Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse depicts a scene from Jason and the Argonauts. Hylas was the son of King Theiodamas, who was killed in battle by Herakles. Herakles then raised Hylas as his own. Known for both his striking beauty and his military prowess, Hylas was later taken to Argo by Herakles and became an Argonaut. Waterhouse’s work shows the moment when Hylas has left their ship and encounters a group of nymphs. Struck by his beauty, the nymphs lure him into the water where he will meet certain death.
Waterhouse shows seven nymphs, each virtually identical. They seem passive, as if their beauty alone is enough to seduce Hylas into danger. There is no need to be aggressive in their attack, the lure is mystical and no victim could resist.
Their danger is a delicate one. Subtle beauty with an undercurrent of menace that the viewer is only aware of once you know what they are. This is similar to La Belle Dame sans Merci, Keats’ lady without mercy.
As dangerous as they are, there doesn’t seem to be a feeling of evil. While often depicted negatively in myths and stories, they lack the human ability to hate or to kill out of the murderous intent a mortal person would have. They are what they are and should be treated with the same fear and respect of any other dangerous creature in the wild. In other words, admire from a safe distance.
Both of these works are cautionary tales, encouraging the viewer to resist temptation. The song of the siren, yet another version of the femme fatale, is a tale that has existed since man first began to share stories. I think the broad message it serves is that beauty and pleasure exist in but a moment, but it is a moment that can alter your path dramatically. Attraction is not always what it seems.