by Terri Windling
A siren, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and modern usage of the term, is a woman with an irresistible allure, dangerous to men. It comes from the sirens of Greek mythology: beautiful bird-women dangerous and desirable, feared for their fatal beauty yet propitiated for their oracular wisdom. Daughters of the river Achelous and Terpsichore (the muse of choral song), they were once the virginal handmaidens to Demeter's daughter, Persephone -- until the girl's abduction to the Underworld by the dark god, Hades. Then the sirens shape-shifted, flocking to the island of Anthemoessa where their famous beauty took on a dark aspect and a deadly power. Nesting on a pile of human bones, the sisters sang to the sun and rain; their song had the power to calm or stoke the winds, and to inflame men's loins. This music was irresistible, luring many a sailor to their shore -- where they'd pine away without food or drink, unable to break the sirens' spell. Odysseus filled his shipmen's ears with wax to save them from this terrible fate; Orpheus drowned the sirens out with the music of his lyre to save the Argonauts. Yet in some stories, the men who lost their lives at the sirens' bird-claw feet died blissfully, ecstatically, in a state of sexual enchantment.
In this anthology, you'll find the sirens' daughters (women whose dark allure is bound with magic, myth, and mystery), daemon lovers, faery seducers, and all manner of lovers be-spelled. Animal brides and wicked wolves step from the woods of old folk tales; ghosts, spirits, and phantastes emerge from the shadows of the human psyche. These are tales of sexual magic -- not only overtly erotic stories (although you'll certainly find those here), but also stories of the power of Eros, the power of sensual love.
Such tales are rooted in a mytho-erotic tradition as ancient as myth itself, for among our oldest stories are explicitly sexual and bawdy ones, found in oral traditions and ancient writings from all around the world. Many of the earliest stories concern the amorous adventures of deities and other supernatural beings -- most famously in the Greek tradition, where Zeus pursued nymphs and maidens with abandon, where sexual jealousies were rife between the gods, and where Eros loosed his arrows to cause all manner of divine mischief. Eros was depicted as a handsome winged boy, sometimes tender and sometimes cruel; he carried two kinds of arrows in his sheath: the golden arrows of love and the leaden arrows of aversion. Unlike the simpering winged Cupids in our present-day greeting card imagery, Eros was a god both revered and feared, for he had the power (said Hesiod) to "unnerve the limbs and overcome the mind and wise counsel of all gods and all men." Less well known than Eros is his brother, Anteros, the god of returned love, who punished all those who refused to return the love that they'd been given. Aphrodite was also a goddess of love, as well as the goddess of beauty and marriage; she symbolized love of a higher nature than the capricious passions imposed by her son. Dionysis, the god of wine, was associated with the lower carnal passions. Dionysian rites involving great quantities of wine and riotous processions of sileni (drunken woodland spirits), satyrs (goat-men of insatiable lust) and bacchantes (participants in sacred orgies) were highly popular during the four fertility festivals dedicated to this god of pleasure.
In Egyptian myth, Atum is said to have created a god and goddess who produced the earth and sky between them; the two had be forcibly separated to give the world its present shape. In Maori myth, the Rangi gods were born from the lovemaking of Nothing and the Night, crawling into a dark world made of the space between their bodies. In the earliest of the Upanishads of India, atman (the Self) caused itself to divide into two pieces, male and female. In human shape, these two mated to make the first human men and women; in the forms of cow and bull they mated to make cattle, and so forth, until the world was populated. In many of the oldest mythological stories, a mother goddess (Ishtar, Isis, Cybele, etc.) is partnered by a male consort who dies each winter and is reborn each spring, symbolizing the seasonal cycle of nature's renewal in forest and field.
In Celtic lore, the wild Green Man of the wood (depicted as a male face disgorging vegetation from the mouth) has his female counterpart in the Sheela Na Gig, a female figure disgorging vegetation from between her legs -- a potent symbol of the mythic connection between human fecundity and the fertility of the earth. Cousin to the Sheela Na Gig carvings found in old churches in Celtic countries are the carvings of female figures found near the doorways of shrines in India, seated with their legs apart -- a sacred symbol of the feminine half of the double-sexed divine. It was (and remains) customary to touch these "yoni" for luck; as a result, the carvings have been worn into deep, smooth holes with the passage of time.
