In ancient times, sailors once lashed themselves to their masts to avoid being lured to death by seductive mermaids known as sirens.
Today, on the sun-kissed western shores of Italy, mermaids are once again stirring up trouble as two rival destinations battle it out to lure tourists with claims of being home to the mythological fishy creatures.
In one corner is Naples, with a glittering gulf that stretches to the Sorrento Peninsula. In the other is Ventotene, a tiny volcanic isle far out in the Tyrrhenian Sea west of Naples.
Both of these Mediterranean magnets claim to be the “real” place where Greek hero and travel figure Odysseus, sailing home from burning Troy, encountered the seductive sirens.
Legend has it that Odysseus escaped the fate of other doomed sailors by tying himself to the mast of his ship and telling his companions to plug their ears.
Spurned, the creatures perished, but their pull is still felt every summer as curious tourists flock to learn more. But where should they go?
Shame of the siren
Neopolitans like to claim their home owes its origins to these mysterious aquatic creatures. Local myth claims Naples rose from the fishy ashes of a beautiful dying mermaid-goddess called Parthenope, who gave the city and its people her name.
Neapolitans are dubbed “Parthenopeans” and they’re proud of their divine origin.
“If you look at Naples from the sea it has the shape of a sensuous mermaid stretched out under the sun,” says local taxi driver Giovanni Russo as he points to the horizon.
“Mount Vesuvius on one side is her head, the Posillipo hill on the other her fin tail.”
Parthenope is said to have washed ashore in shame, her powers destroyed, when Odysseus failed to succumb to her chanting.
Fishermen found her dead on a tiny sea rock that today is linked to the harbor and features the overhanging fortress of Castel dell’Ovo.
Parthenope, whose long glossy hair covered her naked breasts and silvery tail, was buried in the castle’s grounds.
Amateur sleuths searching for her lost grave have turned it into a pilgrimage site.
The magical triangle
On warm days hikers explore the Sirens’ Path with breathtaking views of the so-called “Triangle” where Parthenope and her mermaid sisters lived.
It’s a diving heaven of underwater grottoes, coral-covered rocks and powerful currents.
“Their kingdom was enclosed between the Gulf of Naples, Sorrento’s Peninsula and the tiny private archipelago of Li Galli,” says Trentaremi trekking guide Mario Vello.
“Their house is said to be beneath Capri’s famous Faraglioni sea stacks. Their favorite isles were Ischia and Procida.”
The three-hour hike winds along ancient mule tracks and past crumbly farmers’ dwellings stuck between steep hills, flowery shrubs, gorges and cliffs that dive into a cobalt sea.
“Seen from Naples, Capri has the profile of Odysseus’ face,” says Vello, who organizes kayak, diving and dinner boat tours serving spaghetti with clams and fried fish known as paranza.
Beach hotel restaurant Le Sirene rises near the ruins of an ancient sanctuary dedicated to the mermaids (Via Napoli, 59, Pozzuoli, Italy; +39 081 526 6566).
Paintings of dancing sirens greet guests at the entrance and in the dining hall. The specialty is the 15-course “Mermaid Appetizer,” a huge platter of mixed fried seafood and vegetables including aubergine rolls and stuffed anchovies.
“Mermaids are the symbol of abundance: This dish is practically a whole meal for two people,” says hotel owner Alfonso Caputo.
Sea cows and monk seals
Old fishermen like to spin tales of miraculous wrecks and drowning people saved by gorgeous, mysterious sea women who frolicked in treacherous currents.
Caputo says these creatures were merely figments in the minds of lonely fishermen who’d spent too long out at sea.
“What they actually spotted on the shores were sea cows and monk seals that used to inhabit these waters but are now extinct,” he adds.
“They were so desperate to get back home, perhaps even seasick and eager to embrace their wives, they mistook these huge mammals for curvy women with fish tails, basking in the sun or splashing in the water. That’s how the cult flourished.”
Naples has streets, boulevards, fountains, hotels and even a university named after Parthenope. Bright siren mastheads adorn graves, underground altars, Baroque balconies and entrances of ancient palazzos.
“The mermaid symbolizes the beauty of Naples and of the Neapolitan woman: sensual, enchanting, passionate, loud and tougher than man. She’s bossy, commands and slaps,” says Vella.
Neapolitans like to boast how their singing skills are a gift of the mermaids, just like their sex appeal and great flirting skills.
