The Siren (1888) by Edward Armitage (1817-1876).
The Sirens were sea nymphs, both dangerous and beautiful, and creatures who were sometimes described as akin to the Harpies and the Erinyes of ancient Greek myth (Shorey, 1908-22). In the plural they were ‘sirenes’ and the term means ‘strangler’ or ‘binder’. Part-women and part-seabird they are often depicted as birds with the heads of maidens in the three forms of: half-woman and half-bird; half-woman and half-fish; and half-woman and half-ass (Cooper, 1992).
The Siren (1900) by J. W. Waterhouse.
These Greek temptresses of the sea, sometimes likened to the Rhineland Lorelei, are the fatal seductresses who lured sailors to their shipwreck and death by their enchanted singing and lyre playing (Shorey, 1908-22). The Sirens supposedly lived on the island of Anthemoessa, off the coast of Italy, where they lured sailors to their doom on the rocks.
The Fisherman and the Siren (1856-58) by Lord F. Leighton.
Different sources ascribe different origins and different ancestries to the Sirens. In some accounts they are the daughters of Phorcus and either Ceto or Calliope (Coleman, 2007). Phorcus or Phorcys was a sea-god, known as the ‘Old Man of the Sea’, and the son of either Poseidon, or Nereus and Doris. The Sirens originally were the playmates and nymphs associated with Persephone, who Demeter changed into half-human half-bird creatures. Phorcos was also the father of the Gorgons and the Echidna. Some accounts say he is the father of Scylla by Hecate, and the Sirens by Sterope.
An account of the origin of the Sirens says they were the daughters of Achelous the river god (Murray, 1988). Hence their being called the Acheloides. As daughters of Achelous their mother was either Melponome or Terpsichore (Coleman, 2007), as well as Sterope and Chthon (the earth). The Sirens numbered, according and literary sources, from two to five. Some writers stated three who were Pesinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxipeia. Other names include Molpe, Himeropa, and Aglaophone.
The Sirens therefore have many names. In the poems of Homer they have three which are Partenope, Ligeia, and Leukosia, who when transformed into cliffs and rocks became the Sirens who were “…personifications of hidden banks, and shallows where the sea is smooth and inviting to the sailor…alluring music ascribed to them may either refer to the soft melodious murmur of the waves…(Murray, 1988).
Originally the Sirens became winged bird-like creatures, after defeat by the Muses, whereupon they took to the sea. Many sources describe them as ‘daughters of the earth’, as ‘winged maidens’, in various bodily combinations of women and birds. As maidens they are regarded as beautiful seductresses. For the ancient Greeks the Siren embodied feminine seduction and temptation, but for the ancient Egyptians the Sirens were souls separated from their corporeal existence. The symbolism of the bird-woman can ultimately be traced to ancient Egypt and Assyria (Harrison, 1887), human headed birds being the ‘soul birds’ of Asia.
Funerary statue of a classical Siren in Athens.
The Muses, who can also appear in the form of clouds, their swan-like shape indicating a cloud myth, a connection between the sea and the sky (Fitzgerald, 1881). It is the fish aspect of the Sirens that gets them confused with mermaids. The Sirens are generally shown with wings and a lower body in the form of a bird. This image resembles a sea creature of the Greeks which was half-woman (Coleman, 2007), showing that the art-form of the Sirens is that the “…classical tradition of the bird woman Siren persisted side by side with the novel fish-woman.” (Harrison, 1882).
Sirena di Canosa, Rome
The myth of Odysseus and the Sirens is one of the most familiar of Homer’s legends (Axon, 1881). Some accounts describe the failure of the Sirens to seduce Odysseus and his crew. Odysseus stopped their ears with wax and had himself bound to his own mast to resist their music, songs, and enchantments.
Ulysses and the Sirens by J. W. Waterhouse.
A plausible hypothesis that these singing or wailing females, which were originally bird forms, are providing funerary laments (Shorey, 1908-22). The songs are symbols of the fleeting soul carried onward by the wings of a bird.
Ulysses and the Sirens (1910). Herbert Draper.
The Sirens therefore have magical powers of enchantment who, as shape-shifters, can transform their ogre-like appearance into beautiful maidens to delude, ensnare and eat their sailor victims. In this sense the Sirens are the embodiment of a supernatural power that has fatal intentions. As the illustrations show in classical art “…the sirens are not fish-women, but bird women; not mermaids, but harpies.” (Harrison, 1887).
Ulysses and the Sirens by Leon Auguste Adolphe Belly.
References and sources consulted
Axon, W. E. A. (1881). The Myth of the Sirens. The Academy. 484. August 13.
Benet, W. R. (1973). The Readers Encyclopaedia. Black, A & C. London.
Coleman, S. J. (2007). The Dictionary of Mythology. Capella, London.
Cooper, J. C. (1992). Dictionary of Mythological Animals. Thorsons, London.
Fitzgerald, D. (1881). The Myth of the Sirens. The Academy. 437. 3.9.1881.
Harrison, J. E. (1897). The Myth of Odysseus and the Sirens. Magazine of Art. Jan (133), London.
Harrison, J. E. (1922). Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. London.
Hastings, J. J. ed. (1908-22). Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Scribner, Edinburgh.
Homer. (1964). The Odyssey. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Lempriere, J. (1994). A Classical Dictionary. Bracken Books, London.
Murphy, A. S. (1988). Who’s Who in Mythology. Bonanza Books, New York.
Shorey, P. (1908-22). Sirens. In: Hastings, J. J. ed. (1908).