from a public or social standpoint? 
  2. How do Theseus and the other Greeks respond to the centaurs’ disruption of the wedding banquet? 
  3. What makes Caeneus a unique person? What is behind the special rage “the centaurs feel toward him? How do they eventually kill him? 
  4. Ovid’s story is told as a memory. An old man, Nestor, is telling the story to Achilles, a great warrior and hero. How might that affect the storytelling? Reflection and Response 
  5. The fight escalates quickly into a battle to the death. It is human action—Theseus kills Eúrytus with a wine bowl—that turns the disruption into a mortal fight. As Ovid writes, “Objects intended for feasts [were] now used for war and slaughter” (l. 242). What does this quick turn of events say about the combination (or overlap) of human and animal traits? 
  6. Even though the story begins with a wedding celebration, women are conspicuously absent from most of the tale, except to be spoken of as victims. Indeed, only one woman is even named, the bride Hippodamía, even though many are abducted. What does this reveal about the role of gender? How does the passage about Caeneus support those concepts of gender roles?


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