Friday, 21 October 2016

Legendary Creatures of Greek Mythology. The Siren. (Do you know the difference, between a siren and a mermaid?)

Sirens "A Song of Joy and Sorrow" by Vasnetsov
"A Song of Joy and Sorrow" by Vasnetsov

Dusting down my sweet little Fornasetti dish today, reminded me of just how much the weird and wonderful, half animal, half human, legendary creatures of Greek mythology, fascinate me.

Fornasetti Dish Harpy,  a ravenous, filthy monster having a woman's head and a bird's body
Fornasetti Dish
Harpy,  a ravenous, filthy monster having a woman's head and a bird's body

Maybe these creatures will fascinate you too, let me introduce you to them, one at a time, starting today, with the siren.

First of all, put out of your mind, the image of mermaids, contrary to popular belief, sirens were never half fish, half women, and never lived underwater.

I’ll tell you later how that mistaken idea came about.

Edmund Dulac. The Little Mermaid, illustration for William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
Edmund Dulac. The Little Mermaid, illustration for William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” 
“Ariel’s Song”
 “Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made; those are pearls that were his eyes:”

What are the sirens of Greek mythology?

Sirens, prognostic creatures, who knew the future as well as the past, had much in common with the sphinx (A mythical creature, with the head of a human, and the body of a lion).

According to Ovid (Roman poet in the time of Augustus), the sirens of Greek mythology, were handmaidens to Persephone, daughter of Zeus and the Goddess of harvest, Demeter.

Persephone had the bad luck to be kidnapped by Hades, God of the underworld, her distraught mother, Demeter, ordered Persephone’s handmaidens to quickly find and rescue her, to help them with their task, Demeter gave them wings.

The Parthenope Siren with viola on Vesuvius.  The Spinacorona fountain 16th century in Naples
The Parthenope Siren with violin on Vesuvius.
 The Spinacorona fountain 16th century in Naples

The handmaidens of Persephone, searched high and low, all the while, calling out to Persephone with their sweet song, but, to no avail, Persephone was nowhere to be found.

Demeter, in a state of rage at the handmaidens, who had failed to bring home her precious daughter, condemned them, to live forever more as sirens, far away, on rocky, rugged islands, singing their siren song, a song with the power to put body and soul into a state of fatal lethargy.

These beautiful, dangerous creatures, with their sweet siren song, impossible to resist, once heard, lured sailors to the rocky shores, where they were instantly shipwrecked.

Where did the sirens live?

Sirens are represented in early Greek art, as birds, with large, women’s heads, feathers and scaly feet, (And, later, as females with the legs of birds, with or without wings) sprawled in meadows dotted with flowers, playing musical instrument, usually, the harp and lyre.

The Sirens of Ulysses William Etty 1837
The Sirens of Ulysses
William Etty 1837

Some writers have sirens as cannibals, based on Circe's (Sorceress witch in Greek mythology) who has them lolling around in meadows, surrounded by heaps of bones and rotting flesh.

The flower-filled meadows, home to the sirens, in ancient times, were referred to as Anthemoessa or Anthemusa, the flowery islands, said by the Roman poets, Virgil and Ovid, to be the Sirenum Scopuli, three small, rocky islands, (South of Capri) or Pelorus, today known as Punto del Faro, Sicily.

 Punto del Faro, Sicily.
 Punto del Faro, Sicily.

Then again, the siren's home, may have been Le Sirenuse, or Li Galli, a small group of islands off the Amalfi coast of Italy.

Homer (Ancient Greek poet, author of The Odyssey) locates the home of the sirens, as an island in the Western sea, between Aeaea (The island, in Greek mythology, where the witch Circe lived) and Scylla, (A monster in Greek mythology, which lived at one side of a narrow channel of water, opposite her counterpart Charybdis.)

All locations, thought to be home to the sirens, were surrounded by cliffs and rocks, perfect for luring sailors to their death.

 Le Sirenuse, or Li Galli, a small group of islands off the Amalfi coast of Italy.
 Le Sirenuse, or Li Galli,
 a small group of islands off the Amalfi coast of Italy.

How many sirens were there and what were their names?

When the question arises, asking how many sirens actually existed, and what their names were, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion.

The most popular answer is that there were three sirens in Greek mythology.

Homer mentions only two, with no other detail, apart from where they may have lived.

Later writers mention three, their names being Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia , or, Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia.

Apollonius of Rhodes (First half of 3rd century BCE), in his epic poem “Argonautica”,  about Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece, gives three sirens the names of; Thelxinoe, Molpe, and Aglaophonos.

