They [the Greeks] imagine that “there were three Sirens, part virgins, part birds,” with wings and claws. “One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck. According to the truth, however, they were prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them.” They had wings and claws because Love flies and wounds. They are said to have stayed in the waves because a wave created Venus.
Category Archives: Mythology[post_grid id="10029"]
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“For with their high clear song, the Sirens bewitch him, as they sit there in a meadow piled high with the moldering skeletons of men, whose withered skin still hangs upon their bones.” Odyssey. 12: 39-54
The elusive Sirens of the Aegean have been cornerstone characters in Greek mythology since the 7th century BCE. The two Sirens (sometimes three), Scylla and Charybidis reside in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily- a common passage in the ancient World for ships conducting trade, expeditions, and contacts with the Central Mediterranean powers. Having prominent scenes in the Odyssey and the Argonautika, and being heavily featured in vase paintings in the Aegean, Italy, and Sicily, the Sirens are well-known to us today.
Beautiful singing, captivating, fatal women of the sea permeate even children’s material, like The Little Mermaid…but, these half bird, half woman creatures are more complex than we may think at first glance.
The Origin of Sirens
Like most mythical creatures, the origin of the Sirens is unknown. Their parentage may come out of Gaia, Phorcys, Achelous, Sterope, and/or one of the Muses. Their concept in mythical terms is thought to be of eastern origin, brought over to Greece during the Orientalizing period when artistic motifs, themes, and ideas were adopted from Syria and Assyria.
Some scholars have referred to the Sirens as ‘Soul-Birds” while others have considered them “other world enchantresses.” These soul-birds, an idea put forth by Georg Weicker, were essentially representations of the souls of the dead, who resided in the underworld. The Sirens then, acted as tests to seafarers traveling the dangerous straits, failure of which resulted in death.
The Form of Sirens
The form of the Sirens, in both literature and art, is relatively consistent: the body of a bird, the head of a woman and sometimes with human arms. Circe, in Odysseus 12 describes the Sirens:
“She has a voice as loud as a new-born puppy’s, but she herself is an evil monster. No one would enjoy the sight of her, not even if a god should encounter her. She has twelve feet, all hanging in the air, and six necks, very long ones, and on each is a terrifying head, with three rows of teeth in it crowded close together, filled with dark teeth.”
The picture painted here is not one of a beautiful, seducing figure, but one of a grotesque, terrifying monster that does everything she can to lure men to their death.
But is the very form and description of the Sirens a personification of the natural environment of the Straits? Some think so. The voice of a “new born puppy’s” could represent a seal, the many feet hanging off her body possibly an octopus, and the triple set of teeth can be a small shark. Charybdis is described as sucking in ships and spitting them out in pieces; a phenomenon that can easily be likened to whirlpools.
So, like many mythical creatures and legends, are the Sirens a way for people to cope with the unexplainable difficulty plaguing this passage of sea? It certainly seems that way.
Odysseus and the Sirens
Perhaps one of the most poignant representations we have of the Sirens comes from book 12 of the Odyssey. The episode is split up between Circe’s foretelling of the event and Odysseus and his men’s actual experience. On their wanderings home, Odysseus and his men arrive at the Sirens’ island which is accompanied by an eerie calm. The crew plugs their ears with wax, Odysseus is tied to the mast, and they row closer to the island. When Odysseus asks to be set free, so he can succumb to the Sirens’ song, the crew ties him tighter so he can resist. They are able to pass, enduring the Sirens’ call and continue their journey.
It’s a short episode, but one that offers a great revelation into the Sirens. It shows who the Sirens were, what they did to entice sailors, and how ‘heroes’ can pass such a test.
Representations of Sirens
The Sirens were a common motif in vase painting, especially in Sicily and Italy. The combination of mythical creatures and Homeric themes was popular and desirable.
One vase, however, stands out amongst the rest. The so-called “Siren Vase” depicts the very scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus is tied to the mast, the men’s ears are filled with wax, and the Sirens are trying to entice them to their demise. It dates to 480-470 BCE and was produced in Attica.
Sirens: From Sea to Prostitute
The representation over time of the Sirens changed dramatically. Indeed, in the very beginning Sirens were shown to be male or female, but the male Siren disappeared from art around fifth century BC. Eventually the grotesque image of the Siren evolved to where their form was as beautiful of their song.
With this dramatic change, so too did their symbolism transform. No longer a metaphor for the sea, the Siren became the tempting seductress.
The Early Christian euhemerist interpretation found in Isidore’s Etymologiae (circa 600) described them as such:
It is this final image of the Siren that has preserved so thoroughly in art and cultural references. Just what our modern reinterpretation of this once terrifying mythological monster says about us, and the modern world we navigate, is for the reader to decide.
