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.”
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.
According to Ovid (43 BC–17 AD), the sirens were the companions of young Kore who later became the queen of the underworld Persephone. They were given wings by Demeter to search for Persephone when she was abducted. However, in the Fabulae of Hyginus (64 BC–17 AD), Demeter cursed the sirens for failing to intervene in the abduction of Persephone by giving them the appearance of half birds and half maidens with beautiful, but cursed, voices forever calling for their lost friend.
Later legends were equally unkind to the sirens. One legend says that Hera, queen of the gods, once persuaded the sirens to enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won the competition and proceeded to pluck out all of the sirens’ feathers to make crowns out of them. Stephanus of Byzantium writes that, out of their anguish from losing the competition, the Sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera (“featherless”), where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Leukai (“the white ones”, modern Souda).
Apollonius of Rhodes, in his 3rd century BC book Argonautica, Book IV, says that Jason had been warned by Chiron that the musician Orpheus would be necessary in his journey. When Orpheus heard the voices of the sirens, he drew out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than their song to drown out their voices. In Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII, Odysseus was curious as to what the Sirens sang to him. Therefore, on the advice of Circe, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast despite his begging to be set free. When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus gestured with his frowns to be released. As the sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them, after Odysseus passed by they flung themselves into the water and perished. An Attic red-figured stamnos from Vulci from the c 450 BCE depicts a siren diving into the sea in apparent suicide.
Although most retelling of the Odyssey depict the sirens as little more than dangerous women leading men to their deaths, there have also been some studies that provide more depth. Instead of being seductive in any sexual way, the sirens are seductive because they hold terrible, painful secrets. Having lived for thousands of years, they know everything and it is that knowledge that Odysseus is seduced by as his men row him past the sirens’ home. Although later paintings of the sirens depict them as beautiful women, the sirens’ looks were never a consideration in the Odyssey.
“Pause with your ship; listen to our song. Never has nay man passed this way in his dark vessel and left unheard the honey-sweet music from our lips; first he has taken his delight, then gone on his way a wiser man. We know of all the sorrows in the wide land of Troy that Argives and Trojans bore because the gods would needs have it so; we know all things that come to pass on the fruitful earth.”
The Odyssey, book XII
The simple translation of “mouth” and “lips” made a significant difference in the sirens’ image. Although the sirens sing a honeyed song, the song pours forth from their “mouths.” In most other modern translations of The Odyssey, the mouths of the sirens line is translated as “lips” – Lips are more kissable and less frightening than mouths. As throughout Odysseus’ journey the mouths of whirlpools and cyclopses threaten to consume him, the mouths of goddesses and shades were associated with dangerous realities. Linguist Jane Ellen Harrison (1850–1928) notes that “it is strange and beautiful that Homer should make the Sirens appeal to the spirit, not to the flesh.” The sirens never seduce Odysseus with their looks. They seduce with their minds as much as with their voices, offering Odysseus general knowledge and self knowledge. Mouths, therefore, are bad news for Odysseus. The sirens’ mouth contains the truth – and the truth hurts.
Based on Circe’s description of them “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones,” later writers have implied that the sirens were cannibals. Implications of the sirens being cannibals over-simplifies them. Instead, the end of the sirens’ song is death, with the sailors’ flesh is rotting away, suggests that they have been singing the whole time and never even touched the sailors, let alone ate them. Instead, with their feathers stolen, the sirens’ divine nature kept them alive, but unable to provide food for their visitors, who then starved to death by refusing to leave.