From the Sirens’ Lips

Anonymous woman lying under water

Ancient cultures around the world saw the sea as a dangerous place, filled with beings who preyed upon people – especially men. The legatus of Gaul once wrote to Emperor Augustus claiming that he found a considerable number of nereids dead upon the sea-shore. He further added that “I have, too, some distinguished informants of equestrian rank, who state that they themselves once saw, in the Ocean of Gades, a sea-man, which bore in every part of his body, a perfect resemblance to a human being, and that during the night he would climb up into ships; upon which the side of the vessel, where he seated himself, would instantly sink downward, and, if he remained there any considerable time, even go under water.”

Such maliciousness of the sea-creatures is echoed in the sirens of Greek mythology, who are known for seducing sailors with their sweet voices and lure them to their deaths. Surprisingly, Pliny who was quite ready to believe in the existence of nereids and sea-men, discounted Sirens as pure fable. However, he still says that “although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces.” 

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Statue of Siren: Funerary statue, pentelic marble. Kerameikos, Athens. Holding tortoise-shell lyre to lament dead man. 330-320 BC.

Greek literature mentioned sirens on many occasions – most notably in Euripides’ Helen where, in her anguish, Helen called the help of “Winged maidens, daughters of the Earth”, as well as Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII. The cult of the sirens was especially prevalent at Neapolis (Naples), Sicily, and southern Italy in general. The sirens’ popularity had a significant impact on many myths and legends, and the latin name Sirenia lives on today as a term that describes an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals (such as dugong and manatee which are considered to have some visual resemblance to mermaids and sirens).

In early Greek art, Sirens were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially the lyre. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, Sirens had the form of sparrows with lower body parts of a woman or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women’s faces. 

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Paestan bell krater by the painter Python: a-site: Odysses with the sirens; from Paestum, ca. 330 BC.

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