Title: Capitulum lxxxiii: Syrena, Jacob Meydenbach (after Dioscorides) Hortus sanitatis (The garden of health)
Place: Published in Mainz by Jacob Meydenbach
Date: 1491
Medium & technique: Hand-coloured woodcut on paper
Dimensions: 280.5 x 200 x 70 mm
Themes: Bodies – Inside & Outside
Collection: The University of Melbourne Rare Books Collection, UniM Bail SpC/RB Call No: MTC/20 Incunabula, George McArthur Bequest, 1903

Jacob Meydenbach’s Hortus sanitatis (Garden of health) is an early form of illustrated natural history encyclopaedia. It is a modified Latin translation of a famous Greek ‘herbal’ known as De materia medica, which was written in the first century CE by Dioscorides Pedanius. Herbals such as Meydenbach’s not only provided taxonomies of plant and animal life, but were specifically intended to assist readers, as the author states in his preface, with the preparation of ‘helpful remedies and perfect medicines’. Highly influential in its time, Meydenbach’s book illustrated the characteristics and medicinal properties of a wide range of plants, animals and minerals. The University of Melbourne’s first edition copy of the Hortus sanitatis contains only 386 of the original 454 leaves, but retains several hundred woodcuts. Alongside its more familiar subjects, the book also depicts a range of fantastical flora and fauna, including a unicorn, a dragon, a ‘sea-hare’, and a variety of winged fish and mer-people, including the Siren shown here. Of human appearance to the navel, with fish-like lower extremities, Meydenbach’s ‘mortifera’ or ‘deadly’ Siren is said to await passing ships, whose passengers she will lull to sleep with her sweet song, and then tear to pieces. The Siren’s entrancing melodies link her to the avian world; in many medieval bestiaries the Siren was depicted as either a woman-bird, or a woman-fish-bird hybrid. Often referred to as meretrix – a harlot or prostitute – the Siren, with her fatal song, represented the moral dangers inherent in the experience of aural pleasure.

Catherine Mahoney, University of Melbourne

Further Reading:

Elizabeth Eva Leach, ‘The Little Pipe Sings Sweetly While the Fowler Deceives the Bird: Sirens in the Later Middle Ages’, Music and Letters, 87 (2006), 187-211.

Louise Wilson and Robyn Sloggett, ‘Hortus sanitatis (The garden of health)’, University of Melbourne Collections, 1 (2007), 13.

William A. Locy, ‘The Earliest Printed Illustrations of Natural History’, The Scientific Monthly, 13 (1921), 238-258.