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SIRENS

ODYSSEUS LISTENS TO THE SIRENS' SONG

SIRENS

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are creatures with the head of a female and the body of a bird. They lived on an island (Sirenum Scopuli; three small rocky islands) and with the irresistible charm of their song they lured mariners to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island.

The Argonauts escaped them because when he heard their song, Orpheus immediately realized the peril they were in. He took out his lyre and sang a song so clear and ringing that it drowned the sound of those lovely fatal voices. When on another journey Odysseus' ship passed the Sirens, Odysseus had the sailors stuff their ears with wax. He had himself tied to the mast for he wanted to hear their beautiful voices. The Sirens sang when they approached, their words even more enticing than the melody. They would give knowledge to every man who came to them, they said, ripe wisdom and a quickening of the spirit. Odysseus' heart ran with longing but the ropes held him and the ship quickly sailed to safer waters.

Homer mentions only two sirens, but later authors mention three or four. They were regarded as the daughters of Phorcys, or the storm god Achelous. According to Ovid, they were nymphs and the play-mates of Persephone. They were present when she was abducted and, because they did not interfere, Demeter changed them into birds with female faces.

VARIOUS WRITERS' TAKE ON THE SIRENS

Homer does not name the Sirens individually nor mention their parentage, but by using the dual in reference to them he indicates that they were two in number. Sophocles, in his play Ulysses, called the Sirens daughters of Phorcus, and agreed with Homer in recognizing only two of them.

Apollonius Rhodius says that the Muse Terpsichore bore the Sirens to Achelous. Hyginus names four of them, Teles, Raidne, Molpe, and Thelxiope, and, in agreement with Apollodorus, says that they were the offspring of Achelous by the Muse Melpomene.

Tzetzes calls them Parthenope, Leucosia, and Ligia, but adds that other people named them Pisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepia, and that they were the children of Achelous and Terpsichore. With regard to the parts which they took in the bewitching concert, he agrees with Apollodorus. According to a Scholiast on Ap. Rhod., Argon.iv.892, their names were Thelxiope, or Thelxione, Molpe, and Aglaophonus. As to their names and parents see also Eustathius on Hom. Od. 12. p. 1709, Scholiast on Hom. Od. xii.39, who mention the view that the father of the Sirens was Achelous, and that their mother was either the Muse Terpsichore, or Sterope, daughter of Porthaon.

Similarly Apollonius Rhodius describes the Sirens as partly virgins and partly birds. Aelian tells us that poets and painters represented them as winged maidens with the feet of birds. Ovid says that the Sirens had the feet and feathers of birds, but the faces of virgins; and he asks why these daughters of Achelous, as he calls them, had this hybrid form. Perhaps, he thinks, it was because they had been playing with Persephone when gloomy Dis carried her off, and they had begged the gods to grant them wings, that they might search for their lost playmate over seas as well as land.

In like manner Hyginus describes the Sirens as women above and fowls below, but he says that their wings and feathers were a punishment inflicted on them by Demeter for not rescuing Persephone from the clutches of Pluto. Another story was that they were maidens whom Aphrodite turned into birds because they chose to remain unmarried. It is said that they once vied with the Muses in singing, and that the Muses, being victorious, plucked off the Siren's feathers and made crowns out of them for themselves.

In ancient art, as in literature, the Sirens are commonly represented as women above and birds below. Homer says nothing as to the semi-bird shape of the Sirens, thus leaving us to infer that they were purely human. This is not mentioned by Homer, but is affirmed by Hyginus. Others said that the Sirens cast themselves into the sea and were drowned from sheer vexation at the escape of Ulysses.

Below is the story of Odysseus (Ulysses) and the Sirens
by the writer Thomas Bullfinch, 1855.

Ulysses seemed to have forgotten his native land, and to have reconciled himself to an inglorious life of ease and pleasure. At length his companions recalled him to nobler sentiments, and he received their admonition gratefully. Circe aided their departure, and instructed them how to pass safely by the coast of the Sirens.

The Sirens were sea-nymphs who had the power of charming by their song all who heard them, so that the unhappy mariners were irresistibly impelled to cast themselves into the sea to their destruction. Circe directed Ulysses to fill the ears of his seamen with wax, so that they should not hear the strain; and to cause himself to be bound to the mast, and his people to be strictly enjoined, whatever he might say or do, by no means to release him till they should have passed the Sirens' island.

Ulysses obeyed these directions. He filled the ears of his people with wax, and suffered them to bind him with cords firmly to the mast. As they approached the Sirens' island, the sea was calm, and over the waters came the notes of music so ravishing and attractive that Ulysses struggled to get loose, and by cries and signs to his people begged to be released; but they, obedient to his previous orders, sprang forward and bound him still faster. They held on their course, and the music grew fainter till it ceased to be heard, when with joy Ulysses gave his companions the signal to unseal their ears, and they relieved him from his bonds.

Odysseus and the Sirens

Below is the ancient writer Apollodorus' version
of Odysseus' (Ulysses') encounter with the Sirens

And having come to Circe he was sent on his way by her, and put to sea, and sailed past the isle of the Sirens. Now the Sirens were Pisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepia, daughters of Achelous and Melpomene, one of the Muses. One of them played the lyre, another sang, and another played the flute, and by these means they were fain to persuade passing mariners to linger; and from the thighs they had the forms of birds.

Sailing by them, Ulysses wished to hear their song, so by Circe's advice he stopped the ears of his comrades with wax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to the mast. And being persuaded by the Sirens to linger, he begged to be released, but they bound him the more, and so he sailed past. Now it was predicted of the Sirens that they should themselves die when a ship should pass them; so die they did.

 

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