The Sirens: The Treacherous Singing Monsters of Greek Myth
The Sirens: The Treacherous Singing Monsters of Greek Myth
If the only sirens you know are on emergency vehicles, you’re about to learn where the word really comes from! Today we’re talking about the original Sirens, the singers who lured men to their deaths.
The Sirens of Greek mythology were not known for piercing wails. They were famous for having such beautiful voices that men would give their lives to listen to them for just a moment.
Nor were the original Greek Sirens mermaids. That development came later – the Greeks pictured them as women with the bodies of large birds.
So where did the Sirens come from, and how did our image of them change so much? Keep reading to find out all about Greece’s femmes fatales of the sea!
The Origins of the Sirens
The Sirens began their story as a trio of naiads, freshwater nymphs. Their father was Achelous, the god of one of central Greece’s largest rivers.
Achelous was most remembered for contesting with Heracles for the love of the beautiful princess Deianira. He was defeated in this instance, but still became the father of several water nymphs.
Three of these were the Sirens. Some myths said that their mother was a human woman, but more often they were called the daughters of one of the Muses.
A Muse mother would explain the sisters’ gift for music. They were said to have the most beautiful singing voices in the world.
The three nymphs were, at one time, companions of the goddess Persephone. They were with her when she was abducted and forced into marriage by the god of the underworld, Hades.
Roman writers gave two different versions of how Demeter created the Sirens after her daughter’s kidnapping.Ovid claimed that the Sirens’ wings were a gift from Demeter so the nymphs could help her search the world for her missing daughter. Click To Tweet
Another work, however, called the Sirens’ form a curse. Demeter was so angered that the three nymphs failed to intervene in her daughter’s abduction that she cursed them with a monstrous form.
The Sirens were given wings and banished to an island far off the coast. There, they would prey on passing sailors.
The beautiful nymphs had been transformed into monsters, using their beautiful voices to lure ships to their doom. Demeter said that the day a ship could pass by them without succumbing to their song would be the day the sisters died.
Representing a Real Danger
Like many mythological monsters, the Sirens probably represented a real danger of the seas.
Hazards of the real world were often embodied by monsters in ancient mythology. For the seafaring Greeks whose culture centred on the Mediterranean and its islands, many monsters represented the mysterious dangers that could spell destruction for unwary seamen.
Some of these representations are obvious, like the giant whirlpool Charybdis. Others are less apparent at first, like the storm winds that were embodied in the swiftness of the Harpies.The Sirens most likely represented the dangers of hidden rocks off the coasts of certain Mediterranean islands. Click To Tweet
The island the Sirens inhabited, Anthemusa, was fictional but may have represented a real place. Its name, meaning “flowery isle,” may have given a clue as to its real-world location.
Many have placed the Sirens in a collection of small islands today called the Sirenuse. Off the coast of Capri, the archipelago is known for its rocky outcroppings.
Rocks may seem like a minor hazard, but to Greek sailors they could be a deadly danger. Hidden rocks along the coast could easily crack the wooden hulls of Greek ships, causing enough damage to sink the vessel.
Offshore islands like the Sirenuse were particularly dangerous. They were too far away from the mainland or larger inhabited islands for survivors to swim to shore, so even if a sailor survived the initial shipwreck he would slowly die of dehydration or starvation on the isolated islands.
The Sirens, who lured Greek ships toward the rocks to wreck them, represented the danger of straying too close to a rocky shoreline. The temptation to stay close to an unfamiliar shore could lead to death by drowning or on a desolate island far from any hope of salvation.
Their bird-like bodies resemble those of gulls, which were often a sign of nearby land. Sailors who were tempted to land in unfamiliar territory, following the gulls that altered them to nearby land, always risked encountering unknown dangers like sharp rocks.
The flowery island of the Sirens was described as littered with the bones of their victims. The tiny islands of the Mediterranean hold the bones of many stranded sailors from the ancient world.
How to Get Past the Sirens
It was said that no mortal man could resist the sweet song of the Sirens. Hearing their voices spelled doom for anyone who tried to sail past their flowery island.
Two ships, however, managed to pass the Sirens without disaster. Only one sailor in Greek mythology, however, actually heard their song and lived to tell the tail.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the most famous nautical tale of the ancient world, the Sirens were the first hazard Odysseus and his crew encountered after leaving the peaceful island of Circe.
The sea witch, with whom Odysseus had spent a year, warned him of the danger before he set sail from her home.
You must row past there; you must stop the ears of all your crew with sweet wax that you have kneaded, so that none of the rest may hear the song. But if you yourself are bent on hearing, then give them orders to bind you both hand and foot as you stand upright against the mast-stay, with the rope-ends tied to the mast itself; thus you may hear the two Seirenes’ voices and be enraptured. If you implore your crew and beg them to release you, then they must bind you fast with more bonds again.
-Homer, Odyssey 12. 39 ff (trans. Shewring)
Homer shared the warning with his crew, along with his plan to hear the Sirens’ song himself. While the men would have their ears stuffed with wax to block out the alluring sound, Odysseus could not resist the opportunity to hear the singing that tempted men to their deaths.
The ship approached the Sirens’ island with Odysseus firmly bound to the mast. The wind dropped and the sea grew still as the Sirens’ magic made the ship slow down.
Odysseus, in Homer’s words, described the music he heard as honey-sweet. Eager to hear the entirety of the beautiful song he tried to signal his men to set him free, but they obeyed his orders and only tightened the ropes that held him.
The ship sailed unharmed through the territory of the Sirens. Odysseus, tied to the mast, became the first and only man to ever survive hearing the alluring song of the Sirens.
