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The Sirens of Ancient Greece

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by J...

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are usually depicted as bird-like creatures with women’s heads who lure sailors to their doom through their haunting song. They can also tame the wind.

In Homer, Odysseus heeded Circe’s warning to avoid the Sirens’ disastrous call by plugging his crew’s ears with beeswax. Curious to hear their strange song, himself, Odysseus ordered his shipmates to fasten him to the mast so he, himself, would not be entranced.

In another version of the myth, Orpheus overpowers their haunting voices with the power of his lyre.¹

In later accounts, the Sirens drown themselves after failing to destroy Odysseus and his crew. Again they commit suicide in another variant, after losing to the Muses in a music competition. The Sirens have also been depicted in Greek myth as mermaids.

The Greek philosopher, Plato depicted eight Sirens in the myth of Er (toward the end of the Republic) as makers of the music of the spheres.

The Siren, by John William Waterhouse (circa 1...

The Siren, by John William Waterhouse (circa 1900), depicted as a fish-chimera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sirens were also with Persephone during her rape. According to Ovid, they were originally humanoid but were transformed into birds with human faces while searching for her.²

So we see, as in most ancient myth, a jumble of stories. This makes it hard, I think, to simplify the story of the Sirens to one archetypal idea.

Along these lines, Gilbert Thurlow, following the lead of Mircea Eliade, C. G. Jung and others, tends to emphasize the universal nature of myth:

What is a myth? In the narrowest sense it is a tale about the supernatural. But in a deeper sense it is also a revelation of the divine in terms of this life, a method of revealing ultimate truth.³

The sirens are found on bronze vases from about 600 BCE.

In early Christian times actual belief in the Sirens was discouraged but they remained as symbols of evil, temptation and womanly seduction. In some instances they were likened to heavenly music.

The Sirens were allegorized by both classical and Christian writers as representing the lusts of the flesh, the insatiable desire for knowledge, the dangers of flattery, or as celestial music drawing souls upwards to heaven. Odysseus bound to the mast even came to be seen as an allegory of Christ on the cross.4

Apparently the Roman Emperor Tiberius teased his court scholars by asking them the impossible question: What song did the Sirens sing? Tiberius is generally understood to be the somewhat moody Emperor who ruled during the life and preaching of Jesus.5

Wikipedia provides a convenient list of the Sirens:

  • Aglaope (Αγλαόπη) or Aglaophonos (Αγλαόφωνος) or Aglaopheme (Αγλαοφήμη)(“with lambent voice”). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Leucosia (Λευκοσία). Her name was given to the island opposite to the Sirenuss cape. Her body was found on the shore of Poseidonia.
  • Ligeia (Λιγεία). She was found ashore of Terine in Bruttium.
  • Molpe (Μολπή). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Parthenope (Παρθενόπη). Her tomb was presented in Naples and called “constraction of sirens”.
  • Peisinoe (Πεισινόη) or Peisithoe (Πεισιθόη). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Thelxiope (Θελξιόπη) or Thelxiepeia (Θελξιέπεια) (“eye pleasing”). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ “Sirens” in Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd Ed. (2000, CD ROM edition).

² Ibid. and Jenny March, Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology 2001, p. 705.

³ Gilbert Thurlow, Biblical Myths and Mysteries, Octopus Books, 1974, p. 4. Myself, I think it’s highly debatable that myth necessarily tells us about ultimate truth. Apart from variations in content, context, cultural influence and style, myth may, indeed, point to different kinds of transcendence. But these are many. And, as most responsible scholars and seasoned religious mystics point out, a simple glow or buzz is not necessarily the highest, true light of heaven.

4 OCD, op. cit.

5 M. C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers, The Concise Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford, 1996, p. 497.

Related » The Odyssey, Hero

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