The city of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, has a mermaid carrying a sword and shield on its coat of arms. That same mermaid is depicted in images throughout the city. Her name is Syrenka (sometimes Syrena) and she is the city’s protector.
The Warsaw mermaid may not be the oldest instance of a mermaid in human culture, but she is one of the most famous mermaid depictions seen throughout the world. For Warsaw, this mermaid legend is intertwined with its history and the tale is still told to this day by the residents and tour guides of this beautiful city.
Her Common Origins
The words ‘siren’ and ‘Syrenka’ come from the same origin. Those sirens from old sailors’ tales spawned many legends.
Indeed, despite her unique status in Poland as the Warsaw mermaid, Syrenka has a mermaid heritage that is well known and common in many other cultures. That’s because she is really Melusine (also written as Melusina or Meluzyna). As explained in one of my recent posts, Melusine is a famous figure in the history of many European countries, and you even see a representation of her on the Starbucks logo. Her story morphed in a variety of directions as it was told and retold over centuries.
Tale of Two Sisters
The Polish tale of Syrenka begins with two beautiful and vivacious mermaid sisters who lived in the Baltic Sea. They became bored with their lives, approached the shoreline, and went their separate ways. The first sister went to the Danish straits and her image can still be seen today at the entrance to the Port of Copenhagen – the most famous mermaid statue in the word, The Little Mermaid. The second sister went first to Gdansk, on the coast of Poland, then to the mouth of the Vistula River. She rested on the shores of what is known today as Warsaw’s Old Town. From there grew the story of the mermaid of Warsaw.
Syrenka and Old Warsaw
The fishermen of Old Town noticed that their fishing was being hijacked. They set out toward the river’s mouth to find the thief. As they approached, they heard Syrenka singing a song that was so beautiful, they were enchanted and decided to leave her be. In return, she serenaded them every night.
Thus you can see the similarity with the tales of sirens and their captivating songs.
Siren Turned Defender
But Syrenka is not a malicious mermaid. As her story continues, a merchant saw her on the shore and tried to capture her. He was able to trick Syrenka and lock her in a shed, but her cries for help were heard by a handsome son of a fisherman who came to her rescue with some friends. Upon setting her free, Syrenka promised always to defend the village and its people.
Warsaw’s Mermaid: Embedded in the Culture
Syrenka’s promise to protect Warsaw is beloved by the city. Her earliest likeness, complete with sword and shield, appeared in 1652 on the cover of the book Registrum Proventuum et Expensorum Civitatis Antique Varsaviae.
Today, you’ll see the mermaid of Warsaw integrated throughout the city, almost always wielding that sword and shield to defend the people. For starters, she is the defining feature of Warsaw’s coat of arms. She is memorialized in statues and monuments throughout the city. The most famous of these, found in the Old Town Square, was sculpted by Konstanty Hegel and installed in 1855.
Tour guides will happily show you the others:
- Powisle: Installed in 1939 near the Vistula River.
- Markiewicz Viaduct: Located on Karowa Street, erected in 1905.
- Sejm Plenary Hall: A shield engraving placed in 1947.
- Inzynierska Street: Tram depot 6 entrance.
- Katowicka Street: School No. 77.
- Grochowska Street: In front of Praga-Poludnie’s district office.
- Lindley’s Filters: On the Filtry Lindleya building.
- Palace of Culture and Science: On each clock face, added before 2000.
- Bielsko-Biala Square: A memorial built in 1954.
Of course, you will also find Syrenka adorning many souvenirs in Warsaw’s gift shops. Her appearance will forever be part of the city’s rich and colorful history. Her popularity is yet another reminder to us all of the important role mermaids have played in shaping human culture. Long may they continue playing that role and teaching us how to respect each other, our oceans, and our planet.
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