Sirens: The Fatal Song of the Seas

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By: Alex Postrado

The Murderous Greek Crooners of the Seas

Sirens — if, one day, you were asked to describe them, what would you say?

Would you talk about their long hair? Their beautiful faces? Their enchanting songs, perhaps? Or maybe their fish tails?

Well, you’re just about right on all of that, except for one.

The original Sirens of Greek mythology didn’t have fishtails. They were actually creatures that are half woman, half bird!

Don’t believe me? Here is the real story about the singing enchantresses of the seas, known as Sirens.

Where the Myths Began- Odysseus and the Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey was one of the first — and arguably, most famous — literary works that mentioned Sirens.

Written around 750 BCE, the poem tells of Odysseus’s after-war voyage and return to his home island of Ithaca.

This journey takes place for 10 whole years. And a period this long — especially, in a mythical world — would unsurprisingly give you a bunch of struggles to face.

That’s exactly what happened to Odysseus. In the course of his voyages, he came across an array of otherworldly creatures he needed to battle in order to survive.

And somewhere along his travels, he stumbled upon the Sirens.

Two of them, to be precise — in the western sea, on an isle between the rocks of Scylla and the island of Aeaea, the known home of the goddess-sorceress Circe.

Fortunately for Odysseus, prior to the encounter, Circe already warned him and his crew about what to expect upon passing by the west coast:

Mystical beings, who lure sailors to their death by singing promises of forbidden, yet eternal knowledge of all things in the world.

The song of the Sirens was almost inescapable. But Circe knows a way to survive — a pearl of wisdom she shares with Odysseus.

Following Circe’s advice, Odysseus had all his sailors block their ears with beeswax, so they wouldn’t hear the entrancing voices of the Sirens. But, Odysseus — falling prey to his own curiosity — decided that he wants to listen to them.

So, he instructed his crew to leave him tightly bound to the ship with no wax in his ears. And as they drew close, he started to hear the beautiful, yet fatal song of the Sirens.

Notice anything missing from that story?

Despite, The Odyssey, having one of the most celebrated appearances of Sirens in pieces of literature, Homer never mentioned anything about half-fish women.

So, where did it all start?

The Origin of the Sirens

The early Greeks understood Sirens in a fashion that is unlike what we’re used to.

Their original belief was that the Sirens were bird-bodied songstresses, typically, with the faces of women.

Several records also depict some of them to have faces of men, but this form exhaustively phased out from art around the 5th century.

However, there’s one thing common in both of these versions of the Sirens that survived.

Through the power of their song, they tempt passing sailors to stop by their island and seek the source of the inviting voices. However, those who did — according to the stories — were never seen again.

Accounts vary on what the Sirens actually do to their prey, but some of the most accepted suppositions were that they were either drowned to death or eaten alive.

Over time, these seductive — literal — songbirds evolved into a more humanlike hybrid of a creature that is equal parts bird and woman; and has intimate knowledge about the natural world and the afterlife.

They were gifted musicians who can play a variety of instruments — most notably, the flute and the cithara.

In some versions of the myth, they can even charm the winds.

This narrative undoubtedly caught the attention of ancient artists and writers. And — similar to the fate of anyone who hears the mesmerizingly-deadly song of the Sirens — they, too, were spellbound for thousands of years and more.

But, somewhere along the way, the form of the Siren got lost in translation.

They became the beautiful and voluptuous fish-maidens that were mostly associated with “feminine charm and bodily enticement” — an image that has endured the test of time, even until today.

And that monumental shift in our perspective on Sirens began — believe it or not — with a single book.

Around the late 7th century, the Anglo-Latin catalog Liber Monstrorum — in English, Book of Monsters — described Sirens as “women from their heads to their navels, and instead of legs they had fishtails“.

By the 14th century, that image was already cemented in history. And people started using the words Siren and mermaid interchangeably.