Hyginus (Latin Author), mentions four sirens, with the names; Teles, Raidne, Molpe, and Thelxiope.

Eustathius (Greek Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and scholar), states, as did Homer, that there two, and gives them the names Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia.

Paintings on an ancient Greek vase also show two sirens, named Himerope and Thelxiepeia.

 450 BCE red-figure stamnos from Vulci (now in the British Museum)
"One of the most famous examples is the c 450 BCE red-figure stamnos from Vulci (now in the British Museum) which, interestingly, also has a siren diving into the sea in apparent suicide. In Archaic art they are often fearsome and can have talons but they evolved into beautiful and serene creatures by the Classical period, very different from their still later association with lust and unbridled revelry."
 Mark Cartwright, MA Greek Mythology

All later mention of the sirens of ancient Greek mythology, use the following, individual names:

Thelxiepeia/Thelxiope/Thelxinoe, Molpe, Himerope, Aglaophonos/Aglaope/Aglaopheme, Pisinoe/Peisinoë/Peisithoe, Parthenope, Ligeia, Leucosia, Raidne, and Teles.

Confrontations with sirens.

In the epic poem “Argonautica" written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the early third century B.C., Jason is warned by Chiron (A centaur), that Orpheus (Musician, poet and prophet),would be needed on his journey, to play his lyre, in order to  drown out the song of the sirens, which is exactly what Orpheus did.

One member of the crew, Butes, heard the song though, and jumped into the sea, but, luckily for him, was caught and brought to safety by Aphrodite, Goddess of love, pleasure and procreation.

Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau (French, 1869-1937), "Orpheus"
Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau
 (French, 1869-1937), "Orpheus" 

In Homer’s "The Odyssey" Odysseus was curious to hear the song of the sirens, and so, on the advice of Circe (A powerful sorceress in Greek mythology), ordered his crew to plug their ears with beeswax, and to tie him to the mast, and no matter what, or how much Odysseus begged them, they were not to untie him.

When he heard the siren song, Odysseus begged his crew to untie him, but they only tied him tighter, enabling their ship to pass by the island of the sirens.

"Ulysses and the sirens" John William Waterhouse
"Ulysses and the Sirens"
John William Waterhouse

"No seaman ever sailed his black ship past this spot without listening to the honey-sweet tones that flow from our lips and no one who has listened has not been delighted and gone on his way a wiser man."
 (The Sirens, Odyssey 12:186-190)

Death of the sirens.

Some post-Homeric authors believe the Sirens were sure to die if someone heard their singing and escaped, and that after Odysseus passed by the sirens flung themselves into the sea and drowned.

According to Gaius Julius Hyginus, (Latin author, sirens were fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs were able to pass by them

Another story, is that Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded the Sirens to enter a singing completion with the Muses.

The Muses won the competition and then plucked out all of the Sirens' feathers and made crowns out of them.

Out of their anguish from losing the competition, the Sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera ("featherless"), where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Leukai, meaning white, today, the islands of Nisi and Leon, in the bay of modern day Souda, on the island of Crete.

Nisi and Leon in Suda Bay, Crete.  In ancient times these two islets were referred to as Leukai (Greek for "white ones").
Nisi and Leon in Suda BayCrete.
 In ancient times these two islets were referred to as Leukai (Greek for "white ones"). 

Other acknowledgements.

The first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder, discounted Sirens as sheer fantasy, but went on to say;

"Although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces."

In his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote of the Siren,

"The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners."

Marie-François Firmin Girard  "Ulysses and theSirens"1868
Marie-François Firmin Girard
"Ulysses and theSirens"1868 

In 1917, Franz Kafka wrote in “The Silence of the Sirens”, found in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories 

"Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never."

The "Siren of Canosa", from Italy, was said to be among items buried with the dead, to guide them on the after-life journey

This terracotta figure, from around 340 to 300B.C, has the feet, wings and tail of a bird and bears traces of its original white pigment.

The sculpture is housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid, Spain.

Siren of Canosa 340 to 300B.C National Archaeological Museum of Madrid, Spain.
Siren of Canosa 340 to 300B.C
National Archaeological Museum of Madrid, Spain.

How the sirens became confused with mermaids.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ll tell you how sirens and mermaids became confused.

Sirens, in Greek mythology, never had the half body of fish, they are half human, and half bird, female creatures, and sirens never lived underwater, but frolicked amongst flowers, in the meadows of rocky islands.

