The Odyssey, written by the Greek poet Homer in the 8th century BC, is one of the world’s best- known epic tales. It describes Ulysses’ long, difficult voyage home after the Trojan War ended. It involves monsters, gods, terrible storms, trickery, sex, murder, drugs, drinking, and feasting. No wonder it’s been popular for over two thousand years.
One famous scene concerns Ulysses (Odysseus to the Greeks) and the Sirens. The sorceress Circe tells Ulysses that the sirens will pose a deadly threat. Their song is so enchanting that sailors forget everything else when they hear it, so their ships crash on the rocks. “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens,” Circe warns, “his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for the sirens sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by….”
Heeding Circe’s warning, Ulysses orders his men to plug their ears with wax so they won’t hear the wondrous song, but he wants to hear it, so he has himself tied to the mast and orders his men not to release him no matter how hard he begs. And he does beg when he hears the sirens’ beautiful song promising him “ripe wisdom and a quickening of the spirit,” but the men ignore his pleas, tightening the bonds holding him to the mast instead.
This scene, with the sirens enticing sailors to their doom with their beautiful song, has inspired artists for centuries, with wildly different results, reflecting the beliefs of their times.
Most people I asked thought of sirens as beautiful young women (sometimes mermaids) tempting the sailors, seductive creatures who wait for their next victim, combing back their long hair and singing an irresistible song. Paintings like this one by Herbert James Draper (1909) follow the standard pattern.
But seeing Ulysses tied to the mast so he can avoid the lure of the girls in this painting seems sort of ridiculous to me. It’s inspired some great parodies, though, including a Saturday Night Live sketch, https://vimeo.com/248140755 , and a Simpsons’ “Island of Sirens” song, sung to the tune of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” The two sirens, named Patty and Selma (shown), sing “On the island, island of sirens, our hot sex will leave you perspirin’.”
As it turns out, though, that sexy siren/mermaid image isn’t just goofy. It’s wrong.
Homer did not give the sirens any specific physical description, probably because his audience was already familiar with the concept. When the story was young, listeners would have pictured a creature with the body of a bird and the head of a human female.
Figures like these have often been found in burials, and the sirens have generally been interpreted as protective guides leading the dead into the afterlife.
This idea probably came from the Near East, especially what are today Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the winged goddesses Inanna, Astarte, and Ishtar were worshipped (Note the wings and bird feet on the image of Astarte, pictured), and before that from ancient Egypt, where mixed human/animal representations of spirits, including female/bird figures, were common. The human-headed figure shown represented the “ba” or soul of the deceased.
The Egyptian goddess Isis (pictured with wings, from a carving on a pharaoh’s sarcophagus) was associated with both death and rebirth, including the annual flooding of the Nile. First mentioned in the Old Kingdom texts, about 2600 BC, her cult later flourished and spread. She appears as both a mourner and a protector of the dead, a guide for the dead to the afterlife, and a promise of rebirth. When Rome conquered Egypt, she was merged with Aphrodite.
The figures on the Siren Vase (photo), from 480 BC, now housed in the British Museum, show Ulysses tied to the mast while one siren flies in front of him and two perch on clouds off to the side. These spirits, represented as birds with the faces of human females, are larger and far more powerful than Ulysses. This image is not about sexual temptation. It shows the boldness and courage of a human daring to stand up to powerful spirits that could easily kill him the way they have others. It shows what the Greeks called metis, a combination of wisdom and cunning. Ulysses wants to have knowledge beyond the human world without having to pay with his life.
Over time, however, the image of the sirens in this scene changes.
Bird legs and prostitutes
In the mosaic pictured, from the 2nd century AD, the sirens are winged human women with bird legs and feet. While they hold instruments, they’re hardly alluring. The bird legs seem to be included to make sure the viewer knows these figures are something weird.
By the 4th century AD, Christianity discouraged belief in the old gods and goddesses. Isidore’s Etymologiae dismissed the sirens in the tale as prostitutes: “The Greeks imagine that there were three Sirens, part virgins, part birds, with wings and claws. One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck. According to the truth, however, they were prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them. They had wings and claws because Love flies and wounds.”