By Carly Silver, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
While completing his Twelve Labors, the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) got up to tons of mischief—and that included bedding a lot of women. In the process, he fathered a whole host of legendary sons, called the Heracleidae, from whom many clans across the Mediterranean claimed descent. According to Herodotus, the “Father of History,” the Greeks living in Scythia—an area of Central Eurasia—were descended from one of Heracles’s most interesting sons.
Heracles Meets a Half-Human, Half-Serpent Mate
The Greeks who lived on the Black Sea (a.k.a. “Pontic Greeks”) created a founding myth directly tied to their homeland. During Heracles’s tenth labor—capturing cattle belonging to the monster Geryon—the hero arrived in what would eventually become the fertile land of Scythia, then a desert. Geryon himself lived on an island, so Heracles decided to rest up before sailing out to tackle him. He must have forgotten to tie up his horses, though, since they ran off while he was asleep.
While searching throughout Scythia, Heracles came across an area called “The Woodland.” In that cave, he discovered a hybrid creature whose upper half was that of a human woman, but her bottom half was 100% pure snake. Both she and the famed Greek monster Echidna, mother of the likes of the Sphinx and Cerberus, were half-snake, half-woman. Our viper madam was never given a first name, so she’s more likely an echidna, not the Echidna.
Heracles asked this unusual half-human, half-serpent if she’d seen his horses; she said she was hiding them, but would only give them back if he had sex with her. Emotional and sexual blackmail? Par for the course for Greek mythology, Heracles agreed to the bargain, but the snake woman was so into him that she pulled a Circe and tried to keep him there forever by refusing to return his horses.
Eventually, he got really annoyed—and then she told him she was pregnant! The snake lady said she had three of his sons in her belly and asked the hero what she was supposed to do with them when they grew up. Heracles gave her a belt with a golden goblet hanging from it and a big bow. He told her that, when they were adults, the youths should all try to draw the bow and put the girdle on; whoever drew the super-stiff bow and wore the girdle best would inherit her land in Scythia. The other ones, she should send away.
Heracles’ Three Sons with the Snake Woman Compete
Years later, the snake woman’s three sons grew up into nice young men. The oldest was Agathyrsus, the second Gelonus, and the youngest Scythes. The eldest two guys couldn’t draw their dad’s bow or put his belt on properly, so their mom banished them, but little Scythes was able to do the job.
Scythes went on to found the kingdom of Scythia, and, as Herodotus claimed, “from Scythes, the son of Hercules, were descended the after kings of Scythia.” And those very monarchs also wore belts with goblets hanging from them, in the tradition of their legendary ancestor.
And Agathyrsus and Gelonus fathered tribes named after themselves in the same general area; not bad for failures. Interestingly, some medieval Irish chroniclers traced the ancestry of the Picts, a confederation of tribes in what is now Scotland, to the Agathyrsi and Geloni.
A good story grows like a tree, upwards, seeking the sun and light. Its heavy branches, though substantial on their own, become stronger and more intriguing as plots and characters entangle. Additionally, deep below the bark and greenery, a parallel network of criss crossing roots holds up the story for all to see. The grander the legend, the larger and more intricate its backstory.
A tale on the scale of The Iliad, therefore, has an astounding myth to proceed it.
To know the roots of Homer’s epic poetry, one must dig very deep into Greek mythology… all the way to the first king of Gods and the ruler of Titans, Cronus. Despite his many attempts to prevent it, Cronus was eventually overthrown by his son, Zeus. In the process, Zeus was warned that one day he too would be replaced, just like his father.
At the same time another prophecy emerged, suggesting that the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph with whom Zeus was enamored, would become greater than his father. Zeus, therefore, ordered that Thetis should be betrothed to an elderly human king, Peleus son of Aiakos.
And so there was a wedding, attended by all the glorious gods and goddesses, except one. Eris, the goddess of Discord was not allowed in, for fear she would cause her usual irreparable damage. Her discordance, however, was not to be limited by a gate. Upon her dismissal, she threw a golden apple into the festivities. On it was inscribed the following: καλλίστῃ, meaning “To the fairest”.
Naturally three gorgeous goddesses claimed ownership. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all assumed that they were the most beautiful. The other gods and men, however, smartly chose to remove themselves from the decision making process, including Zeus himself. No one wanted to incur the wrath of the other two. Instead the unenviable task was placed on the shoulders of one Trojan prince, a man named Paris. The poor fellow was unable to make a decision and so the goddesses, keen on winning, resorted to offering bribes.