One writer in the 1st century BC claimed that the Sirens got their revenge, however. Years later they learned that Odysseus had a son and they killed Telemachus to punish the man who had evaded them.
Another famous ship in Greek mythology passed by the Sirens without being drawn to the rocks. The hero Jasons’s voyage aboard the Argo, which was heavily influenced by the older story of Odysseus’s voyage, also took him past the Sirens after departing Circe’s island.
Jason, however, had one advantage that Odysseus did not. Among his crew of heroes was the musician Orpheus, whose skills were rivaled only by those of Apollo himself.
The Argonauts travelled past the island of the Sirens without blocking their ears. Instead, Orpheus began to play for the crew when he knew the creatures were nearby.
The beautiful music of Orpheus drowned out the song of the Sirens. No matter how sweetly or loudly they sang, Orpheus was able to outdo them.
Only one of Jason’s men, Boutes, heard the last notes of the Sirens’ song as the ship sailed away. Even that slight amount was enough to make him jump overboard in an attempt to reach the singers.
He was saved and carried to safety, however, by Aphrodite. Jason’s crew sailed on, kept safe from the Sirens by the musicianship of the famous Orpheus.
The Singers’ Names
The earliest written account of the Sirens, given by Homer, gave no names for the Sirens. Nor did Homer number them.
Most later accounts said there were three Sirens, although some said there were only two.
Even with so few, there was a wide variety of names given for the former nymphs. These names all alluded to the seductive power of the Sirens’ voices.
- Thelxiope – From thelxis ops, Charming Voice
- Thelxinoe – From thelxis noos, Charming the Mind
- Thelxipea – Charming
- Molpe – Song
- Peisinoe – From pisces noos, Affecting the Mind
- Aglaophonus – From aglaos phone, Splendid Sounding
- Ligeia – Clear-Toned
- Leucosia – From leuke osia, White Stuff
- Aglaope – Splendid Voice
- Parthenope – From parthenos ops, Maiden Voice
The Sirens and the Muses
One later myth involving the Sirens diminished the threat they posed to passing ships.
According to the description of Greece written by Pausanias, a statue at a shrine in Boetia showed the goddess Hera holding the Sirens in her hands. The image illustrated the story of how the Sirens lost the ability to fly after ships.
The queen of the gods persuaded the Sirens to enter into a singing contest against the Muses. The Sirens had beautiful voices, but could not compete with the goddesses of poetry and song.
The Sirens lost the contest, as Hera knew they would, and the Muses were allowed to enact a punishment on them. The Muses plucked out the Sirens’ feathers and made crowns of victory out of them.
Ashamed at both their loss and their nakedness, the Sirens fell into the sea.
Their bodies formed a series of islands off the coast of Crete at a site the Greeks called Aptera, or “featherless.” Stark white without their feather coverings, the Leukai Islands, or “white ones,” were said to be the bodies of the fallen Sirens.
The Evolution of the Form
The descriptions of the Sirens as having wings might be surprising for some modern readers. Art from after the time of Classical Greece often shows the Sirens much differently than they were originally depicted.
Sirens in Greek artwork and mythology were a hybrid creature, having attributes of both a bird and a beautiful woman.
The earliest images of the Sirens in art showed the bodies of either songbirds or gulls with the head of a young woman.
Later depictions made the Sirens more obviously female. More of their bodies were shown as human, often the entire torso, while they had the legs and wings of large birds.
Greek art shows the Sirens assailing ships from above, but that view of the creatures changed over time.
The Sirens began as river nymphs and symbolized a danger of the seas, so medieval artists began to show them with features more common to aquatic gods and monsters. They retained the late Classical image of the woman’s torso, however.
The result was a beautiful, alluring woman with the tail of a large fish. The Sirens had gone from resembling gulls to being distinctly recognizable as mermaids.
These mermaids were still dangerous, however. Instead of flying above, they lured sailors while sitting on rocks or swimming beside the ship.
The Sirens as mermaids represented all the dangers the Greeks had associated with their bird creatures, with an added element of medieval negativity toward female sexuality. The mermaid Sirens were a version of the femme fatale who lured in unsuspecting men by disguising their monstrousness.
It would not be until much later, with Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, that the image would become associated with magical and romantic fairy tales that appealed to children.
Today, the name is rarely given to these legendary sea creatures. Sirens today still indicate danger, however, in the form of the piercing sounds made by emergency vehicles to announce their approach.
The Deadly Sirens
The Sirens in Greek mythology began in most stories as river nymphs, but were transformed by Demeter following the abduction of Persephone.
As monsters with the bodies of birds, the Sirens retained the beautiful singing voices they had been known for in their previous lives. They used their enchanting songs to lure sailors to their island, where they would feed on the unfortunate men.
Like most mythological monsters, the Sirens probably represented a read danger faced by Greek sailing vessels. Jagged rocks could sink a ship if the crew was tempted to move too close to shore.Only two ships were ever said to have made it past the Sirens safely. Click To Tweet
Odysseus plugged the ears of his crew with wax so they would not hear the deadly sound. He was bound to the ship’s mast so he could experience the music without leaping overboard to his doom.
Jason and the crew of the Argo passed by with the assistance of the famous musician who had joined them. Orpheus played his lyre and sang loudly enough to drown out the seductive calls of the Sirens.
According to some, the threat of the Sirens was eventually ended. When the Muses defeated them in a singing contest, the Sirens’ feathers were plucked and they fell to the sea as islands.
Beginning in the middle ages, the representation of the Sirens changed. They took on the features of fish instead of birds, becoming what we now call mermaids.
These early mermaids were still threatening figures in both their cannibalistic appetites and their seductive powers. It would only be in the modern era that the Sirens were fully transformed into the beautiful, peaceful women of the sea they are imagined as today.