What are Sirens?
Sail too close to the island of Anthemoessa, and you will quickly find out what a Siren is. These bird-women can stop any ship that approaches their coast, bewitching the sailors with songs that make them forget everything else: the rocking ocean, the sails and tackle, the families waiting for them at home, even life itself.
If you search the internet for images of Sirens, you’ll probably get a flood of beautiful women with fish tails. In many ways, the modern Siren is a creepy version of the mermaid. Her long hair and scaly tail are darkly colored. Her eyes and skin are ghostly pale. And she is set against a stormy background—a shipwreck waiting to happen.
These images are a far-cry from the original Sirens. Instead of having fish tails, the first sirens had bird features: feathered wings, clawed feet, and sometimes sparrow’s tails. They were not particularly beautiful, especially considered to the sea nymphs who frolicked in the waters below them.
The Sirens were a deadly bunch; there’s no use for argument there. According to Homer,
“They bewitch any mortal who approaches them. They sit in a meadow; men’s corpses lie heaped up all round them, moldering upon the bones as the skin decays.”
A search of the sea floor around their island would turn up entire ships, wrecked as they tried to get to the Sirens.
Yet, the Sirens may not have been evil by nature. Few stories describe the temptresses physically attacking humans, which leaves the possibility that their songs weren’t designed to kill. According to Nonnus,
“When a sailor hears the Siren’s perfidious song, and bewitched by the melody, he is dragged to a self-chosen fate too soon […] falling into the net of melodious fate, he forgets to steer, quite happy.”
So if Sirens aren’t cold-blooded killers, what motivates them to sing?
Before the Sirens took up their deadly singing career, they suffered several setbacks in life. They were cursed by both Demeter and the Muses and exiled to a small island, where they were forced to live alone.
It’s possible that the Sirens sang to avenge the wrongs against them. Abused by life, they decided to become monsters and destroy the lives of others.
It’s also possible that the Sirens sang to express their grief. As they told Odysseus,
“We know of all the sorrows in the wide land […]; we know all things that come to pass on the fruitful earth.”
This truth was something that they needed to share, even if it was more painful than mortals could bear to hear.
Finally, the Sirens may have been desperately lonely and used their songs to tempt men to join them on their island. Although the island was littered in human remains, there were no signs that the Sirens killed men. Instead, the men might have died of starvation after keeping the Siren’s company for several weeks.
The Sirens are famous for their high, clear singing voices, which were so full of emotion that they drove men insane. They also accompanied their voices with musical instruments: lyres, flutes, and pipes. They also had—or claimed to have—prophetic abilities, which lent depth to the lyrics of their songs.
Legends about Sirens
Before the Sirens became the Sirens, they were mortal girls who served the goddess Persephone. These lovely girls trailed behind Persephone when she visited her favorite meadows to pick flowers. They sang to her in sweet voices and played instruments to please her.
When Persephone was abducted by Hades, the loyal handmaidens volunteered to help look for her. Demeter gave them golden wings, so that they could fly over the earth searching for Persephone—but the search was vain, since Persephone had been imprisoned in the underworld. Heartbroken over the loss of her daughter, Demeter lashed out against the innocent handmaidens, who had failed to bring good news back from their search. She cursed them, declaring that they would stay in their bird form until someone passed by their songs without stopping, at which point they would die. Then she banished them to an uninhabited island.
Competition with the Muses
After some time, Hera came to visit the Sirens on their lonely island. She had heard praise for their songs, full of beauty and anguish, and she was not disappointed by the live performance! So the goddess decided to give the girls a challenge. She invited them to enter a singing contest against the nine muses.
After consulting together, the Sirens agreed to enter the contest. Of course, they had heard of the Muses’ legendary music, but they also knew that the power of their own songs.
The competition produced some of the most haunting music that the Greeks had ever heard, with the Sirens pouring all of their arresting heartache into their music. Still, the Muses—goddesses of music, where the Sirens were mere mortals—won the competition. To celebrate, they plucked out the Sirens’ feathers and made crowns for themselves. The Sirens returned to their island in humiliation.
Voyage of Odysseus
During his ten-year voyage home, Odysseus passed by the island where the Sirens lived. Fortunately, he had been warned of their powers ahead of time, so as his ship drew near the rocky coast, he ordered all of his sailors to pug their ears with beeswax.
Odyssues, however, was determined to hear the legendary music of the Sirens—and live to tell the tale. With this goal in mind, he ordered his sailors to tie him to the mast of his ship. He then gave orders that he should not be untied, no matter how he begged or threatened them.
The nervous sailors agreed to tie up their captain. No sooner were the ropes knotted than Odysseus heard voices, unimaginably high and clear, calling to him.
“Come hither, renowned Odysseus, hither, you pride and glory of all Achaea! Pause with your ship; listen to our song!”
Odysseus was, understandably flattered, and he began to wish to meet the beautiful women who sang so sweetly to him. After a few more lines of the siren music, Odysseus was in a frenzy to be released. He raved at his sailors—who, fortunately, could not hear him since their ears were full of beeswax—and strained at his ropes until they cut into his skin. But the ship drifted on, and in an hour, the island was behind them and the spell subsided. After Odysseus passed the island, the Sirens hurled themselves into the sea and died, making him the last person to hear their bewitching music.
The Sirens appear in Greek’s oldest works of literature. Homer, Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Ovid, Seneca, and Hesiod all describe these bewitching singers. By the end of the Greek period, Grecian scholars had concluded that the women were no more than fable—yet their legend lived on for centuries after the Greek civilization crumbled away.
Writers as far back as William Shakespeare began to merge Sirens with mermaids, combining the sweet, vibrant appearance of the fish-maidens with the dreamy voice of the Sirens. Over time, the link between these two creatures has grown tighten. Today, it’s hard to find a feathered Siren in popular culture.
Although the original Sirens have gone out of fashion, Siren-mermaid hybrids are still incredibly popular. They can be found in all sorts of works of fantasy, from fairytales written by Hans Christian Anderson and CS Lewis to blockbuster movies like Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean.