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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. Their presence in modern times differs vastly from the depictions and myths of the sirens in Ancient Greece. Here’s a closer look at it.
Who are the Sirens?
The origin of the Sirens is most likely Asian. They may have become a part of Greek mythology through the influence of Asian traditions in artworks of Ancient Greece. Depending on the author, the parentage of the Sirens changes, but most sources agree that they were the daughters of the river god Achelous with one of the Muses.
Early depictions of the Sirens showed them as half-woman half-bird creatures, similar to harpies, who lived by the sea. However, later on, Sirens were said to have female heads and torsos, with fish tail from their navel downwards. Around the Middle Ages, the Sirens morphed into the figure that we now call mermaids.
In Homer’s Odyssey, there were only two sirens. Other authors refer to at least three.
Role of the Sirens
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.
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.
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 the passing ships, who 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.
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.
The Sirens and Odysseus
In Odysseus‘ long and wandering journey home from the Trojan War, he had to go past the island of the Sirens. The enchantress Circe explained to the hero how the singing of the Sirens worked and how they used it to kill the sailors who passed by. Odysseus instructed his man to block their ears with wax so that they would not listen to the singing. However, Odysseus was curious to hear what the singing sounded like. So, he decided to tie himself to the mast of the ship so that he could listen to the singing of the sirens without danger. That way, Odysseus and his men could sail by their island and continue their journey.
The Sirens vs. Orpheus
The sirens also play a minor role in the myths of the great Greek hero Jason and the Argonauts. The sailing crew had to pass near the island of the Sirens, and they needed a way to do it without being harmed by them. Unlike Odysseus, they did not use wax, but they had the great hero Orpheus sing and play the lyre while sailing by the island. The musical skills of Orpheus were legendary, and they were enough to make the other sailors focus on his singing rather than on the singing of the Sirens. Thus, the Sirens were no match for the singing of Orpheus, the famed musician.
The 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
Nowadays, there is confusion about what sirens are. 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 affected the literary works too. Some translations of Homer’s Odyssey refer to the sirens of the original writing as mermaids, giving a false idea of the creatures Odysseus encountered on his return home.
Today, the terms siren and mermaid are synonyms. However, the term siren still carries a more negative connotation than mermaid, because of their association with death and destruction.
Symbolism of Sirens
The Sirens symbolize temptation and desire, which 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. As such, the Sirens can also be said to represent sin.
Some have suggested that the Sirens represent the primal power that females have over men, which can both fascinate and frighten men.
After Christianity began to spread, the symbol of the Sirens was used to portray the dangers of temptation.
The phrase siren song is used to describe something that is appealing and alluring but also potentially dangerous and harmful.
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. Nevertheless, only a few of these depictions show them as the original Sirens from the myths. We could say that most of them are portrayals of mermaids instead. Most depictions of half-woman half-bird creatures refer to the Harpies, not to the Sirens. In this sense, the original sirens from Greek mythology have been left aside.
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.