Siostry.eseje – recenzja
It has been a long time since a book made me scream inside. I have worked in bars, restaurants, schools, refugee centres, psychiatric hospitals, prisons… Even so, sometimes I am still shocked and appalled by how cruel life can be. I finished reading this book days ago, but I am still screaming deep down inside. This collection of essays is not a walk in the park through the life stories of three wonderful writers – it is a burning torch shining a clear and direct light on something absolutely, universally profound.
1000 years ago, Mazovia – an ancient land in the very heart of Poland, the capital of which is Warszawa or Warsaw, my home town where this book was written and published and which SAW enough WAR over the centuries to traumatise the hardiest mind – was a matriarchy, ruled by clans of powerful women warriors most likely migrated here from the Middle East (which explains why Polish is an Indo-European language – see ANNEXE on the following pages for documentary evidence of this)
Archeological research shows women lived in strongholds and men lived in the wild, allowed to come in and serve the women only when they were needed. Women hunted and fought as well if not better then the men, and protected each other along with their offspring, living in happy, healthy harmony with their environment – a natural order of things disrupted, disturbed and then destroyed by… Jesus Christ was a humble, poor mystic whose life was dedicated to meditation and helping others. He needed no fame, no fortune, no followers or anything which the earth and sky did not already provide. He did not go on and on like most men these days do in lectures, book, youtube podcasts – he simply suggested it was best to love each other and revel in the world as it was without struggling to master or change it – in the time we had while alive, it was best to live in peaceful harmony with all that was natural and leave the fools building empires out of gold and marble to themselves…
Alas, 2000 years ago, after his politically motivated murder, Roman emperors turned his teachings into the world’s largest cult – one which sells forgiveness, wages global conflicts, invades and massacres foreign nations and natures, invests in the military and banks and spends billion$$$ each year on covering up the violent abuse of women and children and corruption in its own ranks…
Basically, the great Roman Christian Empire stands for everything that poor Jewish philosopher told us to live in opposition to.
This was the empire which invaded Europe 1000 years ago and turned Poland (along with the rest of the continent) into a profoundly misogynistic patriarchy ruled over by a clan of fat, lazy preachers who instead of producing and nurturing life, reside in palaces and temples guarded by cameras and fences and do unspeakable things behind their doors while the foolish faithful struggle to survive in a capitalist consumerist corrupt culture established by Rome a millennium ago. It is simple therefore to draw conclusions from a close and deeply emotional reading and analysis of SIOSTRY: eseje…
Knowing the past and aware that our future is being destroyed by macho forces of competition and commerce – let us champion the cause of HYPER FEMINISM which recognises that while women and men should obviously have equal rights and opportunities, these two sexes are different in one profoundly important way: women do far more to nurture the existence of life in our universe than men. If we conclude that without life there is nothing, no universe, no one to see it, no meaning, no point to anything… What women do for the world is infinitely more valuable (and painful) than men ever could, and therefore men – as in the days of old – should serve women and not vice versa, as has been the case for the past 1000 years.
As in Mazovia and in countless other matriarchal communities around the globe (see WHEN GOD WAS a WOMAN by Merlin Stone) – in order to save the world from destruction by our species and to go on enjoying happy, healthy lives in harmony with the natural order of things – we need to champion the cause of Hyper Feminism as soon as possible… going beyond feminism, evolving and progressing as is the way of the universe, expanding our awareness of what is and what it means for us all – children of Gaia, of Mother Nature, of the only planet in the observable universe capable of sustaining the most profoundly wondrous, powerful and important phenomenon imaginable – life is what we are, what we are here to experience, what we are here to enjoy, what we are here to protect and nurture.
The conclusion is simple – let’s turn the world on its ugly, macho head and let women take the lead (letting men slowly but inevitably realise hyper feminism is the coolest philosophy in the world and will get them loved and laid, ahem…) As more and more women around the world are oppressed by political and religious fascisms and forces like the Incel movement, we must act ASAP – how that should be done, I leave for women to decide… when is the sequel to SIOSTRY: Eseje coming out???
The authors who so generously and honestly shared their life stories in this collection of essays chart the experience of women in the world as it is today… Without mansplaining or utopian gibberish, they show us where we can make progress: supporting girls in their development, prioritising support for mothers to be and mothers who raise children in a civilisation of our own making…
Dealing with the realities of what our society is about – getting paid, getting accepted, getting married, getting heard, getting well, etc…
Please please please – I am no masochist, I simply know the story told in this emotionally and intellectually devastating book cannot end with a single volume – more books, more shows, more films, more discussions, more learning must ensue…
For the sake of all that lives and breathes and feels upon the face of this extraordinary planet.
Katarzyna Nadana-Sokołowska, Monika Rudaś-Grodzka
Syreny i amazonki w kulturze polskiej: współczesne nawiązania do imaginarium średniowiecznego / Mermaids and Amazons in Polish culture: contemporary references to medieval era imaginaria (translated by MJ Kazmierski)
Tales relating to mermaids and sirens should be treated as records of experiences much older than human memory, thanks to which our culture finds itself in the process of creating new meanings and reinterpretations of old. Sirens and Mermaids, as they appear in Greek mythology, Slavic legends, the writing of Christian Andersen and Kafka’s miniatures, rise up from the depths, revealing various facets of our age. Visions of half-women and half-fish, women-snakes or women-birds, belong to the annals of our oldest cultures. The most important place in Polish folklore is occupied by the Warsaw mermaid, but she is not a unique phenomenon, for in many texts relating to culture we will find traces of water fairies, “drowned women”, Mamuns and other creatures which for centuries symbolised the dark aspects of femininity perceived to be a threat to culture [Moszyński 1968]. Contemporary interpretations however move clear of this age-old enslavement. For all new interpretations, the points of reference are still: the experience of death, the elemental forces of water, the instability of certain shapes, though currently a greater accent is placed on a radical opening up to diverse experiences of becoming. Sirens are also more and more often seen as symbols of rites of passage, especially a reminder of the golden age of girlish friendship, which ends with puberty and the appearance of male suitors.