In the East and the West alike, divine sensuality is found across a wide spectrum of stories both serious and humorous -- from myths in which sensory pleasure is seen as a sacred cosmological force to bawdy tales about the follies engendered by rampant carnal appetites. It is in the later category that Trickster makes his appearance, a wicked gleam in his eye and a tell-tale bulge beneath his breeches. Trickster is a paradoxical creature who is both very clever and very foolish, a culture hero and destructive influence -- often at one and the same time. Hermes, Loki, Pan and Reynardine are all European aspects of the Trickster myth; others from around the world include Maui of Polynesia, Uncle Tompa in Tibet, Coyote in North America, and the shape-shifting foxes of China and Japan. Coyote tales in particular are often sexual, scatological and very funny -- tales of seduction (usually foiled), rape (which usually backfires), and all manner of sexual tom-foolery: phalluses that sail through the air to reach their intended target, farts and turds with magical powers, gender switches or impersonations involving animal bladders disguised as genitalia, and other tricks intended to appease a gluttonous sexual appetite. The Asian shape-shifting fox Tricksters are darker and more dangerous, seeking sexual possession of men and women in order to feed upon the vital life force which maintains their power.
Trickster tales bridge the gap between the great cosmological myth cycles and folk tales told 'round the fireside -- for Trickster is equally at home in the house of the gods (as Loki or Hermes) and in the woods with the fairies (as Phooka, Puck, or Robin Goodfellow). Turning from mythological stories to humble folk and fairy tales, we find that the overwhelming force of Eros is still a common theme. The woods of Europe, the mountains of Asia, the rain-forests of South America and the frigid lands of the Canadian north are all filled with fairy creatures, nature spirits and other apparitions who bewitch, beguile and seduce. The fairy lore most people know today comes from children's books or Disney animations, and so the popular image of fairies is of sweet little sprites with butterfly wings, sexless as innocent children. Yet our ancestors knew the fairies as creatures of nature: capricious, dangerous, and well-acquainted with the earthly passions. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of faery seduction, reminding us that a lovely maid met on a woodland path by dusk might be a fairy in disguise; her kisses sweet could cost a man his sanity, or his life.
The Irish glanconer, or Love-Talker, appears in the form of a charming young man -- but woe to the woman who walks with him, for she will pine for this fairy's touch and lose all will to live. The Elfin Knight of Scottish balladry seduces virtuous maidens from their beds; these girls end up at the bottom of cold, deep rivers by his treacherous hand. The leanan-sidhe is the fairy muse who inspires poets and artists with her touch, causing them to burn so brightly that they die long before their time. The woodwives of Scandinavia are earthy, wild, and sensuous -- yet their feminine allure is illusory and from the back their bodies are hollow. Nix and nixies are the male and female spirits who dwell in English rivers, heartbreakingly beautiful to look upon yet very dangerous to kiss -- like the beautiful bonga maidens who haunt the riversides of India, the cacce-halde in Lapland streams, and the neriads in the hidden pools and springs of ancient Greece. Mermaids sun themselves by the ocean's edge and sing their irresistible song; sailors who lust for them are drawn into the waves and drowned. Mermen and selkies (seal-men) come to shore to mate with human maids...but soon abandon their pregnant mortal lovers for the call of the waves.
When we look at older versions of stories we now consider children's tales (Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.), we find they too have a sensual edge missing in the modern re-tellings. In the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty, the princess is wakened from her long sleep not by a single respectful kiss but by the birth of twins after the prince has come, fornicated with her passive body, and left again. In "animal bridegroom" stories older than the familiar version of Beauty and the Beast, the heroine is wed to the beastly groom before his final transformation; by the dark of night he sheds his animal shape and comes to her bed. "Take off your clothes and come under the covers," says the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood. "I need to go outside and relieve myself," the girl prevaricates. "Urinate in the bed, my child," says the wolf, a wicked gleam in his eye -- and only then does she know it is not Grandmother beneath the bedclothes. These were not tales created for children; they were tales for an adult audience -- for listeners and readers who knew that the passions of princes are not always chaste; that beautiful girls might grow up to marry beasts; and that lecherous wolves can lurk in the woods or dress up in women's clothes. Indeed, so ribald were the old fairy tales that one of the earliest publications of them -- Straparola's The Delectable Nights -- brought charges of indecency from the Venetian Inquisition.
