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Who Were the Greek Sirens: Bird Women or Mermaids?

The Sirens are one of the most intriguing creatures in Greek mythology and western culture. Known for their hauntingly beautiful singing, the Sirens would lure sailors close to dangerous rocks and to shipwreck. But while we know them as beautiful singing women, they weren’t always depicted in this way. Their presence in modern times differs vastly from the depictions and myths of the sirens in Ancient Greece. So who were the Sirens exactly? Were they mermaids or strange bird women?

Who are the Sirens?

siren waiting below the ocean canvas
A modern rendition of a Siren. See it here.

Depending on the author, the parentage of the Sirens varies, but most sources agree that they were the daughters of the river god Achelous and one of the Muses.

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It’s interesting that early depictions of the Sirens showed them as half-woman half-bird creatures who lived by the sea, similar to harpies. However, in later versions, the depiction of Sirens changed and they became mermaids. They had female heads and torsos, with a fishtail from their navel downwards. It was only around the Middle Ages that the Sirens truly morphed into the figure that we now call mermaids.

How Many Sirens Are There?

In Greek mythology, the number of Sirens varies depending on the source. In Homer’s Odyssey, arguably the most famous ancient Greek epic, there are only two Sirens mentioned, but their individual names aren’t specified.

“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song…” – (The Odyssey, Book 12).

In contrast, later writers and historians often speak of three Sirens. These include:

  • Parthenope (the maiden)
  • Ligeia (the clear-voiced or shrill sounding)
  • Leucosia (the white)

These three were cited in works such as “Fabulae” by Hyginus, a Latin author who wrote about mythological creatures in the 1st century AD.

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“They were Parthenope, Ligea, and Leucosia. Parthenope threw herself into the sea because of love for Ulysses and was cast ashore at Naples; Ligea on the rocks of Terina in Bruttium; Leucosia near the Sirentum peninsula” – (Hyginus, Fabulae, 125).

Even further confusion arises from late antiquity and medieval writers, who sometimes mention up to five sirens. However, these additional names vary widely depending on the source. Because of this, we don’t know how many sirens there were exactly. What we do know is that there were around 2 to 3.

How Did the Sirens Become Hybrid Creatures?

the kiss of the siren painting
The Kiss of the Siren by Gustav Wertheimer. PD.

According to some sources, the Sirens were maidens who were the companions or the servants of Persephone. After this point, the myths vary on how they turned into the dangerous creatures they wound up being. The most well known version is that of Demeter and the Sirens.

Some stories propose that Demeter punished the Sirens for not being able to protect Persephone when Hades raped her. Other sources, however, say that they were tirelessly looking for Persephone and asked Demeter to give them wings so that they could fly over the seas in their search. This is why they became bird women.

The Sirens stayed on an island near the strait of Scylla and Charybdis after the search for Persephone ended. From there, they would prey on the ships passing nearby, enticing the sailors with their charming singing. Their singing was so beautiful that they could make the wind stop to listen to them. It’s from these singing creatures that we get the English word siren, which means a device that makes a warning noise.

With their musical ability, they attracted the sailors from passing ships. These sailors would come closer and closer to the dangerous rocky coast of the Sirens’ island and ultimately get shipwrecked and dashed on the rocks. According to some myths, the corpses of their victims could be found all along the shores of their island.

Myths Involving the Sirens

The Sirens vs. The Muses

So outstanding was their gift for singing that the Sirens engaged in a contest with the Muses, the goddesses of arts and inspiration. In the myths, Hera convinced the Sirens to compete against the Muses with their singing. The Muses won the contest and plucked out the feathers of the Sirens to make themselves crowns.

1. Sirens and Odysseus: In the Odyssey

Sirens and Odysseus
Ulysses and the Sirens (1909) by Herbert James Draper. PD.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens are portrayed as dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their enchanting songs. Odysseus was warned by the sorceress Circe about the Sirens’ hypnotic voices. Curious to hear their song but aware of the risk, he ordered his crew to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him firmly to the ship’s mast. He instructed them not to release him no matter how much he begged.

As they passed the Sirens’ island, the haunting melody indeed enticed Odysseus. He pleaded and ordered his crew to set him free, but they bound him tighter. The crew, with their ears plugged, were immune to the song. Once the ship was out of hearing range, Odysseus was released. He was thus the only man to have heard the Sirens’ song and lived to tell the tale.