In Polish literature, the mermaid appeared in the Romantic period (the best known example of this is Rybka – a ballad by Adam Mickiewicz). Siren mermaids, but far more often chimeras and sphinxes, also made their presence felt during the Young Poland period in art history. Magdalena Łazarkiewicz’s film Białe małżeństwo (1992), which is a screen adaptation of a play by Tadeusz Różewicz (of the same title – 1973), and the film Córki Dancingu directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015) are in turn the most vivid examples of the use of siren / mermaid characters in contemporary Polish culture. And yet one must instantly note that these references, along with Mickiewicz’s ballad, the Różewicz drama and Łazarkiewicz’s film, as well as Julia Fiedorczuk’s 2011 novel Ofelia, are subtle enough to most likely go unnoticed by general audiences.
And so it might seem that mythical sirens in Polish culture, including contemporary art produced by women in Poland, play a rather marginal role. And yet, in August 2017 we witnessed the grand return of the Warsaw Siren, its symbolic meanings harnessed by women protesting against attempts by Poland’s right-wing government to further limit already radically restrictive abortion laws.
We are of course talking about the mermaid which features so powerfully in Warsaw’s coat of arms, armed with a sword and shield. This coat of arms appeared in the 14th century, its origins not fully known, a typical example of narrative frames. Legend has it that a mermaid swam ashore in order to rest and decided to stay. Local fishermen grew to like her, seeing as she seduced them with her song. She became their guardian, wanting to repay them for rescuing her from the clutches of an evil trader, who enslaved and made money by showing her off at markets and fairs. Seemingly more interesting than this legend is the history of the city’s coat of arms, which through its surprising symbolism of the shield and sword forces us to seek broader contexts in attempting to understand the role now being played by the Warsaw mermaid / siren.
In the autumn of 2017, the mermaid became the emblem of female resistance and the fight for reproductive rights, which Polish women were likely to lose as a result of legislative attempts by Poland’s right-wing government to tighten abortion laws and strip women of access to birth control. Young women did not refer directly to the legend itself, only making use of an image ready to be re-presented again. Until now, it has been used to identify social groups such as fans of the Warsaw soccer club Legia or else associations of taxi drivers or pharmacists. One night, as part of a feminist campaign, all the Warsaw mermaids were decorated with a sash stating “You are not alone” .
Relating to this action, a punk music band called Miraż composed a song titled Syrenka, which contains comparisons between the siren/mermaid and the Amazons, so blatantly obvious to anyone who looks at the Warsaw coat of arms, and also an association with Wanda, the mythical queen of Poland, who was said to have committed suicide in prehistoric times by throwing herself into the Vistula. The heroines in this song – contemporary Polish women anarchists – also want to drown themselves in despair in the Vistula, but just so they can then rise to the surface bearing arms, just like the mermaid which is the symbol of Warsaw.
już dość podejmowania za nas decyzji
już dość narzucania nam waszej wizji
a kiedy do mnie mówisz, że nie mogę tak myśleć,
no chyba się popłaczę, utopię się w wiśle
a później wyskoczę jak syrenka z zimnej wody
gotowa do walki o prawo do swobody
enough, of making decisions for us,
enough, of imposing your vision on us,
and when you tell me, that I cannot think like that,
I think I’m gonna cry, I’ll drown myself in Vistula
and then I’ll jump off like a mermaid from cold water,
ready to fight back for my right to freedom
(original translation link here)
The connection between courageous queen Wanda, taken from a myth dating back to the beginnings of Poland (quite important to the national imagination), and the Warsaw mermaid bearing arms was made earlier in a show titled Wanda staged by Teatr Stary in Krakow in 2013 by Paweł Passini, based on a drama written by Sylwia Chutnik and Patrycja Dołowa. The show aimed to revisit the myth of Wanda in Polish culture, its heroine – Ophelia-like, having rejected the role of a married woman – king and enslaved by history – in planning her suicide she also dreams of transforming herself into the siren of the Warsaw coat of arms:
“I am dreaming. I dream. I cannot go up on shore. I have been caught up by a current. Returned to waters. I will only be born armed. If I ever manage to stop being all that sludge. I will leave these waters. Wrapped in a rotting garland, in a web of seaweed, which they will cut with sterilised scissors. They will measure, weigh me, then give me a shield to add to my humble arsenal. I will create a city of girls. And so as not to seem like this will be some kind of unequal opportunity, I will still be half that mud, that silt, sludge, mud, chaos, the daughter of my father covered in scales, of my mother Meluzyna submerged in the silt. But I will stick my chest out proudly. I will not allow it to be covered up. And I will not allow for it to be covered up. For now, I go back into the same river.” (biblio).
In our article we would like to precisely cover two contemporary actualisations of the mermaid – in films directed by Łazarkiewicz and Smoczyńska – showing at the same time how they both, in our opinion, refer to an understanding of the mermaid / siren as being inherently connected in terms of meaning with the tribe of Amazons in ways which are original and true to Polish culture.
Before we go on to analyse and interpret them, let us attempt to replicate this old sphere of associations, emerging as early as medieval historiography, referring to times of antiquity and their reports about the oldest inhabitants of the lands we now call Poland [see Labuda 1999, Łowmiański 1963, Rudaś-Grodzka 2013: 239].
The Mermaid of Warsaw, the Amazons and their Slavic-Scythian roots
Let us return to the Warsaw coat of arms.
