Sirens

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

The Caduceus, The staff of Asclepius, and other serpents

 

caduceus medical symbol

If you take a trip to the local medical center or pharmacy, at least in the United States, it will probably involve dealing with several ancient symbols.  The most common is the caduceus, the herald’s staff, featuring opposite, twin serpents entwined around a staff topped by a ball and wings.  If you look up the definition of caduceus, you’ll learn that the symbol comes from Greek mythology and refers to the staff carried by Hermes (caduceus Hermespictured below).
But that’s only part of the story.

Hermes has something of a mixed reputation, being the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead, and protector of merchants, shepherds, athletes, liars, and thieves.  As several writers have pointed out, that doesn’t seem like much of an advertisement for doctors!  They maintain that the use of the caduceus symbol for members of the medical profession is a mistake.  It should be the rod (or staff) of Asclepius, the son of Apollo, pictured below, left.

caduceus staff of Asclepius 2caduceus vs Staff of Asclepius sculpturecaduceus asclepius

As the god of medicine in Greek mythology, perhaps based on a real person, Asclepius does seem to be a better choice, at least at first. He is usually pictured with a serpent-entwined staff because, according to legend, a serpent taught him the secrets of healing.  Snakes were widely respected as sacred beings of healing, wisdom, and resurrection.  Shrines erected to Asclepius always featured non-poisonous snakes.  In the drawing based on a famous sculpture, you can see the frowning Asclepius (center) with his serpent staff in hand, meeting Hermes, holding the caduceus.  Meanwhile three of Asclepius’s daughters, including Hygenia and Panacea, stand off to the right.

One snake or two?

caduceus WHO and AMA

Today, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association use the staff of Asclepius in their logos (as pictured).  However, many more organizations use the caduceus, and most people in the USA recognize the caduceus as the symbol of the healing power of medicine. So why did the caduceus win over the staff of Asclepius?  Maybe it was an accident of history.  Or maybe the caduceus has more visual impact.  Or perhaps it still carries traces of more powerful magic from the past.

Accident of history?

caduceus medical corps

According to some sources, in 1902, the US Army Medical Corps adopted the caduceus as their official symbol and ordered it to be included on all medical officers’ uniforms and field offices.  From there, the symbol spread to other medical professionals.  However, the Medical Service Corp’s History page describes how the Corps grew out of earlier medical service wartime groups, including the Revolutionary War apothecaries, the Civil War Ambulance Corps, and the World War I Sanitary Corps.  At the end of that war, the permanent medical ancillary organization was formed, morphing into the current Medical Service Corp in 1947, long past the 1902 date.

Today, the caduceus is so central to the Medical Corps that their association is called the Silver Caduceus Association.  Current Medical Corps men and women embracaduceus, drawingce the caduceus, no matter what some folks say about the staff of Asclepius.  One Navy Medical Corps artist posted a stunning tattoo design of it that elicited several requests from current medical corpsmen for permission to use it. Pictured, right, it has a great sense of strength.

 

Actually, the Army Medical Department uses both the caduceus (for their branch insignia) and the staff of Asclepius (for the regimental insignia).  So it doesn’t seem that the Medical Service Corps is responsible for the dominance of the caduceus.

A more dynamic logo

In my opinion, the caduceus is just a more powerful image.  It has symmetry, motion, and balance.  The staff of Asclepius makes a much less dramatic graphic, especially with the snake drooping off the staff.  Note that the AMA, in using the staff, also includes a spiral, to create some sense of motion.

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Gustav Klimt certainly made a powerful image out of the Asclepius serpent in his painting of Hygeia, but the power lies as much in the figure of the young woman and the gold decoration as in the snake.  She seems to evoke the powerful snake goddesses of the past.

 

Long history of magic in both symbols

The serpent staff of Asclepius was thought to possess magical properties. But it wasn’t only that staff.  Serpents were respected – and feared – magical creatures in many ancient cultures, from India, Africa, and Australia, to Persia and Ireland.  In the Old Testament, both Aaron and the pharaoh’s magicians have magical staffs that can turn from staff to snake and back (Exodus 6: 8 – 10).  When the Israelites were bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert, God instructed Moses to build a bronze serpent on a staff and treat the people (Numbers 21: 5 – 7).

