In the early 19th century, siren was the name given to an acoustical instrument (invented by Cagniard de la Tour in 1819) for producing musical tones and used in numbering the vibrations in any note; the term was then extended to an instrument, made on a similar principle but of a larger size, used on steamships for giving fog-signals and warnings. The word thus came to be used more generally for a device which produces a piercing note (frequently of varying tone), used as an air-raid warning, or to signify the approach of a police car.
The name comes from Greek and is recorded from Middle English; in earliest use, it designates an imaginary type of snake, from glossarial explanations of Latin sirenes in the Vulgate text of Isaiah 13:22.
siren suit a one-piece garment for the whole body which is easily put on or taken off, originally designed for use in air-raid shelters, when warning had been given by the piercing whistle or siren.
The Sirens were 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 lived on an island where they enchanted passing sailors with their song. 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 were searching for the Golden Fleece, Orpheus* sang so sweetly that none of the crew listened to the Sirens. In Homer's* epic the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus* made his men put wax in their ears so that they could not hear the Sirens. Wanting to hear their song, Odysseus had the crew tie him to the mast so that he could not steer the ship toward the island. Some stories say the Sirens were so enraged by Odysseus that they drowned themselves in the sea.
See also Argonauts; Odyssey, The; Orpheus.
epic long poem about legendary or historical Heroes, written in a grand style
The sea nymphs of Greek mythology whose hypnotically sweet song lured mariners to their deaths. The island of the sirens had a meadow strewn with the bones of the victims of these deadly nymphs. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus has to steer his vessel past the island and takes the precaution of having his men fill their ears with wax to avoid hearing the siren song, while he himself is lashed to the vessel's mast. Jason and his band of heroes also had to sail past that island, but Orpheus sang so sweetly that he drowned out the song of the sirens. After Orpheus's song vanquished them, the sirens sprang into the sea and became rocks.
The sirens, two or three in number, were said to be the off-spring of Phorcys or Achelous, and were part women, part birds. Some believed they were unhappy souls of the dead, envious of the living. The modern story of the Lorelei has something in common with the myths of the sirens.
si·ren / ˈsīrən/ • n. 1. a device that makes a loud prolonged signal or warning sound. 2. Greek Mythol. each of a number of women or winged creatures whose singing lured unwary sailors onto rocks. ∎ a woman considered to be alluring or fascinating but also dangerous in some way. 3. an eellike American amphibian (genera Siren and Pseudobranchus, family Sirenidae) with tiny forelimbs, no hind limbs, small eyes, and external gills, typically living in muddy pools.