Wisdom and great skill in battle were Athena’s promised rewards.
Hera tried to lure Paris with power and control over all of Asia.
Aphrodite, however, used the best bait of all: The most beautiful woman in the world would be in love with Paris if he nominated the goddess as owner of the golden apple.
Meanwhile, the wedded sea-nymph Thetis and her elderly husband bore a child by the name of Achilles. The young boy was given an intriguing destiny. He had the choice to live a long and uneventful life or to die young in glory and live forever in poetry. Achilles would chose the latter.
Thetis wanted her son Achilles to be immortal and invisible and, depending on the version, used different techniques to make this so. One source claimed that she lifted the child by the foot and immersed him in a river which ran to the underworld. Wherever the water touched him, Achilles was made invulnerable, everywhere except where his mother held him… his infamous heel.
While Achilles was growing into a hero-worthy man, Paris was eagerly awaiting his award for crowning Aphrodite the fairest of them all.
The reader may be wondering, who was the magnificent creature that the goddess of beauty promised to the Trojan prince? It was none other than Helen, whose face would eventually launch a thousand ships. Helen was the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and a woman named Leda, who had either been raped or seduced by Zeus when he was in the form of a swan.
Helen, in her radiance, had many suitors, and her father could not decide which one was best… plus those who who were not chosen might retaliate against him. Eventually one quick witted man came to his rescue, the famous Odysseus. In exchange for support of his own marriage, he offered the following advice: Require all of Helen’s suitors to promise to defend her marriage, regardless who the father chose. The suitors eventually, and with a certain amount of grumbling, swore the required oath.
Finally a man was decided for Helen: Menelaus. The decision was political, as Menelaus had wealth and power and was Agamemnon’s brother. Unfortunately for all, Menelaus then made a huge mistake. He had promised Aphrodite a grand sacrifice of a 100 oxen if he won Helen, a promise promptly forgot after he received his prize. Thus he incurred Aphrodite’s wrath.
Paris, however, did not forget Aphrodite, nor their agreement. He set sail for Greece under the pretense of a diplomatic mission in order to claim Helen. Before entering the palace, the goddess of beauty held up her end and ordered Eros to shoot Helen with his arrow. The moment she set her gaze on Paris, Helen was in love.
Paris didn’t think this kidnapping was really such a big deal. There were plenty of men before him who had stolen women from foreign lands without repercussion. Jason, for instance, took Medea from Colchis, and Heracles captured the Trojan princess Hesione without any issues.
This time, however, was going to be very different.
According to Homer, it didn’t go straight to war. Menelaus first journeyed to Troy to seek a more peaceful solution. When that didn’t work, Menelaus asked Agamemnon to uphold the oath that the Achaean kings and princes had sworn, to defend Helen’s marriage. Emissaries were sent to them all, to gather them in order to retrieve Helen.
Not all of them came willingly.
Odysseus, for instance, feigned madness in order to avoid the war. He tried to sow his fields with salt as proof, but Agamemnon’s man tricked him into revealing his sanity. He placed Odysseus’ infant son in front of the plough’s path, and the father could not fake delusion any more. He turned aside to save his child.
Achilles, too did not readily join forces. His mother disguised him as a woman so he would not have to go to battle. When Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and Achilles’ tutor Phoenix came to fetch him from the island of Skyros, they could not immediately recognise him. Fortunately, they had a plan. The men pretended to be merchants bearing trinkets and weapons. They were then able to spot Achilles out the second he chose to look at the swords and spears rather than bracelets and beads.
The Achean army was almost ready. All of the suitors sent their forces to the city of Aulis, and one by one the commanders with their ships and men arrived. The last one to show up was Achilles, who was at the time only 15 years old.
An omen then occurred. A snake slithered from a sacrificial altar to a sparrow’s nest nearby. It ate the mother and her nine babies and was then converted into stone. Troy, apparently, would fall in the tenth year of war.
And just like that, with the twisting roots embedded, the bud of the story was ready to break through the soil and bloom.
There’s a thin line between love and hate, but there’s hardly a crack of daylight between Love and War.
Aphrodite, born from a pair of discarded testicles, had a perfect body, and a magic girdle that made everyone fall in love with her. She also had a libido to rival that of Zeus.
Meanwhile, Ares, with his bad-temper, rippling muscles, blood-lust and love of drink was the dumb jock of Mount Olympus.
Unfortunately for Ares, the problem with being a dumb jock, is that you can easily be outsmarted by your lover’s husband. Especially if he is the God of Smiths, the calf-crippled Hephaestus.