Pastry art, too, has a mythological origin. Iconic cake pastiera, made of ricotta and candied orange peel, was said to be made by Parthenope in the deep sea to thank locals who worshipped her.
The shell-shaped sfogliatelle pastry, with its vanilla-flavored crunchy layers, has the texture of fish scales.
Naples’ claim to the Sirens is indeed strong, but Ventotene has a case to make, supported by myth and, to some extent, Homer’s “Odyssey.”
According to ancient Greek mythology, the sirens weren’t gorgeous creatures of the sea but cruel and hellish harpies.
Half women and half predatory birds, they had plumes and claws instead of fins and scales.
The metamorphosis from sky demons to water beauties occurred in the Middle Ages, when “romantic” sweet tales of the sirens flourished.
Homer never describes them physically but mentions they lived on a barren island, surrounded by heaps of bones and skeletons of the men they bewitched with their shrieks, luring them into the sea and making them drown.
Ventotene has few trees and is flat, shaped like a lizard. Its name in Italian means “hit by strong winds” – a perfect habitat for winged beings.
And it’s home to screaming flying creatures.
A protected natural reserve, the isle is a hotspot for migratory birds flying from Africa to Europe.
But one species in particular has settled down here – the Diomedea, the Mediterranean’s great albatrosses.
They’re often known as the sirens’ “descendants.”
“Their nightmare cry is piercing: They sound like whining babies and at night it’s impossible to sleep,” says Daniele Coraggio, owner of beach restaurant Mast’Aniello at black sand beach Cala Nave. “The high-pitch tone drives you crazy.
“These Diomedea are huge beasts you’d never like to bump into at sea, nor be attacked by.”
Albatrosses are bringers of ill omen, especially if you happen to kill one.
Each year, Ventotene lures biologists and bird-lovers drawn by a high-tech bird-watching observatory and museum set up on a panoramic cliff boasting incredible sunsets.
Ornithologists spend weeks camped in tents, walking around the island’s winding village alleys with huge binoculars.
Hotels offer cheap “environmentally-friendly bird-watching weeks” to attract more tourists.
Divers flock here, too.
“Legend has it the sirens killed time sunbathing on pointed sea rocks called Le Sconciglie, featuring reefs of beautiful seagrass meadows. They would sit there all day, screaming and waiting for potential victims to pass by,” says Antonio Santomauro, owner of Parata Grande resort.
The deadly spot where the flying harpies harassed Odysseus is a narrow strip of sea separating Ventotene from the tiny uninhabited atoll of Santo Stefano, three miles away.
For centuries it was a prison fortress. A place of penance, pain, death and torture that make it the ideal sirens’ lair as sung by Homer.
“That jail is spooky. Just look at those thick circular walls and craggy cliffs. Nobody could escape from there. It was Italy’s Alcatraz,” says Coraggio.
When the sirens called to Odysseus he was zigzagging through the mushroom-shaped turf sea stacks rising between Santo Stefano and Ventotene’s Cala Nave beach.
Under the thatched roof at Mast’Aniello’s, offering great views of the prison atoll, clients walk in barefoot to savor fresh buffalo mozzarella and lobster spaghetti.
Looking at Santo Stefano’s jet-black cliffs and translucent aquamarine water today it’s hard to imagine how such a paradise could have had such a dark past.
The foreboding prison is covered in lush vegetation. In the windowless rusty cells with unhinged doors the greatest torture must surely have been the inability to glimpse the shimmering sea.
Here, thousands of criminals, anarchists and, later, anti-Fascists perished, their bones piling up just like the victims of the sirens.
Snorkeling and sunset boat tours (+39 077185122) to the atoll depart from Ventotene’s ancient Roman harbor enclosed by pastel-colored dwellings.
Guided dives to the Molara reef, where Odysseus’ ship sailed by, feature barracudas hiding behind tooth-shaped rocks.
The Diomedea-sirens myth here is exploited as dating bait.
“Winters are dead, but the summer vibe brings a lot of tourists so it’s our chance to date as many girls as possible,” says Coraggio, who admits having done so himself. “We use the birds as an excuse to hook up.”
Coraggio explains the drill: “We take the girl out on night fishing-boat rides to look at the stars, listen to these ‘sirens’ and spin mythological tales.
“When we hear the cry of the Diomedea, the girl usually freaks out and clings on to us, jumping in our arms. First kiss guaranteed.”
How to get to Ventotene: Train from Rome or Naples to Formia, from where ferries and high-speed boats leave.
Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.