If you are walking through the streets of Warsaw, it’s hard to miss the fact that the city is covered with mermaid statues, as well as drawings, carvings, and other decorations.
And this is no a coincidence, as the fish-tailed mythological creature has been seen on the Varsavian coat of arms from as early as the 14th century, representing the Polish capital since before you’d remember.
Already in 1390, It showed an animal with a bird’s legs and a torso covered with dragon scales. The seal of 1459 had feminine characteristics, a bird torso, human hands, a fishtail, and bird legs and claws, while the first presentation of a real mermaid dates from 1622.
The creature is cognate with siren, but she is more properly a fresh-water mermaid called melusina. The common English translation, however, is neither siren nor melusina but simply mermaid.
The legend of the Warsaw mermaid, or “Syrenka Warszawska”, in Polish, is actually a simple one, despite there are several versions. The City’s literature and tour guides say she decided to stay after stopping on a riverbank near the Old Town.
She originated from the Baltic Sea where, according to some versions of the same story, she had a twin sister, the famous Little Mermaid of Copenhagen.
She swam up the Vistula River until she was at what is now Warsaw’s old town. There, she saw some fishermen catching fish and decided to meddle with their nets and free the catch.
For obvious reason, the fishermen were angry at the meddlesome creature and tried to catch it, but once they saw the mermaid and heard her siren song they could not harbor any hate for her any longer and fell in love.
But news of this talented chanteuse traveled fast and later she was captured by a rich merchant who wanted to haul her off as some kind of prize. But the fishermen would not have it and freed her from the greedy man’s clutches. The mermaid was thankful and promised to protect the fishermen and their homes from then on. From that moment, armed with a sword and a shield, she became the city’s guardian and protector in times of need.
The legend has been debated and disputed scores of times. Another story is the one about Prince Kazimierz. While hunting in the marshlands that are now Warsaw, Prince Kaz lost his bearings and faced a night in the open. Miraculously, a mermaid emerged and guided the prince to safety by firing burning arrows into the sky. Warsaw was founded out of gratitude, and the mermaid adopted as its emblem.
Finally, you’ve got a third story to heard: back in ancient times the city was defended by a noble griffin who would frequently accompany fishermen on their forays to the Baltic.
It was during one such journey he met a mermaid. Love took its course and she returned to Warsaw where the two lived happily in the company of the locals. When the Swedes invaded Poland the griffin was mortally wounded during the Siege of Warsaw, and it was left to the Syrenka to pick up his arms and join the defence of the city. Out of gratitude the people of Warsaw chose to appoint her as the icon of the town, placing her image on the city coat of arms.
In any case Tributes to this heroine are numerous, and include a statue in Warsaw’s old town, that is often seen as the “official” depiction of the iconic guardian mermaid and is the one that sightseeing tours stop at.
But of course there is no reason not to look for the other mermaid symbols that can be seen all throughout the city.
Konstanty Hegel’s 1855 original has not fared well. Destroyed and relocated countless times, hence her nickname “the walking statue”, what you see today is a clone constructed in 2008 (you find version 1.0 in the Historical Museum) made by the Jacek Guzera foundry in Dąbrowie near Kielce.
Probably the second most famous statue of the city’s symbol, found on the Vistulan Boulevards next to Świętokrzyski Bridge was created by sculptor Ludwika Nitschowa and unveiled June 29, 1939. Her model was a 23-year-old poet and ethnography student, Krystyna Krahelska, who served as a nurse during the Uprising, and died on the second day of combat.
One you won’t be seeing, however, is the one sketched by none other than Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, when visited Warsaw in 1948. No, really.
During his trip to the Polish capital, he was taken on a tour of a housing estate in Koło inspired by the works of Le Corbusier.
Impressed by what he saw, he climbed a workman’s ladder and sketched, on an interior wall at ul. Deotymy 48 in the Wola district to the west of the city, a giant mermaid.
“My God it was huge,” gushed one report from the time, “her bosoms were like two balloons.”
Alas, after the housing project was completed, the family who lived in the apartment got sick of the constant flow of visitors wishing to view the work and grew to hate the drawing on their wall.
Tired of art fans rattling on their door so, they were finally granted permission and, in 1953, they hired a handy man who deleted all trace.
Luckily a recreation of the original work can now be found, confusingly, in an altogether different district of Warsaw across the river, on the wall of the house at ul. Obrońców 28/30 in Saska Kępa.
There is, of course, a good reason why it’s now here, as Picasso himself was hosted by the Artist’s Union at this address. The sculptor Stanisław Sikora also had his studio in the building and some of his works still stand in the garden.
There are, of course, other lesser known statues of Syrenka to be found around the city, including one made of recycled junk outside the Palace of Culture, but not only, as she can be found practically at every corner, even when you least expect it, including in city authority buildings, public transport, on doors, in various hotels, as well as cafes and restaurants, on walls, in museums as art installations, and even on cakes and biscuits too!
And, now you know the importance of the syrenka to Warsaw, you can appreciate it’s not some violent call to arms, but just a watchful eye over the city.
Images from web – Google Research