These femmes fatales have many faces, but all seem to stand for one idea: that Nature shows herself cruel, destructive and perverse, once any attempt is made to plumb her secrets.
This was Sade's view, and it subverts Rousseau's vision of Nature as benevolent mother. The Symbolists revived this idea, by up-dating the Judeo-Christian myth of The Fall. Fear of prostitution and venereal disease (increasingly scourges of modern urban life) fuelled their vision of Eve as sinner.
They also drew on contemporary deterministic theory, and the pessimism of Schopenhauer, who declares that Nature uses feminine beauty to perpetuate the species, and cares nothing for the welfare of individuals, who are duped by pleasure and vanquished by death.
The encounter between man and the Sphinx, who embodies Nature's mystery, inspired Munch, Stuck and Behrens – just as it had inspired Heinrich Heine and Baudelaire, who felt that this drama was their own. Collectively, the Symbolists saw themselves as superior beings – daring to take the euphoric and agonising plunge, and explore Nature's vile secrets.
Jules Michelet's The Witch, a historical study of witchcraft, carried an anticlerical and proto-feminist message which caused a stir when it appeared in 1862. He argues that witches played a vital role in the community by maintaining, between human beings and nature, a link which the Christian churches wished to sever.
He also shows how rulers, religious and political, used witchcraft to keep women and the masses in subjection.
Nostalgia for a lost sense of the world's hidden harmonies helped the Symbolists to identify with witches – figures at once subversive, melancholy and magical. Sculptors like Thomas Theodor Heine, Jean-Joseph Carriès and Séraphin Soudbinine seemed to be acting as sorcerer's apprentices when they used hard-to-manage materials like sandstone, and stressed the organic nature of creatures which seemed to be emerging from the block.
The traditional Dance of Death motif, which had outlived the Renaissance in Germany and Flanders, resurfaced during the industrial revolution, when cholera devastated Europe's great manufacturing cities.
At a time when society was becoming increasingly health-conscious, and overt reminders of mortality were being discreetly airbrushed, the Symbolists, like Baudelaire before them, took a lordly and defiant pleasure in restoring "Lady Death" to her rightful place – sometimes as seductive shadow, sometimes as sniggering skeleton.