The Sirens’ Promise

What are your thoughts on sirens?

The topic came up in my comments section on Instagram recently and it got me thinking about a few things. One is how Homer’s portrayal of them in the Odyssey can be a source of surprise for first-time readers, who might expect (if they’ve seen 19th century paintings) sirens to be alluring, seductive figures. I mean, they are, but it’s their song (and the deceptive promise contained in it) not their bodies that lure sailors to their deaths.

Here is Anthony Verity’s translation of what the sirens promise Odysseus from 12.186-191:

“No man has ever sailed past this place in his black ship without hearing the honey-toned voice that issues from our lips, and then, full of delight, going on his way a much wiser man. You see, we know everything that both Trojans and Argives endured on Troy’s wide plain, by the will of the gods; and we know too all that happens on the earth that nourishes many.”

It seems Odysseus is being promised access to a collective consciousness, divine knowledge—tempting indeed for the “man of many guises” who travels around learning the minds and ways of many people. The sirens’ promise is “true,” in that when a hero dies, he seems to enter that consciousness to some degree. Hence the heroes’ shades who Odysseus chats with seem to know broader events, beyond those they were directly involved in. But the part about Odysseus having to die to access that knowledge…well, the sirens gloss over that part.

They’re strange creatures to behold in ancient Greek visual representations, quite a departure from how they’re depicted in post-antiquity:

Top two are ancient, bottom two are modern
Top left and bottom right are ancient (classical Greek and Roman empire respectively), top right is from the Middle Ages, bottom left is modern

I’d love to hear your thoughts, impressions, questions, musings, and so on, as always.

4 thoughts on “The Sirens’ Promise

  1. Wow, so much of this was mind-blowing for me….

    As a former 8-year-old girl who was planning to become a mermaid one day, the images here are making me think I must have blocked out the way sirens were represented as more birdlike creatures in ancient times. Surely I must have learned that when I studied art history, and yet, this is like a dawning revelation. So I think my inner child just made me completely forget about the bird thing. Mermaids are fish-women!

    That said, it makes sense: birds sing, whereas fish….?

    But mermaids with fish tails are so pretty! The bird ladies look monstrous or a bit ridiculous, which is sad, too, because I love birds! Maybe it’s because nowadays, bird women in Greco-Roman myths are usually associated with the harpies? No one wants to be a harpy.

    …Although I’ve been called a harpy more than I’ve been called a mermaid….

    Whatever the reason for the image change, I like it, I have to confess. But still, thank you for reminding us what ancient audiences were envisioning when hearing stories like “The Odyssey.”

    As for their promise, I love the way you put it: they CAN give you access to all this knowledge; they just don’t mention the price! At least they’re sort of honest…and sort of like Odysseus himself in that way….

    Thank you for giving me a lot to think about, as always. This was wonderful and will haunt me (in a good way) for a long while.

    1. You always make me laugh, Alysa. Though I’m really mad at whoever had the nerve to call you a harpie!
      But seriously, someone made the connection between harpies and sirens on my Instagram post, though they function quite differently in myth. I have to look into harpies now and see when is the earliest depiction of them in Greek literature. I suspect (though, again, I haven’t substantively researched it) that the shift from bird women to mermaids is a Western European influence. I believe that in German folklore, mermaids lounged on rocks and lured sailors to their deaths.
      I love your point about the sirens being like Odysseus in their ability to deceive with truths!

  2. I also don’t think sirens have wings, and even though I love mermaids, I also don’t think they have fish tails either. I do think they play harps, float above the water with no clothes on, and have very long hair. I think they look like the modern version, sorry Homer, even though you wrote the greatest story in human history, modern women are prettier than ancient women 💁🏻‍♂️

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