La Sirène – A Deep Dive

Thou rememberest since
Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music?

Few say it as well as William Shakespeare, and with the grace of this august wordsmith we might today offer our fair and delighted attention to one of the most magnificent and mighty of the lwa, Mambo La Sirène, the Lady of the Waters, wife of Met Agwe, queen of the sea and all that it contains.

Art by Jay Alexander

Rare are the cultures that do not have legends of half human, half fish; something about these hybrid beings, liminal in their very appearance, sings to some hidden part of us–perhaps we are reminded on some level of the sea from which our distant ancestors came, or the saline waters of the wombs that birth us today. The mermaid sings her siren songs to me, to be sure, and of all spiritual or mythological creatures, she is the one most meaningful to me; I am fortunate she has not yet lived up to the legends and drowned me. I hear her song so strongly that the first post I made on this blog was a paean of sorts to her Haitian manifestation. I was not born near the sea, but over eight hundred miles from it; yet from the first time I saw it, as a child, it set its mystery in my heart and I have never again been happy more than an hour from it. Salt air and the cry of gulls are my favorite glories; the song of the mermaid, once heard, cannot be forgotten. And this song is sung to many of us.

Due to the legends we tell of mermaids, and her marriage to Agwe, we might be forgiven for tying her completely to the sea in our minds, but La Sirène rules over all water, “dlo dous ak dlo sale“, that is, both fresh and salt water. Yet her constant companion (or alter ego, or sibling, depending on who you ask) is La Balenn, the Whale, and there are no fresh water whales. However all rivers flow to the sea, which is itself Agwe, and in the beautiful words of Mirabai Ceiba, “The ocean refuses no river / The river refuses no life / Life refuses no spirit / Spirit refuses no Love.” Thus we may well laud her as the Queen of the Sea, while not forgetting that the fresh waters flowing to that kingdom are equally of her provenance.

African, European and indigenous Taino stories about water spirits contributed to the rich conceptual and legendary roots of La Sirène. Mami Wata, a spirit or class of spirits in Africa offers much to this magnificent lwa, as do European legends dating as far back as the Classical Greek epic The Odyssey; the very name “La Sirène” ultimately comes from the Greek Σειρήν (Seirḗn). The mythological sirens were not originally fish-women and their earliest depictions are as bird-women, but their seductive song is a feature that has remained through time to this day. By the Middle Ages the concepts of “siren” and “mermaid” had merged so completely in the European mind that the French sirène, Spanish and Italian (and Albanian, Catalan, Croatian, Maltese, and Romanian) sirena, and Portuguese sereia all came to mean a beautiful and dangerous denizen of the sea, with the tail of a fish and the upper body of a woman. During this period, the mirror and comb–standard and traditional offerings to La Sirène–became strongly associated with mermaids; the moral context of Christianity painted these items as symbolic of vanity, but we’ll question the heck out of that later on, because that’s what we do.

La Sirene, by Alexsa El Saieh

The water over which she holds sway is sacred in every spiritual path–from Muslims performing wudu to Christian baptisms and holy water, from the Jewish mikvah to sacred rivers like the Ganges and the Nile, the baths we make in Vodou and related traditions, the Sikh amrit sanskar, and so on. For now, let’s take a look at the exoteric, face-value nature of my beloved water maid.

On the Surface

Haitian Vodou has absorbed much of its mermaid lore from African and European sources. A powerful and hypnotically enchanting singing voice (often used to lure men to their doom), long silky hair, the silver mirror and comb, beauty, and knowledge of what is beneath the waves are all features of how we understand her in Vodou. There are legends about La Sirène taking people away–kidnapping them for a period of seven, be it days, weeks, months, or years, after which time they return with straighter hair, lighter skin, and a much deeper level of konesans, which is to say ritual knowledge and spiritual insight. Elements of these legends also appear in parts Africa (note that the skin and hair thing has sociocultural context in Haiti that is well beyond the scope of what I’m writing here, so let’s not bring that up further).

