“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.”
– Homer (“The Odyssey”)
Tales of the Sirens have long fascinated ocean dwellers and land lubbers alike. A mystery surrounds them that is never fully unravelled by Homer, or the other Greek myths in which they appear. Homer never explicitly describes their physical appearance, although we can infer from his descriptions of lustful reactions to them that they at least, in part, take human form.
What we know is that they are singing enchantresses whose voices entice passers-by to their dwellings – usually rocky outcrops, small islands, old boat wreckages – and ultimately to their doom. Traditionally, they are the daughters of the river god Achelous and a Muse (the name of which will depend on which source you favour). They are fated to die should anyone should survive their songs.
There are two versions of the same story that outline the Sirens’ transformation from mortals to mystical beings, and stem from the same myth, The Abduction of Persephone. In both versions, the Sirens are cited as Persephone’s handmaidens. When Hades, God of the Dead, falls in love with Persephone and drags her to the Underworld, one branch says that Persephone’s mother, Demeter, is so enraged with the Sirens for failing to keep her daughter safe that she transforms them into feathered monsters. The other tells of the Sirens being so bereft by their loss that they beg Demeter for wings so that they can search for Persephone more efficiently.
Their further transformation to the mermaid-like creatures we see them most frequently depicted as in popular culture can be attributed to a few things. In Homer’s The Odyssey, our most significant encounter with the Sirens is as a feature of the mortal hero Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca from the sorceress Circe’s island of Aeaea. Before he leaves, Circe tells Odysseus of the Sirens, warning him that they dwell along his route by sea, and that should he hear their song, he will die.
Homer also tells of the Siren’s song luring a sensitive member of the legendary Argonauts’ crew – Boutes of Athens – to jump overboard and start swimming towards them. He does, forcing their ship to ground in the process. Fortunately, he is saved by Aphrodite, Goddess of Love who subsequently takes him as her lover and bears him a son.
Over time, authors and artists have depicted the Sirens in ways that are the most tangible and attractive to their audiences. Although bodies of birds still occasionally feature in modern retellings, their aquatic metamorphosis is generally attributed the popularity of Hans Christian Anderson’s 19th century folk tale, The Little Mermaid.
More profound than this, though, is the sense of mystery that the seas are able to lend to the already bewildering Sirens, and make them infinitely fascinating. The lack of description at their origin allows us to try and fill in the gaps or leave some of their details secret, like much of the ocean floor. The unexplored depths create a world for them that we, as mere mortals, will never truly know and leaves us forever longing.