Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's Odyssey
Daughters of Achelous
The Sirens were three female creatures from Greek mythology whose singing lured men to destruction. Descriptions of the Sirens vary from beautiful women to monsters with the bodies of birds and human heads.
The Sirens were the daughters of the river god Achelous (pronounced ay-kee-LOH-uhs). They lived on an island where they enchanted passing sailors with their songs. According to some sources, sailors died when their ships crashed on the rocks near the island. Others say that sailors stayed on the island and listened to the singing until they died.
Only on two occasions did the Sirens fail to enchant passing sailors. When Jason and the Argonauts (pronounced AHR-guh-nawts) were searching for the Golden Fleece , the musician Orpheus (pronounced OR-fee-uhs) sang so sweedy that none of the crew listened to the Sirens. In Homer's epic the Odyssey , the hero Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs) made his men put wax in their ears so they could not hear the Sirens. Odysseus, wanting to hear the Sirens' song, had his crew tie him to the mast so he would not steer the ship toward the island. Some stories say the Sirens were destined to live only as long as no sailor could resist their song; because Odysseus and his crew were able to sail safely past, the Sirens were transformed into rocks along the shore.
Sirenia is an order of plant-eating mammals that includes the manatee, found along warm coastlines of the eastern part of North and South America, and the dugong, found near Australia and New Guinea. Sailors sighting these creatures sometimes mistook them for mermaids, creatures with the torso and head of a woman and the tail of a fish. Sirens are sometimes pictured as mermaids.
Dugongs and manatees are considered endangered species. Manatees are slow-moving and curious, and so are at special risk of injury and death due to boat collisions. Dugongs were once found throughout the Indian and South Pacific oceans, but hunting and habitat loss have caused its numbers to diminish greatly.
Sirens in Context
The myth of the Sirens is a reflection of how important—and at the same time treacherous—travel by sea was to the ancient Greeks. They relied on the sea for both trade and exploration. The Sirens functioned as a warning to Greek sailors, reminding them to always be aware of nearby rocks that could potentially destroy their ships. The song of the Sirens might even be compared to the rhythmic pulse of the sea against the bow of a ship, which might lull a sailor to sleep and prevent him from properly avoiding obstacles such as rocks.
Key Themes and Symbols
The Sirens represented both the allure and the danger of beauty. The danger arose from losing sense of one's duties or surroundings while being enchanted by the Sirens. In a more general sense, the Sirens symbolized the mysterious qualities of women to sailors, who were nearly always men living without female contact for days or weeks at a time. The bird-like features of the Sirens also associated them with the beautiful singing of songbirds, and enhanced their otherworldly nature.
Sirens in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In ancient art, the Sirens were often depicted as having human heads and the bodies of birds, or as being human women with the legs of birds. Later depictions often downplay these bird-like features and instead depict the Sirens simply as beautiful young women, or even as mermaids who lure sailors to a watery grave. Many adaptations of the myths of Jason and Odysseus include depictions of the Sirens. One notable appearance of the Sirens is in the 2000 Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a retelling of the Odyssey set in the American South during the Great Depression.
The term “siren” lives on in modern times in two ways: first, it describes a loud, unavoidable warning signal, such as the ones used by police and other emergency vehicles; and second, it is used to describe a woman to whom men are inevitably drawn, even when it may lead to their downfall.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Secret of the Sirens (2006) by Julia Golding is the first novel in the author's Companions Quartet series. The book focuses on Connie, an eleven-year-old girl sent to live with her aunt in a seaside British town.