The Mermaid Segesta and the Triton Tigullio: The Legend of Sestri Levante

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Charles Murray Padday – The Mermaid (1900)

Once upon a time there was a mermaid called Segesta.

Her eyes silver like the Moon, her red hair was like the coral of untamed reefs, her tail green like the water that surrounds the paradises lost in the ocean.  Segesta was the most beautiful mermaid that Mother Nature had ever given birth to the god Poseidon. The god was the father of Segesta and his was the Kingdom of the Seven Seas: since his daughter was the most beautiful in the Ligurian Gulf, he dedicated an entire island to her.  The island was filled with the wonder of her Mother Nature, just as the mermaid herself was, so much so that the people of the sea, mermaids, nereids and undines, could gather there to play and call it Segesta Island. There in the Ligurian Sea lived undisturbed fish, molluscs and dolphins among the most majestic that had ever ploughed the salt waters and in unison had elected this sea their sanctuary.

But there was not only play for the sons and daughters of Poseidon.  Since the island was close to the mainland, the father had asked his beloved daughters to patrol the coasts of the island so that the pearl of the Ligurian Sea could remain untouched.  But Poseidon gave permission so that only the most beautiful mermaids, nereids and undines could defend the beauty of the Island. The beautiful people of the sea were seated on rocks that, like thrones, emerged from the foamy waters. Beauty was their weapon: they attracted pirates, whose ships were moved by the intent to kidnap the mermaids and steal the treasures of the sea; they attracted bad fishermen, whose boats were moved by the intent to stain themselves with the innocent blood of the purest creatures of the sea, only to boast to their friends of their strength.

But the tritons were not allowed to emerge in the clear waters of Segesta.  Unlike mermaids, nereids and undines, in fact, tritons did not have delicate features, but their beards and hair were algae, their bodies like rock and their tails encrusted like worn out mussel shells. Tritons were not suitable to defend the sea: they were better than mermaids. Just as the mermaids had taken their father’s scowl from their father, so the tritons had taken their mother’s desire for fairy tales. They could never have done as their sisters did, who, between one game and another, watched the arm of the sea between the land and the island, so that they drowned their enemies, unleashing storms, horses and whirlpools.  Too much pain!  Their goodness made them beautiful in the eyes of Mother Nature, but not in the sight of their own father, so they were only allowed to see their sisters from beneath the surface of the sea.

But this is a fairy tale, magic is a rule able to break any law. A triton, named Tigullio, was bored at the bottom of the sea when the water around him resounded with the sweetest song he had ever heard. At the setting of each Sun, at the rising of each Moon, the music poured into the water and reached the heart of the young triton. Each note struck, struck the heart of the merman. And once he heard it for the third day and the third night, his heart was so full of it that he was awakened to new life: the triton rose from the slimy depths and swam, swam, swam even stronger than his tail allowed him through the sound waves that, like a stone thrown into the water, ran in ever-widening circles. The music came from another world, the world above, so that once outside of the sea, Tigullio forgot the ancient veto of his father Poseidon.

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John William Waterhouse – The Mermaid (1901)

The Moon poured milky light on the scales of Segesta while she, was softly lying on the throne of the crescent moon shaped bay, combing her hair, her image mirrore in the expanse of the sea. As she passed the comb through her soft coral hair, she sang to the Moon rise until her setting as every night. But this time, in a great roar, a huge dark silhouette emerged from foamy waves. An arm fluttering like an orca, came out of the sea to touch the fish tail of the beautiful Segesta. It was Tigullio whose powerful swim had followed the mermaid’s voice, until he touched her with one hand. But the sea, flat as glass up to that point, soon shook its waves until a burst announced the Father King who reigns at the bottom of the sea: Poseidon, riding his chariot of waterhoreses, opened his bearded mouth and his disgust gushed out like a horrible fish from the deep. But the worst was yet to come out of his mouth: with thunderous rebuke, he froze the sky and cursed that gesture of love towards his beloved daughter.

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Max Klinger – Triton and Nereid (1895)

But since this is a fairy tale, curses are a heart-breaking law. Segesta had seen Tigullio only for an instant, exactly when she had been reached and touched by the mermen: who would have thought an instant could change a life? She had fallen in love with him without even knowing it. But now the wiggling muscles of Tigullio’s arm became hard and rough as rock, and as they turned to stone, the curse creeped up on Segesta’s tail until the curse extinguished her gentle singing. Poseidon’s thunder not only struck the cursed son Tigullio, but also his beloved daughter Segesta. So they were both petrified in that forbidden embrace. By then the Moon had set and the Sun on the fourth day was now high in the sky: Tigullio had become an isthmus connecting the land of the Ligurians to Segesta Island.

Poseidon was struck to the heart by his own wrath, so that from that moment on he let his triton children, ugly but good, play with their most beautiful sisters, the mermaids, nereids and undines. On the other hand, the sisters and brothers of Tigullio and Segesta remained so attached to the memory of their beautiful sister that they called the union of land and island, Segesta Tigulliorum – Sestri of Tigullio, the town of the two seas. But the waters of Sestri were now silent, only the memory of the mermaid and the merman resounded in the gentle waves reaching for the crescent bay of Portobello. From that day on, the Moon song of Segesta was heard only as an echo, a distant memory that reaches poets and sailors who hear that voice of silence in the bay, the Bay of Silence.

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Arnold Böcklin – Games Amongst the Waves (1883)

Then one day a poet, following that distant echo, came to Sestri from the remote North, he came from the land where the rose bud of the Vikings sprung, Denmark: it was 1833. Once he dipped his cold feet in the warm waters of the bay, the distant memories of that story I have just told you finally set in him. Voice rose from the deep, and the ancient memories of a legendary past were enlivened again in the poet’s imagination. The great poet had a gentle heart and a powerful genius so, to thank the Sea for the gift of the voice of imagination, he performed a miracle that only poets are allowed to perform: he gave a new life to the two young sailors so that they could love each other again. Thus the mermaid Segesta’s song lived in his fairy tale again, so much that the twin bay took the name of Bay of Fables. The miracle was so great that the whole world could hear it in a fable published in 1837. Hans Christian Andersen called the good triton the Prince and the beautiful Segesta, the Little Mermaid.

But that’s another story and you all already know it. And yet it’s true without lie, it’s certain and very true. It is a poet who told it to you, and he was right there in that distant past of mermaids and tritons, gods and Mother Nature. In that place of fairy tales he was born to us, and he returns to that place every time he wants to tell tales. You know, he cannot lie because his lie is true and it is called poetry. So come you too! Walk on the path between the two bays, listen to the voice of silence and re-enlived your imagination! Remember first and tell later, keeping one foot on land and one in the sea, so that memory becomes alive and life is to be remembered.

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Hans Christian Andersen in the Bay of Silence, 23 October 1833

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