The Warsaw siren is armed like an Amazon. In the first archived version of the coat of arms (a seal from early 15th century) it is in a sense a siren, in fact a woman-bird who only in the 18th century finally takes on the present-day form of the woman-fish (along the way, most often taking on the shape of a woman-snake, with two tails at times), and yet the hybrid always found in the capital city’s coat of arms is always armed, which must have had magic meaning in medieval times: the monster had the power to ward off evil (Fudala, Mrozowski 2017). According to one of the myths, passed down by Jordanes (biblio) which is still referenced by today’s amateur historians (blibio web pages), the name Mazovia, a geographical land where Warsaw is situated, comes from the ancient people of Scythian Amazons. Nothing stands in the way of us seeking out deeper, more secret blood relations: in Poland of the 17th and 18th centuries, Amazons, Scythians and Sarmatians were considered to be pre-Slavonic peoples. Tadeusz Sulimirski in his book titled Sarmaci writes:
“In the wider circles of Polish nobility for many centuries it was thought that Slavs came from Samaritan roots, and Poles especially so. All the more so when it came to the gentry in Poland. In the 16th century, the name Sarmatia almost completely replaced the name Poland.” (Sulimirski 1979).
What connects the Mazovian mermaid with Amazons? Familial affinities, but above all: the ease with which they killed their enemies. They are also a symbol of women who refuse to be completely subjugated to the world of men, while also being characterised by a tendency towards betrayal; let us remember that some Amazons and Mermaids betrayed their natures in the name of love of men, the results tragic for them, while also further departing from established rules: abandoning relationships with women or else visions of ideal female love. Above all, in cultural narratives they were seen as alien and represented a threat to the established social order (biblio anglojęzyczne o syrenach – Kopenhaga, P. Vidal-Naquet, s. 277- 278).
For Greeks, the “other” is woman – Amazons, who cannot be civilised. In particular, it is Greek iconography which shows that women can only be domesticated temporarily. For the Greeks of antiquity women represented untamed nature, which won’t allow itself to be directed and can threaten central masculine institutions. In his Prometheus, Aeschylus called Amazons virgins who were fearless in battle, armed with bows, hating men, using armed force to remain free of male supervision [Aeschylus 1975: 62]. This is why alongside Amazons we see the appearance of animals: monsters, beasts which can destroy men with a single glance or utterance: sirens and gorgons.
The first mention of the kinship between mermaids and Amazons, and also Scythians / Sauromats / Slavs, is found in Herodotus’ Histories [Herodotus 1959]. According to his writings, the mother of Scythians was the twin-shaped Echidna – half-woman, half-snake. Like the Amazons and other monsters, the Scythians were to settle in the distant lands to the east and north of oikumene (civilized world or inhabited world). In times of antiquity, it was imagined that the place where the Amazons lived was important, located, as a result of their alienness, on the edges of the civilised world. The Greeks felt that this nation of warring and wild women was reminiscent of a dangerous monster, constantly poised for attack, one it was necessary to defend oneself from. Along with the shifting borders of the Greek-Roman empire and the development of historical-geographical knowledge, the location of the Amazons’ kingdom kept on shifting. We find it in Asia Minor, in Thrace, Kolchi, in Beocia, Ethiopia and Libya. Eventually, Herodotus moves them from the region near Terme to the area inhabited by the Scythians of the Sea of Azov, north-east of Tanais.
All barbarian tribes, especially during Roman times, were called “Scythians” – the original Scythians were a nomadic tribe originating in Iran. Between the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. they emigrated from central Asia and settled on the steppes of the Black Sea, where they established a mighty empire. They later reached central Europe, including the region inhabited by people of Sorbian culture. In the 4th century B.C., Sarmatians crossed the Don, pushing back the Scythians and in the 1st century B.C. they reached the Danube. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they waged war upon the Romans and settled in Dacia. In Poland of the 16th and 17th centuries, Sarmatians became a part of myths told by the gentry. It was widely believed that a cultural formation known as Sarmatianism existed – it was generally held that all noble born Poles are descendants of Sarmatian origin [Niedźwiedź 2015: 49].
One of the variations of tales about the origins of the Scythians is a version of the Heracles myth, according to which, while looking for his lost horses, Heracles found himself in a land called Hylia. This is where, hidden inside a grotto, he found “a snake virgin, sort of Echidna twin-shaped, who was above her buttocks a woman, below them a snake” [Herodotus 1959: 276]. Echidna forced him to have intercourse and gave birth to three sons, one of them was Scythes – from this Scythes, the son of Heracles, later came the kings of the Scythians [Herodotus 1959: 277].
In this same book of Histories we find the Amazons, related to Echidna, who according to tradition was to be their mother in law [Herodotus 1959: 110-117] . According to some stories, the Hellenes, having defeated the Amazons at the Battle of Termodont, sailed off, taking them on their ships. While at sea, the women killed the men, but not knowing how to sail, they landed at Kremnoj on the Sea of Azov, which belonged to the Scythians. Having come across a horse herd, they stole the animals, riding off to pillage the district, while the Scythians thought that the invaders were men in the prime of their lives. When the truth came out, they decided to send their young men to the warrior women, for they wanted to have children born of these Amazons. In the end, they combined their camps and set up home together. The women learnt their language. Later on, they wanted to take the women back to their homes, but the Amazons, wanting to be true to their own laws and traditions, refused this request. Herodotus writes that the Amazons eventually convinced the Sarmatians to go with them to Tanais, and following a six-day-long journey they arrived in a land which became their home [Herodotus 1959: 315]. Subsequent generations born of Sarmatian women retained their autonomy and old way of life.
Scythian women, who allowed themselves to be stripped of their original right to live and die, were shown to be stronger than men, more valorous and wise. It was also up to them to decide whether to bear children or else not. The world of Scythian Amazons was most certainly not stripped of sexuality. Living in separate communities, opposing sexes: men and women following cleansing processes, transgress their gender and surrender to love understood as an encounter between two dissimilarities. Because this encounter is under the sign of something impossible and yet essential, it must be sanctified; accompanied by dances, songs in a place especially selected for this purpose. It was thought that Amazon women who had decided to have children would then walk down to the river Halys, where they associated with men.
