The Sirens were creatures that sang beautifully, luring those passing by to their deaths. Each Siren combined the appearance of a woman and a bird, with the exact appearance varying depending on the artist. Some artists drew Sirens that had bodies of birds with the heads of women, while others made them look like women with the legs of birds. Later portrayals of Sirens made them look like seductive women and minimized their bird features.
The Sirens were originally friends of Persephone. There are multiple myths regarding what happened to the Sirens after Persephone was abducted by Hades, with one saying that Demeter gave them wings to search for her and another saying that he cursed them because they didn’t stop the abduction.
Perhaps the most famous story about the Sirens comes in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” as Odysseus and his men sailed by them. Circe had warned Odysseus prior to the encounter about the dangers of the Sirens, and he prepared his men by having them put beeswax in their ears to block out the song. They then tied Odysseus to the mast of the boat, as he wanted to hear what the Sirens sang about. The beautiful song caused Odysseus to order that his men untie him, but instead they tightened the ropes and waited until they were clear of the Sirens to release him.
While Homer’s tale has two Sirens, other myths have reported between two and five Sirens. Their song is both sad and beautiful, and is said to call to Persephone, asking her to return. Those who hear the song can’t resist and are lured to the Sirens location, which ends in their death. Why the sailors who succumb to this song end up dead is open to interpretation. Some believe that the Sirens are cannibals who consume the sailors that they lure over. Others believe that the Sirens are unable to provide food to their visitors, which eventually leads to starvation, as the visitors can’t leave because of the Sirens’ song. The Sirens survived because their divine nature means they don’t need to eat anything.
Another appearance of the Sirens takes place in “Argonautica.” Jason passes by the Sirens on his journey, but like Odysseus, he too had been warned of their dangerous song, this time by Chiron. Jason brought Orpheus, a musician, poet and prophet, along with his crew. When Orpheus heard the Sirens singing, he played music even more beautiful than their song to drown them out. One crew member with excellent hearing, Butes, was still able to hear the Sirens and jumped overboard to swim to them. However, Aphrodite took him to safety.
There have been several stories of the Sirens after Homer, and some authors said that when a person heard the Sirens song and escaped, the Sirens were fated to die. These authors claim that after Odysseus was able to escape the Sirens despite hearing them, that they threw themselves into the sea and died.
Another story of the Sirens’ end is that the queen of the gods, Hera, was able to get the Sirens to compete with the Muses in a singing competition. The Muses defeated the Sirens, and then plucked all the Sirens’ feathers to create crowns from them. The Sirens were so devastated by their defeat that they turned white and then fell into the water, each of them becoming a white island.
The Sirens are the origin of the term “siren song,” which refers to something that’s hard to resist, but which will end badly. One of the most unique aspects of the Sirens, particularly in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” is how it’s not their appearances that tempt sailors, but their voices. Their song is said to occur in the middle of the day, when it’s calm and quiet. The Sirens are said to know both the past and the future, but they make false promises to lure sailors to come to them.
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