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by [?]

“Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Maerchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

* * * * *

Die schoenste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr gold’nes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kaemmt ihr gold’nes Haar.

Sie kaemmt es mit gold’nem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei.”


In every land, North and South, East and West, from sea to sea, myth and legend hand down to us as cruel and malignant creatures, who ceaselessly seek to slay man’s body and to destroy his soul, the half-human children of the restless sea and of the fiercely running streams.

In Scotland and in Australia, in every part of Europe, we have tales of horrible formless things which frequent lonely rivers and lochs and marshes, and to meet which must mean Death. And equal in malignity with them, and infinitely more dangerous, are the beautiful beings who would seem to claim descent from Lilith, the soulless wife of Adam.

Such were the sirens who would have compassed the destruction of Odysseus. Such are the mermaids, to wed with one of whom must bring unutterable woe upon any of the sons of men. In lonely far-off places by the sea there still are tales of exquisite melodies heard in the gloaming, or at night when the moon makes a silver pathway across the water; still are there stories of women whose home is in the depths of the ocean, and who come to charm away men’s souls by their beauty and by their pitiful longing for human love.

Those who have looked on the yellow-green waters of the Seine, or who have seen the more turbid, more powerful Thames sweeping her serious, majestic way down towards the open ocean, at Westminster, or at London Bridge, can perhaps realise something of that inwardness of things that made the people of the past, and that makes the mentally uncontrolled people of the present, feel a fateful power calling upon them to listen to the insistence of the exacting waters, and to surrender their lives and their souls forever to a thing that called and which would brook no denial. In the Morgue, or in a mortuary by the river-side, their poor bodies have lain when the rivers have worked their will with them, and “Suicide,” “Death by drowning,” or “By Misadventure” have been the verdicts given. We live in a too practical, too utterly common-sensical age to conceive a poor woman with nothing on earth left to live for, being lured down to the Shades by a creature of the water, or a man who longs for death seeing a beautiful daughter of a river-god beckoning to him to come where he will find peace everlasting.

Yet ever we war with the sea. All of us know her seductive charm, but all of us fear her. The boundary line between our fear of the fierce, remorseless, ever-seeking, cruel waves that lap up life swiftly as a thirsty beast laps water, and the old belief in cruel sea-creatures that sought constantly for the human things that were to be their prey, is a very narrow one. And once we have seen the sea in a rage, flinging herself in terrible anger against the poor, frail toy that the hands of men have made and that was intended to rule and to resist her, foaming and frothing over the decks of the thing that carries human lives, we can understand much of the old pagan belief. If one has watched a river in spate, red as with blood, rushing triumphantly over all resistance, smashing down the trees that baulk it, sweeping away each poor, helpless thing, brute or human, that it encounters, dealing out ruin and death, and proceeding superbly on to carry its trophies of disaster to the bosom of the Ocean Mother, very easy is it to see from whence came those old tales of cruelty, of irresistible strength, of desire.