A similar story about Amazons appeared in Gothic History by Jordanes and Cassiododor [biblio]. Key characters in this are the queens: Martesia and Lampeto, which split their armies in two. Soon enough, they became famous and powerful, in turn waging wars or defending the borders of their native lands. They claimed to have been the daughters of Ares. They conquered most of Europe and occupied certain Asian countries. The location of their kingdom does seem intriguing and puzzling.
We know, both from sources written and archeological, that in the 6th century A.D. Goths reached the Black Sea. Jordanes mentions this in his work titled Ghetica, penned in the 6th century. The author did admit to having Gothic origins and this was why he wanted to record his countrymen’s history. Describing the place the Goths had set off from on their great journey, he wrote: “And so from this island Scandza, as if from a forge of peoples or rather a cradle of strains, the Goths set off with their king, by the name of Berig. Memory of this persists to this very day. They instantly named the earth they touched when disembarking from their ships, for this place to this day is still called Gothiscandza” [Cassiodorus and Jordanes 1984: 94-95]. Further on, he gives the location of Scandza, which was to be found facing the mouth of the river Viskla (Vistula) [Cassiodorus and Jordanes 1984: 93]
Jordanes’ report clearly shows however that the Goths came from the north, and so that is where we ought to look for their origins and settlements. They probably made landfall by the Bay of Gdansk, by the mouth of the river Vistula, which was known to them earlier. The monk writes also about the kinship between Goths and the Gepids, who left their homelands a little earlier and also landed on the northern shores of the Baltic Sea. They spread out slowly, gradually – in the first two centuries of the modern era they occupied almost the whole of Pomerania and norther Greater Poland. Over the next two hundred years they came to dominate Mazovia, Podlasie, Polesie, western sections of Volhynia and Podole, as well as large swathes of lands around Lublin. By studying burial sites, we know women’s social standing in these regions was very high, and that they served leadership roles; we can surmise that they took part in battles the same as men. A legendary home for the Amazons would thus be Mazovia, the lands of “Maz”, which is where queen Martesia set off to conquer the world, and where queen Lampeto set up their man base.
The time of their rule was short, but memories of their presence survived up to the medieval Kronika czeska / Czech Chronicle [Kosmas 1968], which talks about a settlement of women warriors and Slavic Amazons called Devin – as well as medieval Polish legends about Wanda, a valorous queen who defeated the Germans. Both medieval chronicles, by the Polish Kadłubek and the Czech Kosmas, talk about a government of women who were courageous, wise and beautiful. This is incredible, because we know that in Slavonic communities women were completely subjugated to husbands and fathers.
Wanda is the daughter of Krak, Libusza the daughter of Krok. In some variations of these legends Krak and Krok were one and the same, while Libusza and Wanda were sisters. The 18th century historian Adam Naruszewicz wrote in his Historia Polski that in times when Krakus ruled over Poland and Czechia, these lands saw the rebirth of the “ancient breed of Scythian Amazons” [A. Naruszewicz, 1836: 100]. Kosmas in his Kronika bestows many bardic skills upon Libusza, considering her similarity to the Cumaean Sibyl. The founder of the town of Luboszyn was said to have been a remarkable woman. Her people nominated her as their judge, and so she was appointed to the highest administrative, judicial and military rank. She ruled over that community until the men rebelled, no longer wanting to be subjected to female rule and women’s courts. Libusza surrenders to the will of the people and accepts the superiority of the husband she chooses for herself. The fact that Przemysław took over leadership of their community led in time to war, which was a battle for supremacy between men and women. Kosmas writes that until that time women and men lived apart. Girls would take part in military exercises, hunted and fought. They were also the initiators of sexual advances. And yet when Libusza and Przemysław set up a town, young women erected their own independent fort called Devin – the Fort of Virgins. In answer to this, boys erected the fort called Visegrad. This was the start of a long-standing, unresolved conflict. Following exhausting battles, both sides decided to put down their arms and agreed to peace. The chronicler reports that the revels and dancing lasted for three whole days. On the third night, the men betrayed the peaceful accords and each one kidnapped for themselves one warrior woman. Kosmas commented upon this development briefly and with a sense of relief, stating that since the times of that war and Libusza’s death women have been subject to men’s rule.
Polish historians and poets agree in stressing that, unlike Libusza, Wanda was not subject to male domination. Thanks to the mysterious power contained in virginity, she retained her autonomy and position throughout her life. These two queens are however related and complete one another in outlines. They appear in times when the female element proved to be dominant among the Slavonic peoples. Some, such as the 19th century writer Deotyma (Jadwiga Łuszczewska) thought that Wanda and Libusza, the daughters of this Krak-Krok, are one and the same, and having split into two ideals diversely shaped the Polish and Czech national imaginations. One is pressured into getting married, the second chooses death over entering into a marriage contract.
In his Kronika polska (I, chpt 7), Kadłubek presents Wanda simultaneously as a heroine, goddess and priestess [Kadłubek biblio]. Loved and respected by her subjects, she was said to have surpassed everyone in her beauty, wisdom and courage. Her times if idyll end when Aleman chieftain invades her lands with violent intentions. In order to defend her kingdom, Wanda leads her armies into battle to defend her people. The Aleman forces, overwhelmed by her beauty, radiant over the battlefield, lost the will to fight, refused to follow orders and withdrew from the field of battle. This unexpected turn in the conflict caused a tremendous shock in the thinking of the Aleman chieftain; stunned by the power of love emanating from Wanda, he impales himself upon his own sword, the enemy withdrawing, the country free to go on to enjoy a golden age. Meanwhile, Wanda, as stressed by Kadłubek, never did marry until her dying days, putting her virginity above the institution of marriage.