Odysseus, bound onto the mast of his ship, passes the Sirens
Odysseus, bound onto the mast of his ship, passes the Sirens: Source

Sirens vs. Mermaids: What’s the Difference?

The origin of the name Siren remains uncertain to this day. Researchers and etymologists argue about whether or not it has Pre-Greek roots, but some connect the name to seirá — meaning, “rope” — and eírō — meaning, “to tie” — resulting in the idea that the Sirens entangle their victims through their hypnotic song.

Nevertheless, the most recognized foundation of the initial form of the Sirens is the Egyptian Ba-bird — a human-headed bird often portrayed to be hovering over tombs and are linked to both the physical and spiritual world.

As for the word mermaid, however, it’s derived from the Old English mere or “sea” and maid or “young woman“.

Among these creatures’ earliest appearances was around 1000 BC, when Atargatis — the chief goddess of northern Syria — dove into a lake and took the form of a fish.

In Isidore of Seville’s encyclopedia, The Etymologies, he noted that the reason why Sirens have wings and claws is that “love flies and wounds”.

But our general understanding of mermaids involves neither flying nor scratching.

They basically dwell deep in the seas and are originally known to be peaceful, non-violent creatures that are doubtlessly more pleasing to the eyes than the morbid bird-women of earlier myths.

While Liber Monstrorum was credited to have started the change in our view on Sirens, there are still other things, as well as historic events that contributed to why Sirens and mermaids are now normally seen as one and the same.

And some of that can be traced to what the Sirens symbolized through the years.

Do Sirens Exist?

Sirens are mythological creatures that symbolize feminine wiles and the danger of succumbing to the allure of women. The Greek myth gives a metaphorical trope of a siren that makes a very straightforward parable that makes women seem dangerous.

Many myths from ancient history are made to give the reader(or listener) actionable information built into a fantastical tale of wonder and heroes.

Odysseus is the stand-in for us, the reader, and the tribulations he faces are representative of real-world ills.

The story of the siren is no different.

Let’s take a look at what we can learn from the symbolism behind the siren and where their feminine wiles lead us.

The Symbolism Behind the Sirens

Birds, in ancient times, used to be seen as mediators between worlds.

The inhabitants of the water, the earth, and the air.

They are often associated with divine beings and some are even known for their melodious chirps.

With all this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine why the early Greeks chose them to embody the Sirens.

In the modern-day sense, however, the Sirens seemed to have lost their primeval spiritual connections.

They are now mostly viewed as symbols of seduction and “the pleasures of the flesh“.

Historically, The Odyssey was translated by men. And so, for ages, we were given a version that was mostly meant to serve the male gaze.

But when classicist Emily Wilson became the first woman to translate Homer’s epic masterpiece, she pointed out how conveniently rewriting words like “mouth” to “lipscan affect the entire narrative — a narrative that will be passed down for generations.

If it wasn’t for Wilson and the current reclaiming of femininity, the lost mythology of the Sirens as bird-women creatures of the seas probably would stay out of the limelight for until who-knows-when.

Moreover, the spread of Christianity during the Middle Ages is also partly to blame for their use of the then-growing popularity of the fish-women version of the Sirens as personifications of the dangers of female sexuality.

When the truth is, the allure of the Sirens originally had nothing to do with their looks, rather the rare knowledge their song offers to whoever crosses their path.

Fatal temptresses? They still are.

But — if you’d come to think of it — in a time that lacks the technological advancements we have today in sailing, what other danger can the Sirens symbolize, but the peril one might crash into if they ever get lured by any distraction at sea.

References:

Siren - Greek mythology
Siren - The Medieval Bestiary
Fish or Fowl: How did Sirens become Mermaids?
Sirens of Greek Myth Were Bird-Women, Not Mermaids
Why do people confuse sirens with mermaids?
Siren (definition and etymology)
Sirens Are Actually Bird-Bodied Messengers of Death, Not Sexy Mermaids
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