Yet La Sirène can also be capricious–after all, the water over which she rules is fluid and flows, changing shape and shifting continually; she once threatened to take a mambo I know down to the ocean floor and leave her there should she enter the sea again. While she seemed to relax on that, the mambo hasn’t risked it. For, you see, the same water–be it river, lake, or sea–that feeds us and staves off thirst can just as easily drown us, and the only difference between the water that grows crops and that which wears a mountain down to pebbles is time. All these qualities–nourishment and disaster, growth and erosion, placid lake and raging sea–have their place in the tremendous force of nature that is La Sirène, and her personality reflects it all. She owns all the riches below the sea, and along with Agwe hosts the dead anba dlo for a year. Yet for all this pivotal magnificence, her fury is not for the faint of heart–for a sense of what it can be like, watch Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and see what Calypso (a definite La Sirène analogue) does when she’s freed from imprisonment.

Indeed, while we salute her during the Rada portion of a fet, along with Agwe, she is herself Kongo in origin, and thus fiercer and hotter than some might think–she once told me, when explaining some rather drastic actions that were definitely overkill from my point of view, “Mwen se yon fanm kongo, cheri. M pa naje nan dlo frèt” (“I am a Kongo woman, dear one. I do not swim in cold water”). She sure as hell does not. When she comes in possessions, in many houses, she is silent and does not speak. The usual explanation is that, as an underwater creature, she can’t, just as she often sits or is carried as she doesn’t have legs. However I have a sneaking suspicion that she certainly can speak, and more importantly, sing, and is kind enough not to enchant us all into a watery grave.

So we have an image of a beautiful, temperamental, vain, fierce, and to be honest, dangerous lwa. Now, I’m not going to apologize for this at all, and you’re gonna have to just take it, but there is a lot more depth to La Sirène; she harbors more secrets than we can fathom, and what we know of her is just a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans of meaning we can find in her. So let’s come out of our shells, bow to pier pressure, and look at La Sirène through a different lens.

The Depths

Boutey Lwa for La Sirène, by Mahmuwd York Mabry

Vodou is layered like an onion, as I’ve elsewhere said, and whatever we choose to examine (be it a lwa, a practice, an aspect of ceremony, or anything else) can be viewed from different perspectives and levels, each of which adds meaning and significance. La Sirène is of course no different, and while an entire book could be written on each lwa, I’d like to examine one small part of her today. In so doing I hope to elucidate some of her depth, but also demonstrate a line of thinking that a reader may consider in seeking out additional profundity on their own.

As we’ve already considered in brief, La Sirène is frequently depicted with, and offered, a mirror. The popular mind, both in and outside of Vodou, associates this with vanity, but this exoteric explanation denies and shies away from a much deeper and richer understanding of both the symbol and the lwa.

As a symbol the mirror is associated with several lwa, having meaning that shifts and changes–much like water–from context to context. A mirror depicted with Agassou, for example, does not signify the same thing as it does with La Sirène. So then, what meaning can we find when we see the mirror in the mermaid’s hand? Why, it reflects ourselves back to us–with the right eyes we can gaze into its depths and know ourselves in a different way; in other words, La Sirène’s mirror is a portal that can and will show us the deeper, spiritual side of things. Why, then is this portal in her hands? The first mirrors humans ever had, the first time our ancestors ever saw their reflections, was in still water. And there, then, is our first portal, and even today when we salute so many of our spirits we jete dlo, pour water for them, to create a conduit for their presence. Through that water, which is of her, we pour with crystal clarity and longing hearts the flowing, pooling, splashing bridge that flows between us and spirit–the first gran chemin, before ever the drums beat, was water; the same water from which our ancestors emerged, that surrounds us in the wombs of our mothers, that fills our eyes that we may see, and falls from them in tears of joy or sorrow, delight or remorse. And this water, the oldest and purest of the primal portals we can craft, we emulate in silver and glass, and place back into the hands of the Queen of Waters who inspired it.

So the mirror in La Sirène’s hands is hardly an object external to her–it is simply an elaboration on the still pond, on water itself. When our beloved mermaid gazes at the mirror, she is gazing at herself, not simply as a reflection but also as the hand mirror that is merely a portable pond of still water, which is herself–the mirror is La Sirène in a very real way and she herself is not separated from her reflection, nor from that which shows her reflection to her, for our spiritual and physical selves are not divided, but are one, interpenetrating and united. To consider her vain for this gaze misses the point–this is not narcissism or vanity but a demonstration of and call to self-reflection (and isn’t it interesting that we use the word reflection in such a way), and therefore self-knowledge. Through the mirror La Sirène reveals us to ourselves. It is not vanity that motivates her, but self-awareness, to know the depths of things, and to bring them to light as surely as sunken treasure is brought to the surface again. She gives a road from the depths to the heights, just as she and La Balenn can dive from the deepest waters to break the surface of the azure seas. She is home in the liminal spaces where things meet–deeper cold waters and warmer surface ones; where salt water meets fresh; the fish tail of our distant ancestors and the human torso of our bodies today. And these in-between places are themselves portals and places where we find insight and perspective.

Now, reconsider the legends of her stealing people away, who come back with a greater level of konesans. In her presence, and under her tutelage, much has been imparted to them; we might say much has been revealed. And this is where we find the magnificence of La Sirène when viewed from this particular lens–she is Revelation, and she is that which shows us what was previously hidden. Is it any wonder, then, that her children frequently have great skill as diviners? That mirror in her hands, which is the child of the watery portal our distant ancestors first sought out, reveals to us who and what we are, and in so doing, who and what we can be. It reveals the truths we cannot see as surely as it shows us our own faces, whether they be truths we wish to see or not–remember, cherie, she does not swim in cold water, and she’ll reveal what you need to see, which may not be what you want. And yet, as she owns all beneath the waves, the treasure and the long dead both, she knows their worth as well, and what she shows is always of incredible value if we but have the eyes and the sense to see it.

In the End

While there are as many ways for us to look at La Sirène and to seek to understand her, she is in her way as impenetrable as the sea and as infinite in scope as its waves. We refer to one of her aspects as La Sirène Diamon, the Diamond Mermaid, and she truly does possess as many facets as that cut and polished stone.

She has so readily shown her presence in my life in wonderfully clear ways, some of which I shared here, and yet I long for her as readily and steadily as I long for the sea when it is too far off. Her presence in my dreams is always joyous and full of haunting melody (and being a Cancer, that probably makes me Sebastian, in which case…wtf), and never once have I woken from such a dream without a sudden and immediate flash of insight–something new, revealed in that liminal world where our dreams take place, where we stand within the mirror, or gaze into the still water.

I cannot imagine life without her and her priceless gifts, just as I cannot remember a time when the image of the mermaid did not sing within my mind and heart–she has always been there, and always will be, both for me and for the rest of us when I have faded into fish food.

The next time, dear reader, you are at the sea, or at least a river or pond or lake, take a few moments and find still water, and gaze into it. Let your eyes fall upon your own image, reflected back to you as her gift. See what she shows you. Then offer her a flower to tuck behind her ear and sing to her softly, but hope no song is returned to your waking ears lest we not see you again for seven years!

Ayibobo, La Sirène, Larèn lanmè a. Lanmou, onè, respè.

2 thoughts on “La Sirène – A Deep Dive

  1. This was a beautiful written elaboration of a trance meditation I had with La Sirene. As the rain came down outside she whispered to me that she is everywhere, everything. The air we breath has a piece of her essence as the water particles in oxygen keep us alive. This is just divine. AYIBOBO Manbo Sirene. Thank you Houngan 🙏🏾


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