Monday, June 19, 2017

The Seductive Sirens of Greek Mythology: How the Heroes Resisted Temptation

Ancient Origins

Sirens (sometimes spelled as ‘seirenes’) are a type of creature found in ancient Greek mythology. Sirens are commonly described as beautiful but dangerous creatures. In Greek mythology, sirens are known for seducing sailors with their sweet voices, and, by doing so, lure them to their deaths. The sirens have been mentioned by numerous ancient Greek authors. Arguably one of the most famous references regarding the sirens comes from Homer’s Odyssey, in which the hero, Odysseus, encounters these creatures during his voyage home from Troy.

Terracotta two handed vase or Kylix, decorated with black Sirens (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sirens in Ancient Literature The number of sirens varies according to the ancient authors. Homer, for example, mentions neither the number nor names of the sirens that Odysseus and his companions encountered. Other writers, however, are more descriptive. For instance, some state that there were two sirens (Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia), whilst others claim that there were three of them (Peisinoë, Aglaope and Thelxiepeia or Parthenope, Ligeia and Leucosia).

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1868, Firmin Girard (Public Domain)

The authors were also not in agreement with each other regarding the parentage of the sirens. One author, for instance, claimed that the sirens were the daughters of Phorcys (a primordial sea god), whilst another stated that they were the children of Terpsichore (one of the nine Muses). According to one tradition, the sirens were the companions or handmaidens of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. After Persephone’s abduction by Hades, the sirens were given wings. According to some authors, this was requested by the sirens themselves, so that they may be more effective at searching for their mistress. Others attribute these wings as a punishment from Demeter, as the sirens had failed to prevent the abduction of Persephone.

An Archaic perfume vase in the shape of a siren, circa 540 BC (Public Domain)

In any event, this association with the myth of Persephone’s abduction has contributed to the depiction of the sirens by the ancient Greeks. In general, these creatures are depicted as birds with the heads of women. In some instances, the sirens are depicted with arms. According to researchers, the sirens (or at least the way they are portrayed) are of Eastern origin (the ancient Egyptian ba, for example, is often depicted as a bird with a human head), and entered Greece during the orientalising period of Greek art.

 Resisting the Sirens’ Seductive Song
The sirens appear in many ancient Greek myths. One of the most famous of stories about the sirens can be found in Homer’s Odyssey. In this piece of literature, the sirens are said to live on an island near Scylla and Charybdis, and the hero Odysseus was warned about them by Circe. In order to stop his men from being seduced by the sirens’ singing, Odysseus had his men block their ears with wax. As the hero wanted to hear the sirens singing, he ordered his men to tie him tightly to the mast of the ship. As Odysseus and his men sailed past the island which the sirens inhabited, the men were unaffected by their song, as they could not hear it. As for Odysseus, he heard the sirens sing, but lived to tell the tale, being bound to the mast.

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, John William Waterhouse. Ulysses (Odysseus) is tied to the mast and the crew have their ears covered to protect them from the sirens (Public Domain)

Another myth that features the sirens is that of Jason and the Argonauts. Like Odysseus, Jason and his men also had to sail past the siren’s island. Fortunately for the Argonauts, they had Orpheus, the legendary musician, with them. As the sirens began to sing their song, in the hopes of seducing the Argonauts, Orpheus played a tune on his lyre. The music overpowered the voices of the sirens, and the Argonauts were able to sail safely past the island. Only one Argonaut, Butes, was enchanted, and he jumped out of the ship in order to swim to them. Fortunately for him, he was saved by Aphrodite, who took him from the sea, and placed him in Lilybaeum.

 Top image: Ulysses (Odysseus) and the Sirens, circa, 1909 by Herbert James Draper. (Public Domain)

 By Wu Mingren

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