Aphrodite and Ares had been making love all night at his palace in Thrace. Losing track of time, Dawn arose fresh and rosy-fingered followed by Helios, the Sun God. As his warm rays caressed the bodies of the busy lovers, he was given a personal peep-show of two of the most gorgeous creatures in existence locked in a passionate embrace.
With such a red-hot piece of gossip as this to spread, Helios immediately went running to Hephaestus and told him everything.
Hephaestus, poor lame Hephaestus, wanted to get even. Knowing he couldn’t best Ares physically, he set a trap for him.
Retiring to his workshop he fashioned a bronze hunting-net, as fine as gossamer, but strong enough to hold the wrathful and writhing God of War.
On telling his wife he was off for a holiday to sunny Lemnos, Aphrodite seized upon her opportunity for a bit of ‘how’s your father’ in the comfort of her own home.
Returning from his sojourn at the beach, Hephaestus walked into his bedroom to find his wife and her lover in bed, naked, trapped under the net.
His plan had worked! Brains had bested brawn and the adulterers were at the mercy of the cuckold.
But what next? You’ve caught the lovers in the act. They’re naked, trapped defenceless and vulnerable. What steps do you take? What demands do you make? What revenge do you enact?
Of course the obvious answer is you invite all of your friends around to have a gawk. And gawk they did!
The gods flocked to the scene and stood around the embarrassed and bemused couple. Zeus was shocked, Poseidon aroused, whilst Hermes and Apollo behaved like the relative juveniles that there were:
“You’d swap places with Ares right now, wouldn’t you?” Sniggered Apollo.
“Too right I would! Even if there were three nets!” Replied the salivating Hermes.
The incandescent Hephaestus refused to release the couple until he had been repaid his marriage gifts. Zeus, in a bout of incongruous prudishness, was so disgusted by the whole affair that he would have nothing to do with it.
Poseidon offered surety that Ares would pay the debt.
“And if he doesn’t, I will expect you to take his place!” Bellowed the outraged Hephaestus.
“What under the net?” Giggled Apollo.
The couple were released.
Ares returned to Thrace – he didn’t repay the debt.
Aphrodite, grateful for Poseidon’s help in releasing her, bore him two sons. And grateful for Hermes’ compliments, she bore him a son too.
Poseidon, happy to marry Aphrodite, didn’t cough up the money. Hephaistos, still in love, didn’t divorce her.
Aphrodite went for a swim in the sea at Paphos, thus renewing her virginity.
By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Anyone with an interest in the classical Greek world may well have been intrigued, possibly confused, by the relationship between the goddess Athena and the ancient centre of democracy, philosophy and theatre, Athens.
As Walter Burkett said in his excellent book, Greek Religion: “whether the goddess is named after the city or the city after the goddess is an ancient dispute”. One, unfortunately, which is impossible to resolve.
However, an ancient tourist would have needed to look no further than the pediments of the mighty Parthenon to see evidence of Athena’s importance to the city.
The East pediment shows her motherless birth, straight from the head of Zeus. The myth goes that the King of the Gods, complaining of a headache, had his skull cracked open by Hephaistos‘ mighty hammer and out popped Athena, fully grown and clad in armor.
The West pediment depicts an early edition of Athens’ Got Talent (or whatever the devil the young people watch) with a competition between Athena and the sea-god Poseidon to win the honor of becoming the city’s patron deity by performing a beneficial miracle.
Poseidon created a salt water spring after striking his trident into the ground, to this Athena responded by producing an olive tree that is still visible on the Acropolis today.
Another myth explains that Athena triumphed over Poseidon because all the women, who made up a majority, voted for her and all the men for the sea-god. From this point on men decided women were not allowed to take part in elections. This fanciful, if amusing, tale of sour-grapes and misogyny is thought to have been a later introduction (i.e. during the democracy).
As well as her role as the patron deity, Athena also contributed to the ancient lineage of the city.
She was said to have been pursued by skull-cracker Hephaistos who, with the trademark chivalry of the ancient gods, attempted to rape her of her virginity. However he spilt his seed on the ground and from it Erecthonius, the mythological ancient king of Athens was born. Athena then became foster mother to the baby and brought him up on the Acropolis.
Whilst such stories may seem whimsical, sometimes fay, to us, the power of the physical imagery of Athena cannot be underestimated.
It was one of the key factors by which Peisistratus became tyrant c.557/6 BC. According to Terry Buckley: “he dressed up a stunningly beautiful six-foot woman in full armor; it was then claimed through messengers that she was Athena…and that she herself in her chariot was delivering Peisistratus to her own Acropolis to take over the rule of Athens’.
Although it is highly unlikely that the people of Athens truly believed Athena had come to Earth and was standing next to a politician in a chariot, the symbolism of the stunt and the association to the goddess seemed to endear Peisistratus to many.
Thus, ‘I am driven with a mission from God’ is as timelessly effective as it is unoriginal.
The most significant role Athena played as the patron deity was her contribution in the Panathenaia, a huge, annual festival of religious devotion and national pride; a Christmas Day and 4th of July rolled into one.
Falling on Athena’s birthday (28th day of Hekatombaion), the vast scale of the festival is recorded on the 175-yard long frieze of the Parthenon and includes animals for sacrifice, metics (resident foreigners), musicians, infantry, cavalry, craftsmen, priests and ordinary Athenians marching by deme (parish).
Athletic competition was also a part of the festivities and, here again, we see the influence of Athena. The special olive oil that was given to the victors was presented in a vessel that had the goddess on one side and the chosen discipline of the victorious athlete on the other.
Over 1400 amphorae (or type of container/vase) of this sort were produced every year in time for the Panathenaia.
The celebration took place on a much larger scale every forth year. As part of the Grand Panathenaia, a huge peplos (tunic) was placed on the 39 foot statue of Athena Parthenos, situated inside the Parthenon. Outside the temple, this elegance was starkly contrasted as Athena’s birth was re-enacted in a grisly ritual where a bull’s head was smashed open, though presumably without an armored cow jumping out.
This huge chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos is worth further comment. Containing 2400 lbs of gold, it was built between 447 and 438 BC, at a time when the Greeks had just resisted invasion against the mighty Persian army.
Thus, Athens was leading the world not only in terms of power, but also in culture; the finest thinkers, playwrights and scientists were either emerging from Athens or making an intellectual pilgrimage there. The grandeur and pomp of the Athena Parthenos was fitting, not only for the time, but for the thanks the citizens owed their patron protectress.
However, when the tables turned, it would have looked at best foolish and embarrassing, and at worst mocking and damning.
During the latter part of the 5th century, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, not only sustaining huge casualties, but being transformed from the leaders of progressive thought and democracy to a second-rate power. The victorious Spartans even forced the Athenians to suffer the emasculating humiliation of having their protective city walls taken down.
As often happens when people feel god has abandoned them, they abandon god. However, in this instance, it seems Athenians abandoned the over-sized, suddenly incongruous sculpture, rather than the goddess herself.
The statue still remained a great work of art and a massive tourist attraction (there were at least 300 ancient replicas), but, as Andrew Stewart commented: “it swiftly lost its religious significance to all but a tiny minority… after 404 BC the Athena Parthenos became a museum piece”.
Astoundingly, there is a full-size replica of the mighty effigy in Nashville, Tennessee which boasts extraordinary attention to detail. The main difference being there is no documented evidence the original was made of gypsum and fiberglass.
Despite her elevated status as patron, Athena was not totally dominant of the religious worship in Athens. The Eleusinian mysteries were (rather ironically) among the best known of all the Athenian cults and primarily paid homage to Demeter.
Also, the erection over the Agora of the Hephaisteion in the 440s BC gives great and towering status to the would-be assailant of Athena. What may have been doubly galling to Athena fans is that this building was made to honor the blacksmiths for their role in the Persian Wars, despite Athena being sacred to metal-workers.
Some say Socrates (executed for impiety) and men like him were bringing into question the very existence or importance of the gods. Whilst of all the extant Athenian tragedies, only The Ajax of Sophocles casts Athena in a role of any importance.
Despite these aberrations, there seems little doubt that Athena was ever-present in the psyche of the Athenians and there was certainly enough good-will in the bank to maintain for her a place of prominence within the polis.
Although she had many sub-roles within society: being sacred to maidens, weavers, carpenters, oil manufacturers, and blacksmiths, combined with her reverential position as the goddess of eyesight, wisdom and warfare, it is the historical, nationalistic and social links that make her such an important figure as patron.
Certainly being responsible for the year’s biggest knees-up is something that would cause even the staunchest unbeliever to rejoice in her worship.
After all, piety is all well and good, but a party is usually better.
Think you know your Greek Mythology? From Creatures to Titans, check your knowledge and see if you Get all these jokes for mythology lovers:
1. This serious amount of mythological cuteness:
2. Someone is a clever clogs:
3. A Gamer’s Interpretation:
4. This succinct synopsis:
5. Obviously this is a theme:
6. Someone really knows their Greek mythology:
7. When Hubris gets you Down…
8. Who doesn’t love a visual?
9. A good infanticide joke:
10. Umm… where is this art school? Sounds like my new best friend is there…
11. Don’t try this after your next big night…
12. Awww… poor Prometheus!
13. OMG – this works on so many levels…