The Sirens’ temptation

“Come hither on your way, renowned Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans; stop your ship that you may listen to the voice of us two. For never yet has any man rowed past the island in his black ship until he has heard the sweet voice from our lips; instead, he has joy of it, and goes his way a wiser man. For we know all the toils that in wide Troy the Argives and Trojans endured through the will of the gods, and we know all things that come to pass upon the fruitful earth.” Odysseys 12.184-191, Loeb Classical Library edition

I’m fascinated by the hybridity of so many ancient Greek creatures, several of which we meet in the Odyssey, including Sirens. The word has accumulated so many meanings and connotations that it can be startling to encounter images of these hybrid beings in ancient Greek material culture.

Here is an example from the Archaeological Museum of Athens: a 4th century funerary statue depicting the Siren as half-bird, half-woman, holding a tortoise shell lyre (the placard tells us that its strings were probably crafted separately, from bronze).

This is an iconic 5th century red-figure vase showing Odysseus lashed to his ship’s mast as the Sirens circle him.

In the modern era, Sirens are often portrayed as sexualized seductresses, as in Herbert James Draper’s 1909 paintings.

FER96235 Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909 (oil on canvas) by Draper, Herbert James (1864-1920); 176.9×213.4 cm; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums, UK; English, out of copyright

In Odyssey 12, Circe warns Odysseus that the Sirens “beguile all men who come to them. Whoever in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens’ voice, his wife and little children never stand beside him and rejoice at his homecoming” (39-40). In the snippet of song that tempts Odysseus, they promise greater wisdom & something like absolute knowledge of “all things” on “the fruitful earth.” This makes me wonder if their bird bodies relate to bird omens, privileged divine knowledge.

Do the Sirens represent the temptation to continue pushing the boundaries of what knowledge mortals should & shouldn’t have? What does Odysseus have to accept and give up in order to achieve his nostos?

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