In other medieval chronicles, especially the likes of Jan Długosz’s Kronika Polska, Wanda leaps into the Vistula in order to avoid being married off to the Aleman chieftain and in this way ensure her country remained independent [Długosz biblio]. Her leap leads us to think of the connection between water and siren mermaids.
It is clear to us that her decision did not fit any rite or Christian ritual. We are here dealing not only with an act of willpower, but also a manifestation of political sovereignty. This act held in our memory to this very day retains a subversive character.
This pre-Slavonic myth recorded by Wincenty Kadłubek, a Polish chronicler, for ages provided poets, writers and historians with inspiration, for in it they found many different narratives and meanings [Mortkowiczówna, 1927]. The incredible phenomenon that is “Wanda” is not all about official cultural interpretations, but for centuries this ancient tale resisted attempts at cultural appropriation by constantly evading this process and by playing “games” with the official canon. Patriotic readings of Wanda made her into a Christian martyr, an example of virtue and virginity, a patron of a mournful nation. She was Antigone and a pagan queen – the founder of a Slavonic community, maintaining racial purity. And yet, in spite of nationalistic commandments and templates, she appears in our culture to be a devotee of idols, a mysterious lunar priestess of Artemis and Bendis, a river goddess, a drowned woman, and also an Amazon [Rudaś-Grodzka 2016]. Since medieval times, through Sarmatianism and Romanticism up to today’s Polish culture, we find apparent associations between princess Wanda, mermaids, Amazons and the siren of Warsaw…
Białe małżeństwo by Małgorzata Łazarkiewicz and its prototype
In discussing the film by Małgorzata Łazarkiewicz, it is worth starting with the date of its creation – the year 1992 – and its big screen premiere – 1993. These are times following the period of post-communist Transformation which took place in 1989, in which we see the birth of contemporary Polish feminism and gender studies, but alongside these we also witness a Polish “backlash”. It was in 1993 that Polish women were stripped of some of their human rights (the right to an abortion due to social causes), secured during the times of post-WWII Communism. This surprising coincidence and the logic which follows on from it will be interpreted in subsequent years in the essays by Agnieszka Graff (see Graff 2001, 2008). The year 1995 saw the publication of Absolutna amnezja / Absolute Amnesia by Izabela Filipiak – a novel which analyses the patriarchal and nationalistic understandings of womanhood (making reference to Arachne, who is key in terms of feminist critique, as well as the myth of Iphigenia). Not long after, we also see the publication of transformative academic writings by Maria Janion (Janion 1996), Grażyna Borkowska (Borkowska 1996) and Sławomira Walczewska (Walczewska 1999), relating to the relationship between Polishness and womanhood. In 1992, Małgorzata Łazarkiewicz will however be a sort of pioneer in terms of such research, and so her film can be of particular interest. Of note is also the director’s decision to stage Rożewicz’s drama, considering its troubling contents, in many ways an advance on the studies produced in the 1990s – his “feminist” message was noted mostly by critics publishing their analyses in the West (see Blair 1985, Kucharski 1989).
Łazarkiewicz’s film is constructed in layers: a contemporary frame wrapped round the film’s narrative, which takes place in fin de siecle day and age. Two modern girls, growing up in a home which bespeaks of the affluence of its residents (while also drawing parallels in style with gentrified architecture, seen as the quintessence of classic Polishness), are afflicted by worries related to the process of growing into adulthood. When the girls happen to see a film on TV (archival footage?) showing Piłsudski’s Legionnaires, they recognise (or so they think) in some of the men on screen their friends, to then enter into their world through their fantasies. The rest of the film switches to Różewicz’s narrative, hence in order to understand the interpretative steps taken by the director, we should briefly revisit the original drama itself.
During the Young Poland period, hybrid figures featuring female characteristics were often used in art, being above all a means of communicating misogynistic meanings, related to a fear of women which was typical of the age [Podraza-Kwiatkowska 1975]. Różewicz makes use of a mermaid character very discreetly, in a way which is easy to overlook, hence it has escaped analysis thus far. This is evident in the interpretations of this drama by the likes of Zbigniew Majchrowski (1982), Halina Filipowicz (2000), Agnieszka Skolasińska (2000) and Lidia Wiśniewska (1999), who devoted a whole half of her sizeable book to analysing this single play. The presence of mermaids seems merely incidental – if we can say so about a play penned by a remarkable modern poet, known for his uniquely conscious attitude to literary traditions, one capable of both re-interpretations and deconstructions [Gębala 1978, Burkot 1987, Drewnowski 1990, Skrendo 2013]. This happens because the central protagonist’s monologue, which comes at the end of the play, is mostly concerned with her desire to transform into a man, or else maybe – being treated as a non-woman, her husband’s “brother”, equal to him in terms of humanity. On the other hand, the words in the monologue in which Bianca declares that she is a mermaid come directly before words in which she reveals she is a chimera. As a result, even Zbigniew Majchrowski, the author of the best known essay about Białe małżeństwo, presents the mermaid character as subservient to the character which follows, giving the impression of it being its extension, and so in itself insignificant, not worthy of interpretations.
Bianca, the main protagonist in the play, following her wedding night, during which she makes it impossible for her husband to consummate the marriage, the following day also refuses to attend a visit demanded by etiquette. In speaking her monologue, the girl torches her elegant female garb in a lit fireplace and cuts off her hair. Looking at her naked body in a mirror (while covering up her breasts), she says the words “I am”. She concludes this thought by turning to her new husband as he enters the room and saying: “I am… I am your brother.” [Różewicz : ss.] Siren, chimera, androgyne, transvestite, feminist, Amazon… – Różewicz brings to mind a whole range of references through which we might understand “misfit identities”, such as the one represented by the central protagonist of this play. What is equally meaningful, in creating the character of Bianca, the poet used fragments of biographies, letters and literary works by two Polish women poets and writers – Narcyza Żmichowska and Maria Komornicka. These two apparent misfits, the Romantic Żmichowska and the Modernist Komornicka, are linked by the idea of emancipatory or rather self-accentuating womanhood, as well as non-heterosexual (Żmichowska – lesbian / Komornicka – transsexual) biographies.
Narcyza Żmichowska is known as the founder of a group called Entuzjastki (Enthusiastic Women), bringing together women in the 1840s who hoped to find personal development and fulfilment through the group by choosing roles other than those of “wife” and “mother” – such as writers, journalists, artists, teachers and civic activists. Żmichowska was also a charismatic tutor of girls, helping them cross boundaries set up by patriarchal culture they had been born into [Borkowska 1996]. Maria Komornicka in turn was a talented poet and literary critic, who has until recently played a marginal role in literary history, seeing as she was perceived to have been mentally unwell, something apparently evidenced by a legendary event in a hotel in Poznan in the year 1907. According to her family, Komornicka burnt her woman’s clothing in a fireplace, dressing in men’s garb, cutting her hair and ordering her mother to refer to her as a man named Piotr Włast (this was a name taken from their family’s protoplast). This was how Komornicka went on to sign her writings, which were not taken seriously by anyone. Her legacy only came to be taken more seriously in the 1970s, but to this day she remains representative of the contemporary feminist and queer movement in Poland [see Iwasiów 2010, Nadana-Sokołowska 2018].
The central protagonists in the play are two girl-cousin-friends, who at the cusp of adulthood explore their sexualities. In secret, they read books about human physiology, which helps them better understand the hidden layers of life in the manor house they live in, as well as their own budding sexualities. This awareness demystifies one of the most important myths in Polish culture – the exemplary way the Polish gentry live in their familial nests. Bianka begins to understand how unhappy her mother is in her marriage to her father. She begins to realise why he chases after the serving maids and female cooks. She begins to detest him for his masculine virility and ruthlessness, aspects which define the way in which he treats the women around him. On the other hand, Paulina learns a great deal about their lecherous grandfather’s secrets, and the immoral suggestions he makes to her.
Each girl takes up a different attitude in relation to their discoveries. Paulina realises that the world she will come to live in denies her the right to be fully human, but she is more amused than terrified of these discoveries. She adopts the cynical strategy of using the influence young beautiful women have over men, while Bianka is more and more terrified of what she is coming to discover. She writes letters imbued with erotic power and has a fiancee named Benjamin, but in conversations with him she begins to develop a white marriage project, dreaming of eroticism without penetration. Treated by her father as if she were a boy, the son he actually wanted, she rather fails to feel feminine. Meanwhile, the relationship between the female protagonists is charged with powerful eroticism, which brings to mind the union of mermaids, but also Bianka’s lesbianism. Różewicz himself in interviews which accompanied the publication of this drama suggested the idea that it refers to the “impossible” love between Narcyza Żmichowska and Paulina Zbyszewska, which he claimed was presented in the novel Poganka (1846) (biblio).
In the scene showing her wedding night, Bianka refuses to allow Benjamin to consummate their marriage. Benjamin, tired after the wedding party, seems at the time to be not very interested in her declarations and falls asleep straight away, so that Bianka’s monologue is for herself alone. This is when she says she is a Siren, and asks Benjamin if he can hear her sisters the Mermaids hailing her:
“My legs have fused together…. from the feet to the bellybutton I am covered in fish scales… Ben… your bride has a fish tail instead of legs… did you know? I am a siren… you married a siren… a chimera. Look! I have the head of a lioness, the torso of a goat and the tail of a snake… Can you hear my sisters mermaids hailing me, calling me along. (…) do not touch me… [biblio]
How can we understand this layering of meanings related to mermaids and changes in genders in Różewicz’s writings? Superficially speaking, they belong to two completely separate orders. Let us however note that, in the light of earlier conclusions about certain affinities between Mermaids and Amazons, they seem completely understandable. Being a siren, having a fish tail means for Bianka protection from penetration, which involves going beyond the role marked out for her by the nature of her gender. This would also lead to a regress, a withdrawal from life, while also involving a desire to go beyond the condition related to gender. Let us note that Różewicz holds back from stating definitively whether we are here dealing with biological or cultural genders. Perhaps his drama surrenders to cultural fin de sicle fatalism, which understood biological gender as determinant, something inescapable, unless this escape be regressive – madness or suicide (see Skolasińska 2000). In spite of this, we can assign Bianka the desire to be treated differently to the way women had been treated up until that point, and so – a progressive desire for cultural change, female empowerment (on the condition however that femininity/fleshiness was negated, and so a tragic choice – see Skolasińska 2000). Bianka turns out to thus be sister to various desperate drowned women, as well as a female rebel, demanding for herself the chance to live a different life, other than the one assigned to women of the time. Różewicz uses the fish tail in his bricolage in order to express the notion of transgressing the female condition as gender through biology or else patriarchal culture.
Bianka’s mermaid/chimeric aspect also demystifies the modernist siren in the role of symbol which threatens for men the mystery of female sexuality. Womanhood – Różewicz seems to suggest – contains no mystery other than the desire to be treated as a human being, “brother”, meaning a being equal in terms of rights with men. This is then the humanistic and at the same time feministic message of the play, perhaps not by chance aligned with key works of European humanism, such as xx, in which the equivalent of Mermaids – the figure of Woman-Seal – also expresses the desire for autonomy, the right to one’s own world [biblio].
If Różewicz’s Bianka remains a modernist mermaid, suggestive of meanings such as regress, connection with death, otherness, threat to men, lesbianism, and also the dream of emancipation, then in the screen adaptation by Magdalena Łazarkiewicz she clearly becomes both Siren and Amazon: a creature capable of destroying the world they find themselves in, and thus really a threat to the patriarchal world order. This screen adaptation of Różewicz’s play can be of interest to us precisely because the director brought to the fore Różewicz’s faintly mentioned siren motif, turning it into a key way of understanding the female protagonist – in which Bianka’s mermaidism is in her connoted not through the words of her monologue, but through a series of visual allusions.
In the opening of the film, we contemplate Bianka’s face framed with long, flowing hair and hear her girlish laughter in which we can recognise both the modulations of feminine seductiveness, as well as a note of wildness. In one of the opening scenes, Bianka tells Paulina about a dream in which she drowns in a well, and the whole film ends with a scene [spoiler alert] in which Bianka commits suicide by diving into a well. The motif of Bianka’s aquatic nightmares is of course present in the drama, but without the ending Łazarkiewicz comes up with it is difficult to comprehend, connoting rather the central protagonist’s sexual frigidity or else her regressive desires. Thanks to the solution invented by the director, it also makes clearer Bianka’s auto-representation in her words to her husband. Both her mermaidism and the suicide she commits, latent in the play, are brought more to the fore thanks to her interpretative insightfulness. In this way, Łazarkiewicz connects with the tradition of presenting female suicides as mermaids, and even imagining a community of wronged and hurt women, which was present already in Mickiewicz’s ballad and which, something which is very interesting considering the biographical connection between Różewicz (occuring just before he wrote his play) and Anna Świrszczyńska, a poet who wrote Wyją z bólu / Howling hurt, which was published in the poetry collection Jestem baba / I Am Wench (1972). It is short and relevant enough for us to quote it here in its entirety:
|Wyją z bólu |
Pod moje okno
Podpływają nocami syreny
Chore na wściekliznę.
I wyją z bólu
Do nieuleczalnego księżyca.
|Howling hurt |
Beneath my window
Sirens swim past at nights
At an incurable moon.
Slam the window shut.
Translation Marek Kazmierski
The titular little fishy is for Mickiewicz also a siren. A peasant woman who, having been seduced and abandoned with a child, commits suicide and turns into this siren. Interestingly enough, after death she miraculously switches between the forms of fish or mermaid, but the latter in order to nurse her child with her own breast milk, the babe brought down to the river by a friendly farmer – and so the siren has mothering instincts. And yet when her unfaithful lordly lover appears on the shore, the fishy-siren entices him into the watery depths and causes him to die, along with his recently married wife (this incredible version of events is presented in the ballad as something thought up by the aforementioned farmer). Based on the example of Mickiewicz’s ballad, we can talk about a feministic accent contained in this referencing of the Siren/Mermaid figure which makes her wholly human, and dangerous only ever to her oppressors. She uses magic powers in order to extract justice from a man who, in seducing her, did so using his privileged social position, as well as religious reasoning which lay the blame and punishment on the woman-victim.
The ballad also contains the motif of a mermaid community – as we can imagine, the sisterhood of Watermaids (Świtezianki) the wronged girl calls on to aid her as she throws herself into the depths are other drowned women, also desperate victims of a patriarchal social world order. It is obvious that a similar point is made in creating a sense of belonging to the siren community of “rabid” women which – as we might suspect – means the permanently wronged, enraged and pained females in Świrszczyńska’s poem.
The first meaning mermaids represent in the drama and the film involves showing the force of nature that is water as connected both with destructive and self-destructive tendencies. But the second would relate to a vision of a community of drowned-women who continue to lead a mysterious, beautiful life in underwater worlds – about their sisterhood and resistance.
Not unlike in Rybka, which allows the sirens’ to take revenge against an adulterous lover, Łazarkiewicz film shows Bianka-Siren as a character who threatens a world founded on masculine domination. Bianka, leaving the manor house at night, causes it to catch fire (lace curtains moved by a breeze touch a lit candle). In this way her suicide is followed by the end of the world she decided to abandon through her act of transgression-rebellion. This state can be associated with Polishness itself – the film after all was shot in the same mansion as the renowned Panny z Wilka (based on a short story by Iwaszkiewicz from 1933 and brought to the big screen by Andrzej Wajda in 1979), and many visual allusions – for example the scene of mushroom picking – refers in them also to the idyllic vision of Polishness emerging from the national epic by Adam Mickiewicz – Pan Tadeusz. Also the contemporary framing device stresses the present-day relevance of the models of Polishness analysed in the play and the film, also casting judgement upon the experiences of women contemporary to the director.
Thus in Różewicz as in – even more forcefully – Łazarkiewicz’s film, we find ourselves dealing with a presentation of male “lustiness” and female sexual trauma as a “nighttime truth” about Polishness. Masculine sexuality is here presented as a biological drive, the foundation of social order, necessitating the impossibility of female individuality (women are subservient to men in the sexual act, biologically determined to constantly being pregnant, as Bianka’s mother defines empathically when describing her own condition). Let us note however that the fire which destroys the archetypical Polish homestead – manor house – in the film might suggest not only destruction, but also cleansing, and so also announce a rebirth of the world on new terms. This feministic and emancipatory motif was almost completely absent in the play, in which Bianka seemed to present a threat merely to her husband, denying him the pleasure of physical possession, while at the same time trying to dominate and also lead towards regression (according to Zbigniew Majchrowski’s interpretation, this was the function of the chimera figure in the play). In her film, Łazarkiewicz shows how any woman refusing sexual advances is seen as a threat to the whole culture constructed upon the dominant position of one gender over another.
It is also worth comparing the scene of Bianka’s transformation in front of the mirror as shown in the film and the play. Łazarkiewicz has her heroine not only cut her hair and expose herself, setting fire to her clothing, but she also wraps her body (breasts) in an attempt to make her gender invisible. We can perceive this scene as a reference to the motif of the Amazon as a woman who maims her own breasts, which happen to be one of the most fetishised feminine attributes. Heading towards the well, Bianka being bandaged walks slowly, with effort, as if walking on a tail and not legs. This scene also helps to highlight her otherness, non-humanness, “mermaidness”, while also referencing Anderson’s little mermaid: although his mermaid suffered of her own volition, walking on legs, in Łazarkiewicz’s film women transformed into sirens suffer (her fish tail can suggest being shut up in the myth of “mystery of womanhood” and at the same time in biology – cultural gender – condemning her in marriage to be limited to basically reproductive functions).