By the Renaissance, female court musicians were seen as immoral creatures who could control a man’s passions by the beauty of their music. Under their spell the poor men lost their way. In the 17th century, Cornelious a Lapide, a Jesuit priest, described women as having “a siren’s voice. With her voice she enchants, with her beauty she deprives of reason – voice and sight alike deal destruction and death.”
Paintings from the 18th and 19th century usually depict sirens as naked human females.
The N. C. Wyeth version of the tale focuses on the strength it takes Ulysses to resist the sirens’ power. He looks more like Prometheus struggling against his bonds than Ulysses, who instructed his men to tie him up.
Eventually, in the mind of the public, sirens merged with female sea-creatures of folk tales, usually half human, half-fish, like mermaids, or human on land and fish in the sea, like selkies and others. The Lorelei was based on a German tale about a woman who threw herself into the sea after being jilted by her lover. Then she became transformed into an avenging woman/sea creature who lured fishermen to their death with her enchanting song.
Asher Elbein wrote an interesting article for Audubon magazine, titled, “Sirens of Greek Myth Were Bird-Women, Not Mermaids.” The main idea is that the sirens’ seductive power lies in their otherworldly, avian knowledge, not their physical beauty. Birds in European folklore often represent powerful spirits. Think storks and babies, owls and death, birds of prey and kingship. Combining a human face with the body and wings of a bird is a symbol of that power. Making the sirens of the Odyssey merely sexy young women takes away much of that power. As Elbein notes at the end of the article, “ Water-temptresses are a dime a dozen; the Sirens offer wisdom.”
Sources and interesting reading:
Elbein, Asher, “Sirens of Greek Myth Were Bird-Women, Not Mermaids,” Audubon, 6 April 2018, https://www.audubon.org/news/sirens-greek-myth-were-bird-women-not-mermaids?ms=digital-eng-sopcial-facebook-x-20190900_fb_link_-_sirnes_my…
Funerary siren from Miryna, 1st century BC, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1512930
Funerary statue of a siren, Athens, 379 BC. The siren laments the dead, wings folded, playing on a tortoiseshell lyre, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index/php?curid=470173
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Mentor Books, 1942.
Herbert James Draper, “Ulysses and the Sirens,” (painting, 1909), Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Draper_Herbert_James_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens.jpg
“Ishtar, Babylonia, 1800 BC,” known as the Burney Relief, or The Queen of the Night, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burney_Relief#media/File:British_Museum_Queen_of_the_Night.jpg
“Isis, sarcophagus of Ramesses III, 12th century BC,” Wikimedia. https://common.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70177840
“Island of Sirens,” Simpsons Wiki, parody, public domain, lyrics by Andrew Kreisberg, https://simpsons.fandom.com/wiki/Island_of_Sirens
“Lorelei,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lorelei-German-legend
“Metis (mythology),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metis_(mythology)
“Odysseus and the Sirens mosaic” Bardo Museum, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10353941
“Odysseus and The Sirens (NAM, Athens, 1130),” World History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/image/2700/odysseus-and-the-sirens-nam-athens-1130/
“Siren Greek hydria vase,” British Museum, https://www.ancient.eu/image/1151/hydria/
“Siren, Greek mythology,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Siren-Greek-mythology
“Siren (mythology)” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren_(mythology)
Siren on miniature terracotta oil flask, 5th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“The Siren – Legendary Creature of Greek Mythology – Do you know the difference between a siren and a mermaid?” Greeker Than the Greeks, 2016, https://greekerthanthegreeks.com/2016/10/legendary-creatures-of-greek-mythology.html
“The Sirens and Ulysses,” oil painting by William Etty (1837), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sirens_and_Ulysses
“Ulysses and the Sirens,” painting by Thomas Moran, 1912, print available from Thomas Moran: The Complete Works, https://www.thomas-moran.org/Ulysses-And-The-Sirens.html
Vase in the shape of a siren, 540 BC, Walters Museum, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18797458
Wigington, Patti, “Who is the Egyptian Goddess Isis?” Learn Religions, 25 September 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/who-was-the-egyptian-goddess-isis-2561966