For centuries, men and women have drawn upon a wealth of mythic imagery to create fine works of art dedicated to the gods of sensual love and desire -- in painting, pottery, sculpture, drama, dance, lyric verse and prose. This legacy comes down to us in beautiful works of ancient poetry -- from Anakreon: I clutched [Eros] by the wings and thrust him into the wine and drank him quickly; from Sappho of Greece: I am a trembling thing, like grass, an inch from dying"); from the women poets of old Japan such as Onono Komachi: When my desire grows too fierce I wear my bedclothes inside out, and Izumi Shikibu: How deeply my body is stained with yours; and from China's "Empress of Song" Li Chi'ing-Chao: I hold myself in tired arms until even my dreams turn black. In India, the deliciously sensuous stories of Shiva, the dancing Goddess, and Krishna's amorous exploits are beautifully evoked by numerous poets including Jelaluddin Rumi, whose verses became ecstatic dances for the whirling dervishes: When lovers moan, they're telling our story, like this; and the India princess Mirabai, whose gorgeous, passionate poems were addressed to Krishna, the Dark One: At midnight she goes out half-mad to slake her thirst at his fountain. (For complete transcriptions of these and other "poems of love and longing" from ancient times to the present, seek out The Erotic Spirit, an excellent and informative anthology edited by Sam Hamill.)
In the West, a repressive influence dominated the arts as Christian society sought to distance itself from the earthy sexuality of the older pagan and animist religions; as a result, we have only a paltry store of poetry and prose expressing the physical passions of love from the 4th century onward (compared to India, China and Japan where sensual love continued to be perceived as a natural force and not a cause for shame). Yet by using symbols drawn from pre-Christian myth and folklore, Western artists and writers found an important outlet for the imagery of desire. We see this particularly in the luminous art of the Italian Renaissance, where Christian devotional works sit side-by-side with mythic works of a distinctly sensual nature -- such as Leonardo da Vinci's "Leda" (Leda's rape by Jupiter in the form of a swan); Sandro Botticelli's voluptuous nymphs and pagan goddesses;and Raphael's secret frescoes for the bathroom of Cardinal Bibiena in the Vatican, based on erotic stories drawn from Greco-Roman myth.
In Western literature, sensuality is firmly entwined with myth and fantasy in works by some of the greatest writers of the English language. We find it in the beguiling faery enchantresses of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur; in the men and women be-spelled by love and glamour in the Lays of Marie de France; in the sexual intrigues of Spenser's Faerie Queene; in the amorous antics of the fairy court in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (as well as the darkly magical sensuality of The Tempest): in the sexualized denizens of fairyland in Pope's The Rape of the Lock; in the dangers of fairy seduction found in the ballads of Sir Walter Scott, and in darkly magical poems by Byron, Keats, Blake, Tennyson, and Yeats.
In Victorian England, folk tales, fairy lore and Arthurian symbolism enjoyed an explosive popularity at the same time that sensual expression was most repressed in polite society. Fairy paintings by Fuesili, Joseph Noel Paton and John Anster Fitzgerald fairly drip with an erotism which would have been banned from respectable galleries if the nudes painted so lusciously had not been given fairy wings. (Aubrey Beardsley, on the other hand, never courted respectability; this young man's distinctive illustrations for Lysistrata, Salome, The Rape of the Lock and other works were deliberately shocking, full of languid, half-clad women surrounded by fairies and satyrs.) Dante Gabriel Rossetti's mythic Pre-Raphaelite ladies, with their pouting red lips just waiting to be kissed, were attacked in the Victorian press as lewd and immoral images (albeit these paintings merely look quaintly romantic to us today). Goblin Market, the famous fairy poem by Christina Rossetti (sister to the painter), was ostensibly a simple story about the dangers of eating goblin fruit -- yet it reads as a heated metaphor for the seduction of innocent young girls. Victorian "fairy music," composed for the harp, also had distinctly erotic overtones; these composers enjoyed the celebrity accorded to pop stars today, and flushed young women would sigh and swoon during their performances. Richard Burton's translation of the magical Arabian stories of The Thousand and One Nights also brought sensual tales to the Victorian public in the form of fairy stories. Burton's frank (for the times) translation caused a publishing scandal; nonetheless (or because of this) the book went on to become a best-seller, and a fad for Orientalism joined the popularity of Victorian fairy lore -- a distinct thread of magical sensuality running through them both.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Celtic Twilight writers continued to give a sensual quality to works drawn from folklore and myth, such as the Irish fairy poetry of Yeats ("Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound, our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam...") and the opium-dream prose of the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany. But as the century progressed, fairy lore was relegated to the nursery (much like furniture that has gone out of style, as J.R.R. Tolkien has pointed out), and thus was stripped of all but the most tenacious elements of sensuality. As fin-de-siecle fairy lore became passe, we must turn instead to the Surrealists for dreamlike imagery drawing upon the symbolism of mythic archetypes. Particularly notable in this regard are the stories and paintings of Leonora Carrington and her close friend Remedios Varo, both of whom had a keen interest in magical esoterica. The paintings of Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and Salvadore Dali also display vivid, deliberately disturbing mytho-erotic elements.