In this way, the mermaid in Łazarkiewicz’s film represents a tension between her regressive meanings (withdrawing from life) also present in Różewicz’s play, and the progressive meanings almost wholly absent from his creation – postulating cultural change in a way which makes it possible for women to be empowered. By departing dramatically from the original play’s narrative, Łazarkiewicz manages to enhance its central message.
Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Córy dansingu
Now, let us take a look at the functions the mermaid motif serves in the film Córy dansingu. This apparently lighthearted vision, presented as a conventional musical set in the world of show business and Warsaw’s shadowy underworld in the time of Communism (the 1980s), in a self-aware sense toys with all the cultural conventions related to mermaids, including the Warsaw siren of legend. As a result, it creates a tension between the idealised, non-threatening legend of the mermaid rising from the waves in Warsaw to become its coat of arms, and the typical perception we have of the siren as a creature representing femininity which is wild and dangerous, but also with the Mermaid in Andersen’s fairytale – ready to sacrifice herself in the name of love of a man. The film however also makes reference to meanings associated with Sirens and Amazons, showing them as independent creatures, existing outside of patriarchal systems, powerful and ready to avenge any harm done to them.
The heroines of the movie are two mermaids – apart from the fact that they live in water and are animals (predators in fact, for at times they need to rip men apart and devour them), in all aspects they appear to seem like young women, desiring intensive, adventure-filled lives. Bored during a stay by the Black Sea, they decide to swim down rivers to the Baltic Sea, and then on to the ocean, in order to reach New York and there have fun. Unlike traditional mermaids, Gold and Silver (these are their names) are able to change into human beings, though the transformation is not complete, seeing as this human form leaves them stripped of sexual organs. In this fetishistic aspect, representative of today’s youthful subcultures, we might also see also a symbol of how they remain inaccessible to men: of autonomy. The sirens are also aware that falling in love with men represents a threat to them: they can choose to turn into women in all respects, but then they will lose the ability to turn back into semi-animal form. Wanting to appear nice and offer a sacrifice, they thus become vulnerable, for surrendered to the mercy of a world which can still refuse them humanity and use this as justification for causing them pain.
This is what happens in the film. One of the mermaids falls in love with a handsome singer of a music band and in the name of love’s fulfilment sacrifices herself by undergoing permanent change. The scenes showing a medical operation in which Silver has the lower half of a dead woman’s body attached to her upper body are both comical and macabre, convincingly showing mutilation, or rather death, as a condition of fulfilling her love. The girl also thus surrenders her wild, semi-animalistic nature. This is seen in the scene in which she refuses to take revenge upon her lover, when he – bored and filled with disgust for her still bleeding body – cheats on her with a “normal woman”. This weakness, also in ethical terms – magnanimity – is inevitably paid for by Silver with her own life: in line with the logic of movie narratives, the mermaid, unhappily in love with a human being, dies, turning into watery foam. This is of course a reference to the tragic ending of Andersen’s fairytale, but the director in this way also creates a simultaneously expressive symbol of so-called “female weakness”: the foam’s amorphousness in the film becomes the equivalent of popular terms such as “lacking character”.
Gold in turn takes revenge for her friend Silver, but she too will have to suffer a painful loss, for her “sister” at first betrays their shared plans and abandons her true identity in the name of a project involving a union with a man, and then – in dying – leaves her abandoned to solitude. The film’s feministic message, in combining the figures of mermaid and Amazon, is more than made visibly clear. It is also worth adding that the film, to spite patriarchal anathemas, clearly shows also the necessity of “wild”, “animalistic” elements in women’s psyches as the basis of their ability to feel pleasure on the one hand, and the ability to correctly judge risk and be able to defend themselves on the other.
As we see from the above analysed examples, references to mermaid / siren types in Polish culture will automatically activate associations with the legendary tribe of Amazon warrior women. This sphere of association, emerging from medieval historiography – legends about princess Wanda, who had about her something of the Amazon and the Mermaid – also returns today in images and fantasies connected with the Warsaw coat of arms. The critical / destructive potential of the siren shown in Łazarkiewicz’s movie was decidedly toned down by Smoczyńska in keeping with the conventions of a mainstream musical (but not without elements of horror, such as the scene in which the two sirens kill a policeman with smiles on their faces, to then devour the man), which can mean that the period in which she created it did not fully induce her to feel pessimistic in terms of mood. The real wild aspect of mermaid-Amazon women aimed like a weapon at patriarchal oppression doesn’t actually return until we get to the performances staged to coincide with Black Friday.
 There are nine monuments or reliefs featuring the mermaid as Warsaw’s coat of arms situated around the capital city. Two of these are best known – the mermaid sculpture in Powisle by the Swietokrzyski Bridge and a second such monument in the Old Town Square.
  Ancient sources, used by medieval chroniclers of the Polish nation, creating myths of its founding, were collected in the anthology Słowiańszczyzna starożytna i średniowieczna (Labuda 1999).
 The play was translated into English and in 1977 premiered in New York, to then go on being staged in the USA and Europe.
  Interestingly enough, the researcher in writing about the key and most popular symbols of Young Poland almost completely fails to mention mermaids.
  Bianka’s “attribute” – cold feet – returns in this function in Julia Fiedorczuk’s novel Biała Ofelia, which is also connected to Różewicz’s play by the motif of dreams of non-genital sex – here: lesbian, being a sort of experience of bodies dissolving and being mutually permeable, and so referring to the elemental properties of water (see Fiedorczuk 2011: 130).
Autor: Marek J Kaźmierski – krytyk, tłumacz.