What Was a Siren in Greek Mythology?
The Sirens were one of the most infamous dangers of the sea in mythology, but how much do you actually know about the creatures whose songs led men to their doom?
It’s unsurprising that many of Greek mythology’s most well-known monsters were creatures of the sea. The Mediterannean played a central role in Greek culture and many famous stories involved traveling to distant islands.
A few of these monsters have remained in the popular imagination over two thousand years after their stories were first told. Among these are the Sirens, whose mythology and imagery inspired the modern view of the mermaid.
The Sirens used their beautiful singing voices to lure victims to them. They were so irresistible that even the winds could fall prey to their songs.
Two famous Greek legends, however, featured men who managed to pass by the Sirens unharmed. These legends and the art that accompanied them help to paint a picture of what role the Sirens played in Greek mythology.
The Mythology of the Sirens
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous creatures of the sea.
They lived on a rocky island called Anthemoessa, the “flowery island.” There, they laid in wait for ships to pass by.
When a ship came near, the Sirens would begin to sing. Their voices and the lyrics to their songs were so lovely that no one could resist them.
The sailors who were lured in by the Sirens would ultimately die. Some suggested that their ships sank on the rocks, while Homer’s description of a meadow covered in rotting corpses implied that the Sirens were cannibals.
The monsters with the beautiful voices were depicted in a variety of ways in Greek art and literature.
They were often shown with features that combined those of beautiful women with birds. Sometimes they had female heads on bird-like bodies, while in other images they had more human bodies with wings, talons, and feathers.
Later images showed a more mermaid-like form and often included the Sirens playing instruments to accompany their voices. While some early accounts had both male and female Sirens, by the 5th century BC they were exclusively female.
Greek writers did not agree on the number of Sirens or their origins. There were said to be anywhere from two to eight of them and many sea deities were named as their parents.
The Sirens are most well-known from two famous Greek stories that took place on the sea. The sailors in both the Argonautica and the Odyssey passed by the alluring monsters.
The Argonautica was written at a later date but took place earlier in history than the Odyssey. Largely based on Homer’s well-known epic, it features many heroes from earlier Greek legends.
Jason, the leader of the voyage, was told that it would be important to take the musician Orpheus on the Argo as part of his crew. This would, he later realized, allow the Argo to pass safely by the Sirens.
As they neared Anthemoessa, Orpheus began to play his lyre and sing as loudly as he could. His playing drowned out the voices of the Sirens so the crew was not tempted by them as they sailed by.
The more famous appearance of the Sirens in mythology was in the Odyssey. Odysseus used a much different technique to bypass the danger of the Sirens.
He was warned of the danger by Circe but was determined that he should hear the beautiful song for himself. He ordered his men to tie him to the mast of the ship and seal their own ears with wax.
The ship sailed by Anthemoessa. The crew could not hear because of the wax in their ears.
Tied to the mast, Odysseus was prevented from diverting the ship or jumping overboard because of the Siren’s song. He had ordered the crew not to release him no matter how hard he struggled against the bonds.
Some later authors added to Homer’s account. They said that the Sirens were fated to die if anyone heard their song without succumbing to it, so after Odysseus sailed safely by they all threw themselves into the sea and drowned.
My Modern Interpretation
There were many monsters who lived on the sea in Greek mythology. Among these, however, the Sirens were somewhat unique.
Most monsters of legend represented a specific physical threat. The Gorgon turned men to stone, Charybdis smashed ships, and the Minotaur was a cannibal.
The exact nature of the Sirens, however, was not made clear. Some said they drowned their victims, some claimed that their song lulled them to sleep, and others believed that the stranded sailors simply died of starvation on their isolated island.
The Sirens were not monsters who attacked outright or, as some later portrayals suggested, temptresses who used their beauty to attract victims. In the Odyssey, they did not promise Odysseus physical delights when he heard their song, but wisdom.
The Sirens claimed to know everything that had happened to the Greeks and Trojans during and since the war. They promised that the hero could learn of all things that had come to pass on earth if he joined them.
In offering knowledge, the Sirens represented a much different threat than other creatures in mythology. Many scholars believe that this was because they were not simple sea monsters but were closely linked to death.
The Sirens were used in funerary art throughout much of Greek history. It is clear that in art, they were linked to the afterlife.
With their bird-like forms, these Sirens may have served as psychopomps. They would have guided the dead into the Underworld, perhaps through their songs.
Literature, too, seems to support the idea that the Sirens were chthonic beings. Later writers created many stories that tied the Sirens to the Underworld.
In some stories, for example, they were handmaidens of Persephone. One writer claimed that Demeter had given them wings so they could search for the young goddess after her abduction by Hades, while others said that they had been cursed for failing to stop the kidnapping.
Other legends said that the Sirens were Underworld counterparts of the Muses. While the Muses inspired greatness in music and poetry, the Sirens sang songs that led to death.
According to one myth, Hera had convinced the Sirens to challenge the Muses to a music competition. In a story similar to that of Marsyas and Apollo, the Sirens were punished with their monstrous traits when they lost the contest.
The Sirens were a different type of monster than those found elsewhere in Greek mythology, even in other scenes of the Odyssey. They promised the knowledge found in death, which was so alluring that none could resist them.
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were human-bird hybrid monsters. They lived on an isolated island and used their beautiful singing to lure ships and sailors to death.
Two of ancient Greece’s most well-known stories featured encounters with the Sirens.
In the Argonautica, Jason and his crew were able to pass by the Sirens’ island with the help of the musician Orpheus. His playing drowned out the Sirens’ song so the men were in no danger.
When Odysseus sailed by the Sirens, he was able to be the first person to hear their song. His men sealed their ears with wax, but Odysseus had himself tied to the mast so he could hear them without losing control of himself.
According to some myths, this was the end of the Sirens. Because someone had heard their song and lived to tell of it, they were doomed to die.
Death was a major theme in the legends and iconography of the Sirens. They seem to have been linked to the Underworld and the knowledge found within it.
They attempted to lure Odysseus by promising him information. Their appeal was depicted as sexual in later portrayals, but in Homer’s story it was the allure of hidden knowledge.
Imagery of the Sirens was common in funerary art and grave goods. Several later legends linked their origins to Persephone or made them chthonic versions of the Muses.
The Sirens appeared to have been more than simple monsters. They were Underworld beings who took people, willingly or not, to death.