2. The Sirens and Jason and the Argonauts

The myth of Jason and the Argonauts also features an encounter with the Sirens. The Argonauts were on a quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, a journey that took them past the Sirens’ island. Fortunately, the Argonauts had the musician Orpheus with them.

Forewarned about the Sirens’ lethal song, Orpheus played his lyre as they passed the island, drowning out the Sirens’ voices with his music. The Argonauts were thus able to sail past the island safely.

Death of the Sirens

There was a prophecy that said that if a mortal were ever to resist their enticing techniques, the Sirens would die. Since both Orpheus and Odysseus managed to survive their encounter, it is unclear which of them caused the death of the Sirens. Either way, after they failed to attract the mortals, the Sirens threw themselves into the ocean and committed suicide. 

Sirens vs. Mermaids: Are They the Same?

dyriani the siren miniature
Sculpture of a siren/mermaid. See it here.

Nowadays, there is confusion about what exactly the sirens are: mermaids or bird women? In the original myths, the Sirens were similar to the harpies, a combination of woman and a bird. They were dark and twisted creatures who attracted sailors with their gift for singing, simply to kill them. However, their later depictions show them as beautiful fish-women, whose sexuality lured men to their death.

Mermaids are believed to have originated in Assyria, but can be found in many cultures, from Japanese to German myths. These creatures were depicted as beautiful woman, typically peace-loving, who tried to stay away from humans. Singing was not one of their attributes.

At some point in history, the myths of the two creatures crossed paths, and their characteristics became mixed. This misconception has impacted literary works as well. Some translations of Homer’s Odyssey refer to the original sirens as mermaids, giving a false idea of the creatures Odysseus encountered on his return home.

Today, the terms siren and mermaid are synonymous. However, the word siren still carries a more negative connotation than mermaid, because of their association with death and destruction.

Symbolism of Sirens

The Sirens have become symbols of temptation, seduction, and the destructive power of desire. They represent what happens when you give in to your temptations.

  1. Temptation and Desire: One of the most enduring symbols that the Sirens embody is the dangerous pull of temptation and desire. This can lead to destruction and risk. If a mortal stopped to listen to the beautiful sounds of the Sirens, they wouldn’t be able to control their desires and this would lead them to their death. So, the Sirens act as a warning that you shouldn’t give in to unchecked desires.
  2. Sin: The Sirens can also be said to represent sin, the temptations that call out to us and lead us astray. Like the Sirens, sin is tempting. It can take all your willpower to resist, and oftentimes, we aren’t successful.
  3. Female Power: Some have suggested that the Sirens represent the primal power that females have over men, which can both fascinate and frighten men. They were the original femme fatales. They were a representation of the perceived threat of female influence and autonomy, especially in the male-dominated context of ancient Greek culture.
  4. The Dangers of Temptation Post-Christianity: As Christianity began to spread, the Sirens’ symbol evolved further. They were used to portray the dangers of temptation.
  5. Death and the Afterlife: Given that the Sirens’ songs led sailors to their deaths, they can also be seen as symbols of death or the transition to the afterlife. The enchanting but deadly song may represent the seductive allure of the unknown aspects of death and what lies beyond.

Sirens in Modern Culture

In modern times, the idea of the Sirens as mermaids has widely spread. They appear in a variety of movies, books, and artworks, but only a few of these depictions show them as the original Sirens from the myths. Most depictions of half-woman half-bird creatures refer to the Harpies, not to the Sirens, who are typically portrayed as mermaids. In this sense, the original sirens from Greek mythology have been left aside.

The phrase siren song is used to describe something that is appealing and alluring but also potentially dangerous and harmful. The word siren is also used to describe attractive, confident women to whom men are strongly attracted. It’s also used to describe a warning sound, informing you that danger is near.

In Brief

The Sirens were remarkable characters in two famous tragedies from Ancient Greece. The stories of both Odysseus and the Argonauts include depictions of the Sirens and show them as they were in Greek mythology. They remain one of the most popular of the Greek mythical creatures.

Sirens symbolism

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The Golden Fleece: Symbol of Power in Greek Mythology

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Minotaur – The Monster of the Labyrinth in Greek Mythology

Satyr – The Half-Goat Half-Human in Greek Mythology

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Juan Salazar Sanchez
Juan Salazar Sanchez

Juan Sanchez has been a freelance writer for years, with a particular focus on Mythology and History, especially Greek mythology. He has been a part of the Symbol Sage team for several years, and has contributed immensely to the team. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and reading.