As Surrealism, too, faltered with the change of fashions after World War II, works of sensual magic became harder to find...unless one looked at its darker manifestation: the vampire's kiss. From Hertzog's film Nosferatu to Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, the sensual nature of vampire tales surely needs no explication. While it is not the intent of this introductory essay to stray into the field of horror fiction (a vast area all on its own), vampire tales seem to cross that elusive line between works of fantasy and horror, holding an irresistible appeal even to readers who traditionally avoid the later -- perhaps because of the close connection of vampires in traditional lore with the seductive, soul-sucking creatures who haunt the woods of the Faerie Realm.
As the century closes, and the field of literary fantasy enjoys a popular resurgence, we find that the magical tales which have a sensual edge still tend to hover close to that fantasy/horror divide, combining the symbols of myth and folklore with the tropes of Gothic horror. Angela Carter's brilliant fiction, for instance, is sensuous, magical and very dark -- such as The War of Dreams, a voluptuous work of modern surrealism, and The Bloody Chamber, which brings an adult sophistication back to fairy tales. (The Company of Wolves is a film based on a story in the later collection, with an excellent, rather Freudian screenplay written by Carter herself.) Tanith Lee's Red as Blood is a collection of adult fairy tales retold in a similar vein, devilishly dark in tone, as is her subversive novel White As Snow. Sara Maitland's The Book of Spells, Robert Coover's Briar Rose, and Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins are three more superb variations on this theme.
With the ubiquitous (and, to my mind, pernicious) pairing of sexuality and violence in our modern culture, it is more difficult to find sensual magical fiction when we stray from the darker edges of the fantasy field...but lyrical fantasy and "imaginary world" books that do not shy away from physical desire do exist -- such as Ellen Kushner's sexy, gender-bending "Riverside" series, and her very adult retelling of Thomas the Rhymer; Patricia A. McKillip's Winter Rose, a re-working of the ballad "Tam Lin" (unexplicit but sensually passionate); Delia Sherman's The Porcelain Dove, a subtle and elegant exploration of sexual morays during the French Revolution; Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, with its boldly sexual heroine; Midori Snyder's The Innamorati, an exuberantly lusty saga based on old Italian myth; and Jennifer Stevenson's Trash Sex Magic, a delightful book set in a working class Chicago. Cecilia Tan has made a career of creating sex-positive works of speculative fiction -- both in her own writing and in the books she publishes with her Circlet Press. George R.R. Martin (the "Game of Thrones" series), Jaqueline Carey (the "Kushiel's Universe" series), Storm Constantine (the "Magradias" trilogy), and Laurell K. Hamilton (the "Anita Blake" series) are four more writers who combine eroticism with magic to powerful effect. Their books fall on the darker end of the fantasy spectrum, but rarely cross the line into the horror genre.
We can also find a sensual tales with a magical bent beyond the genre shelves -- such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife, Alice Hoffman's Second Nature, and Terry Tempest Williams' mythic and remarkable (but uncategorizable) Desert Quartet. In poetry, a number of writers have used folkloric themes in a highly sensual manner, including Anne Sexton, Olga Broumas, Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, and Jane Yolen. In the visual arts, Brian Froud explores a hilariously bawdy vision of fairies in Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, while Paula Rego, Leonor Fini, Yvonne Gilbert, Kiki Smith, and Gina Litherland have all worked with erotic symbolism drawn from fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and folklore.
In both the literary and visual arts, mythic symbolism is used as a potent means to express the inexpressible, to evoke archetypes, to provoke the Gods, to cross over known boundaries into the unknown lands beyond. The art of Eros, like the art of fantasy, is a realm the "serious" artist is not encouraged to travel or linger in. But fantasists learn early to ignore such limiting rules and boundaries, preferring to follow those beguiling creatures who beckon them into the woods.
"Regarding her whole self as an ear," wrote Toni Morrison in her novel Tar Baby, "he whispered into every part of her stories of icecaps and singing fish, the Fox and the Stork, the Monkey and the Lion, the Spider Goes to Market, and so mingled was their sex with adventure and fantasy that to the end of her life she never heard a reference to Little Red Riding Hood without a tremor."
In the following pages we offer stories mingling sex and fantasy, stories to produce a tremor or two, stories both dark and bright. These are tales dedicated to Eros, that capricious God of love and desire. And to the sirens, for somewhere in this wide world they're still singing.
Credits & copyrights:
Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
The text above first appeared in Sirens & Other Daemon Lovers (HarperCollins, 1998), copyright c 1998 by Terri Windling. The essay was reprinted in The Journal of Mythic Arts in 2003, with text slightly altered to add more fantasy book recommendations. The JoMA version is published here.