 

Most sources say the caduceus comes from Greek myth.  But where did it come from before that?  Take your pick.  Since the eastern Mediterranean was home to many different peoples, including Phoenicians from the Arabian Peninsula, Persians from central Asia, Egyptians from North Africa, and Sumerians from Asia, it was a melting pot of ideas about spirituality, magic, and healing power. And twin snake images abound.

caduceus, Chinese male and female progenitors

The Chinese mythological progenitors were said to be serpent-tailed humans: male and female, Nuwa and Fuxi, shown here on an ancient painting unearthed in Xinjiang.

 

 

In ancient Egypt, twin serpents were associated with Thoth, the god of learning.  In the image shown below, the ibis-headed god’s headdress includes both the center staff and the opposing serpents.caduceus Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Hermés

caduceus Tanit_StoneThe powerful North African goddess Tanit, like her counterparts Astarte, Ishtar, and Isis, is often shown with twin snakes. In the stone pictured below, right, the twin snakes rise on both sides of Tanit, while her symbols: the triangle, the crescent moon, and the sun/flower stand over her.

 
cadu Kundalini risingIn the Kundalini yoga practices of India and southern Asia, twin male and female forces/snakes, rise through the chakras of the body until they enter the brain and open the third eye of wisdom, as shown in the illustration.

caduceus pre-Christian serpent cross, IrelandThe pre-Christian sculpture in Ireland (pictured) features twining, opposite snakes culminating in a cross and circle. Other monuments feature crossed snakes leading to an open hand.

In all of these images, the paired snakes are moving, crossing each other, and leading to a circle, sometimes a winged orb.  There is a sense of increasing power and enlightenment.  The caduceus, as a symbol, is a promise of that power bestowed on the supplicant.  In that sense, it’s hard to beat that as a symbol of the healing arts.

caduceus-stained-glass-pattern

So when we see the caduceus on the wall of the medical center or drugstore, we see a symbol that echoes thousands of years of belief in the power of serpents and the pairing of opposites, the dynamic power of yin and yang/male and female, a concept far older and more universal than the Greek god Hermes or his Roman equivalent, Mercury.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Amaro, John A. “The Caduceus, Chakras, Acupuncture and Healing” (Part I), 2002, http://www.iama.edu/Articles/CaduceusCharkrasAcuHealing.htm

Army Medical Department – Medical Service Corps Heraldry, “Insignia and Plaques, Army Medical Department – Medical Services Corps,” http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/Catalog/Heraldryld+15396&Categoryld=9362&grp=2&menu=Uniformed%20Services&ps=24&p=0

“Asclepius,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asclepius

Blayney, Keith, “The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius (Asklepian), revised October 2005, http://www.drblayney.com//Asclepius.html

Caduceus drawing for Medical Corps, Bad Medicine (part 1) fnmyalgia.com

“Caduceus,” Pinterest. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/494692340288581428/

“Caduceus,” the photo of a stained glass work from sunlightstudio, to Pinterest, http://www.pintrest.com/pin/444800900673055007/

“Caduceus,” Symbol Dictionary: a visual glossary.  http://symboldictionary.net?p=1131

“Caduceus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

“Caduceus as a symbol of medicine,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine

Champollion, Jean-Francois. “Thoout, Thoth Deux fois Grand, le Second Hermes,” Brooklyn Museum collection, Wilbour Library of Egyptology, Special Collections imprint 1823 – 1825. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth#/media/File:Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Herm%C3%A9s,_N372.2A.jpg

Gill, Joseph O. “Origins of the Caduceus, as told in the world’s oldest language: symbolism,” June 2011, http://www.worldglobetrotters.com/Links?Caduceus/caduceus.htm

“Hermes,” Wikipedia.  https;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermes

“Highlights of Medical Service Corps’ History,” Silver Caduceus Association, 2016, http://www.silvercaduceusassociation.com/history.html

Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.

“Hygeia,” painting by Gustav Klimt, pinned to Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/444800900667632448/

Images of the winged staff with intertwined snakes as a symbol of ancient Indian medicine, as well as a drawing based on the monument by Aubin Louis Millin (1811) showing Mercury (Hermes) and a merchant approaching the disapproving Asclepius, Immune ACCORD, http://www.immuneaccord.com/history.php

Jenkins, Avery. “The problem with mainstream medicine is staring us in the face” 28 March 2013, DocAltMed, http://www.averyjeckins.com/?p=977

“Snakes in Chinese Mythology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_in_Chinese_mythology

“Tanit,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanit