“Now stop your ship and listen to our voices. All those who pass this way hear honeyed song/poured from our mouths.” (Homer 308) So claim the sirens in Homer’s classic, The Odyssey. If you were one of the poor souls that heard the sirens’ song as you unsuspectedly sailed by their small island sitting in the “wine-dark” sea, you would be hopelessly compelled to find its source. By the time you realize your folly, it is too late. The sirens tear you apart and throw your rotting corpse on the massive bone pile of others who could not resist their “honeyed song.” In The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is able to bypass the sirens’ monstrous trap. Odysseus orders the crew of his ship to pack their ears with wax so as not to hear the sirens’ song. In order to hear their song, but not fall victim to the sirens, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the ship’s mast so that he would be physically unable to pursue the song’s source as they sail by the island where the sirens reside. (Homer 559)
Sirens tell us a great deal about the various cultures in which they have appeared. The sirens of Greek mythology differ greatly from their contemporary counterparts. In ancient Greek texts and paintings, sirens are depicted as having the head of a woman and the body of a bird. (Cartwright) Most people today, when thinking of sirens, tend to think of beautiful sea temptresses, almost always depicted as sexual or sensual in nature. As Emily Wilson (a British classicist and professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to publish a translation of Homer’s Odyssey into English) points out, this was not, in fact, the case. Wilson says that the sirens depicted in The Odyssey were not tempting because of their physical beauty, but instead the temptation came from their promise of knowledge. (Elbein) The siren’s “body” in Greek mythology, and indeed in all of the its personifications, represents the culture from which it came. (Cohen 4) The ancient Greeks were a polytheistic culture with many different gods and goddesses. They were also a culture that coveted knowledge. (Rosenburg and Baker 9-11) The monster’s form was likely imported from ancient Egyptian and Turkish (Anatolian) mythologies where figures with the body of a bird and the head of a woman were connected to the Underworld. In Greek mythology, they were also connected to the Underworld as they were said to serve Persephone, the Greek goddess who ruled the Underworld with her husband Hades. Tomb inscriptions in ancient Greece, as well as in Egypt and Anatolia, often featured an image of a siren. (Elbein) It’s not difficult to see why a monster with the body of a bird, which represents the spirit of the dead, and the head of a goddess-like woman would have sprung from deeply spiritual and polytheistic cultures with connections to this type of imagery.
Another interpretation of sirens actually comes from alternate translations of Homer’s Odyssey. These versions were translated and told after the monotheistic, patriarchal religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam had replaced polytheism. In these versions, sirens were beautiful women who would draw in unsuspecting sailors not just with their song but with their sexuality. The stigmatization of sex and promiscuity by these new religions had transformed the sirens from temptresses of knowledge and the Underworld, to a temptress sexual in nature that would surely lead you to hell. The siren “returns in slightly different clothing, each time to be read against contemporary social movements or a specific, determining event” in accordance with Cohen’s second thesis on monster culture. (Cohen 5) This is a perfect example of a monster evolving to fit new social constructs. To many Christians, the sirens’ song is a way of describing any sort of temptation into sin. This newer interpretation of sirens, like the new monotheistic religions that were interpreting them, were misogynistic in nature. “The monster lies at the gate of difference.” (Cohen 7) The demonization of women as the “other” and as something that would temp you to your doom, is very Christian indeed. After all, wasn’t it Eve who tempted Adam to eat of the apple and lose admittance to Paradise?
The fear that these creatures instill in us is meant to “police the borders of the possible.” (Cohen 12) Monsters are designed to make something taboo, even scary! Our fear of the sirens could be subconsciously setting the parameters regarding what is possible to know. Later the fear of the siren would steer you clear of sinful behavior – behavior that will lead you right to the devil’s doorstep! In reality these fears also represent desires. In contrast, in ancient Greek culture the promise of earthly and other worldly knowledge would be a strong temptation, due to the fact knowledge was so greatly desired in those times. In more modern times, sex is seen as the most desirous, and also the most dangerous temptation.
In the 1991 film, O Brother Where Art Thou (a modern reimagining of The Odyssey) the heroes are drawn to the river by the sound of the sirens song. The sirens are beautiful and seductive women, bathing in the river singing “you and me and the devil makes three.” As the men approach one of the sirens pours liquor into the mouth of the main character, “Ulysses” (which is the Anglo version of “Odysseus”). (O Brother Where Art Thou) The song, the sexuality, the liquor: all these represented the temptation into sin this rendering of sirens was meant to embody.
Sometime during the 19thcentury stories of sirens were combined with stories of water nymphs and evolved into stories of mermaids. (Elbein) The creature was now more than just the head of a woman, it was the head and torso of an extremely beautiful woman; and instead of being part bird, the creature is now half fish. In all the forms this monster takes on, be it a bird with a woman’s head promising knowledge or a beautiful mermaid promising something else, “the too precise laws of nature as set forth by science are gleefully violated.” (Cohen 6)
The newest take on sirens comes in the from a T.V. series appropriately entitled Siren. The show premiered just this year and conceives of quite a different creature, in quite different circumstances – different than any of her predecessors. In this postmodern manifestation, the siren is a persecuted species that has been all but wiped out by man. The creature appears as a mermaid (half woman, half fish) that can change into a full human. The sirens in this rendition seem to only use their murderous capabilities in self defense and their beautiful siren songs are usually just used to garner help from strangers (men). The siren, who has now shifted her role to become the hero of the story, only wishes to be reunited with her sister who was captured by the government. (Siren) The monster tells us who we are and where we’ve been. Sirens, once merciless killers and a temptresses of sin are now central characters, victims of kidnaping and violence by men, highlighting the dangers women face in modern society where they are fighting for control over their own bodies. This points to a shift in our cultural consciousness post suffragette movement, and post 60’s feminist movement, and now post #metoo movement. Rather than representing some evil form of feminine sexuality or knowledge, they now represent the oppressed and marginalized who are now fighting back against those who would oppress them. Sirens “ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, difference, and our tolerance toward its expression.” (Cohen 20)
As monsters do, the siren has lost much of her bite; in other words, her ability to scare us. When Disney made The Little Mermaid in 1989, the creature had come full circle, now reduced to a children’s character – a harmless mermaid with a beautiful voice, a voice with the power to woo a prince. This monster even desired not to be a monster at all anymore, instead wishing to be human. These days the most recognizable siren is the one in the Starbucks logo, trying to tempt you into a Venti Mocha Frappuccino!
Baker, Donna Rosenberg and Sorelle. Mythology and You. Columbus: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1992.
This book has a section on the polytheistic religious background of the ancient Greeks, crucial to understanding their version of the siren. The book is printed by a well-known educational publishing company and written by experts who have authored many other books on ancient mythology. This should be considered a scholarly source.
Cartwright, Mark.Siren. 16 April 2015. Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited. November 2018. <https://www.ancient.eu/Siren/>.
This piece had a great overview of sirens in the ancient world and included pictures of artwork that should be considered a primary source. The site is an award-winning historical encyclopedia website. This should be considered a scholarly source.
Cohen, Jeffrey, ed. Monster Theory: Reading culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Elbein, Asher. Sirens of Greek Myth Were Bird-Women, Not Mermaids. 6 April 2018. National Audubon Society . November 2018. <https://www.audubon.org/news/sirens-greek-myth-were-bird-women-not-mermaids>.
This source had a detailed historical analysis of sirens throughout history, how they’ve changed and included quotes from Emily Wilson (the first woman to translateThe Odyssey into English). Audubon Magazine is the flagship journal for the National Audubon Society, which has a special emphasis on birds. This should be considered a scholarly source.
Homer. The Iliad and The Odyssey. New York: Translated by Samuel Butler, Barnes and Noble, 1970.
This book is one of the translations of Homer’s original classic. The description in this book of Odysseus’ men putting wax in their ears and Odysseus himself being tied to the mast is from the pages of this book. It is primary source.
Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Translated by Emily Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018.
“Now stop your ship and listen to our voices. All those who pass this way hear honeyed song/poured from our mouths.” This is the opening quote used that was pulled from this translation. This is a primary source
Mermaid Scene – My Jolly Sailor Bold | Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides. 4 January 2015. YouTube. November 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC2F9ZdVIPM>.
Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?Dir. Joel Coen. Perf. John Turturo, Tim Blake Nelson George Clooney. 2000. film.
Siren. 2018. Freeform. November 2018. <https://www.hulu.com/series/siren-46d466c2-ec53-476d-a86d-8b18eaacfda3>.
Siren First Look Clip and Trailer Season 1 (2018) Freeform Series. 19 January 2018. Series Trailer MP. November 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sExa3DGy7N4>.
The Little Mermaid-Part of your world reprise. 27 February 2014. Disney. November 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laXEtI31KX8>.
The Sirens – O Brother, Where Art Thou?28 May 2011. MovieClips.com. 8 November 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dl2L4v6ecM>.