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:
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.
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.