Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. — Ed.

I confess that I was naïve to anticipate that the ladies in this iconic portrayal of Jeju women divers would resemble those I would encounter on the island when I arrived as a Peace Corps Volunteer in early 1973. How many other men over the past 50 years have expected the same when they bought their ticket to the island?

I am obliged to digress a bit here into Western civilization’s “Legend of the Sirens.” The Sirens of Greek mythology were described as dangerous and beautiful creatures, femme fatales that played in the sea sprays along the rocky reefs and shorelines of uncharted islands. When ships approached the Sirens deployed their enchanting musical voices to coax the crazed members of their crews within earshot to shipwreck. Homer wrote of these Sirens in his ancient epic poem The Odyssey.

I saw Kirk Douglas play the brave Ulysses on the big screen in Technicolor in 1953 at the Reseda Theater in southern California. Ulysses orders his crew to tie him to the mast and then stuff their own ears with wax so he alone could hear the Siren song without succumbing to their spell and forfeiting his ship to their wiles. Some scholars believe the Siren Song was birdlike and the Sirens were shape-shifters and able to transform themselves as needed into wanton beauties. This is how the artist John William Waterhouse in his dramatic 1891 painting depicted Homer’s Sirens enticing Ulysses while he is bound to the mast:

Figure 1: A portion “Ulysses and the Sirens” painted by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

Figure 1: A portion “Ulysses and the Sirens” painted by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

We count four Sirens in this portion of the Waterhouse painting. Most scholars claim that there were only three: Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia. Perhaps it is by mere coincidence that the iconic pose that celebrates Jeju women divers at Dragon Head Rock and appears on postcards, porcelain plates, ashtrays and all manner of tourist kitsch as far back as I can remember also portrays a trio of femme fatales.

I refer to them in this essay as “Sirens of the Deep” because that is what the National Geographic Society called them when it sent its made-for-television “Explorer” series team to Jeju Island to film their story in the early 1990s.

One of my unfinished adventures in life and very near the top of my long “bucket list” (of things to do before I ‘kick the bucket’) is to discover and tell the story of the Siren that corresponds to “Legeia” among the three appearing in the iconic image of Jeju women divers at Dragon Head Rock.

Figure 2: Ms. Legeia of Dragon Head Rock.

Figure 2: Ms. Legeia of Dragon Head Rock.

Why? Call me crazy but I have a notion that this face has launched more than a thousand (male) tourist voyages to Jeju Island during the past 40 years. I bet that if I wandered through a public market on Jeju Island today, just as was my experience as I wandered through public markets there during my Peace Corps days, that the face of Ms. Legeia of Dragon Head Rock might be found stamped on something or other in nearly every stall selling tourist trinkets and postal cards.

But what I really want to do is track down the model posing in the iconic photo above and to share her story with the world. I am thinking that she probably never got paid much more than a thin dime for her famous pose — and since then has earned no royalties. Perhaps Legeia of Dragon Head Rock could not even swim?

Next week: ‘Search and Destroy’ on Jeju Island, circa 1702 (Part 5)

Tagged with →