As we see time and time again, by the fourth century A.D, when Christianity began to spread throughout the Western world, all pagan beliefs, and that includes Greek mythology, were considered evil, and the customs and stories, were either changed, to suit Christian belief, or, benevolent beings, became malevolent.

Incorrect translations also play a part, as we saw in the case of my post about the Daimons of ancient Greece.

Such was the case with sirens.

Henrietta Rae (1859–1928
Henrietta Rae (1859–1928

Belief in sirens was discouraged, and, although Jerome, priest, confessor, theologian and historian, used the word “Siren” to translate the Hebrew word “Tannim”, meaning jackals, in “Isaiah 13:22” and as the word “Owl” in “Jeremiah 50:39”, when he produced the Latin Vulgate version of the Scriptures, Ambrose (Bishop of Milan), explained this to be a mere symbol or allegory for worldly temptations, and not an endorsement of the Greek myth.

The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville,an etymological encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville c. 560–636), states;

"They (the Greeks) imagine that 'there were three Sirens, part virgins, part birds,' with wings and claws.

’One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre.

 They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck.

 According to the truth, however, they were prostitutes, who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them.

 They had wings and claws because Love flies and wounds.

 They are said to have stayed in the waves because a wave created Venus."

The birth of Venus. (Aphrodite) Oil on Canvas.   John Bulloch Souter.(1890-1972)
The birth of Venus. (Aphrodite) Oil on Canvas.
 John Bulloch Souter.(1890-1972)

And here is the clue “Venus”, the Latin term for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, all qualities frowned on by the Christian church.

Aphrodite, was born from the waves, she was created in the sea, and, according to Isidore of Seville, in his “Etymologiae”, that’s where the sirens lived, among the waves of the sea, just as mermaids do!

So, now, today, sirens are seen as mermaids, female figures of dangerous temptation.

A Mermaid John William Waterhouse
A Mermaid
John William Waterhouse

I must add here, the confusion between sirens and mermaids was not totally the fault of the Christian church.

 Roman writers, tended to link sirens to the sea, when Phorcys, a primordial sea god, depicted as a fish-tailed merman with crab-claw fore-legs and red-spiked skin, is cited as the father of some of the sirens of ancient Greek mythology.

Shall I confess?

Before becoming interested in Greek mythology, I thought sirens were mermaids!

Did you think the same?

For anyone wanting to learn more about ancient mythology, Edith Hamilton's book;

 " Mythology:  Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes"

covers everything, Greek, Roman, and Norse myths and legends.

 It's an easy to read book, dived into seven sections, all including wonderful wood-cut illustrations by Steele Savage.

It's interesting to realize, how myths from different countries, all seem to connect to each other, in one way or another.

Since its first publication in 1942, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide, and has received many glowing reviews.

"No one in modern times has shown us more vividly than Edith Hamilton 'the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.' Filtering the golden essence from the mass of classical literature, she proved how applicable to our daily lives are the humor and wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago." "New York Times"

Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.  Edith Hamilton

 More glorious Greek myths:

Monday, 17 October 2016

Lost in Translation. Word of The Day. Demon - Greek - Daimon / Daemon.

Nymphs and Satyr,  William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873
Nymphs and Satyr,
 William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873

What is a demon, or, in Greek, a daimon?

You are probably thinking; a malevolent being, something rather devilish, something negative.

Am I right?

Sorry folks, but, you’re wrong!

You can be forgiven for thinking this, as, today, that is exactly how we see demons, or daimons, but, it was not always so.

In ancient Greece the word daimon (I’ll use the Greek form), derived from the Greek verb “Daiesthai”, meaning to divide, or to distribute, had very positive overtones.

Daimons, in ancient Greece, were considered divine powers, fates, guardian spirits, or angels, who gave guidance and protection.

The Guardian Angel William Russell Flint
The Guardian Angel
William Russell Flint

Daimons scarcely figure in Ancient Greek art or mythology, their presence was felt, rather than seen.

There were two types of daimons in ancient Greece, Satyrs, or shaggy goats, more mischievous than evil, in the style of the pipe-playing, Greek God Pan, or Shakespeare’s Puck, from “A Midsummer night’s dream”

Pan - by Marc Debauch
Pan Marc Debauch
In Greek mythology, a 
satyr (Greek: σάτυρος satyros), pronounced sátyros is one of a troop of ithyphallic male companions of Dionysus with goat-like features and often permanent erection. Early artistic representations sometimes include horse-like legs, but in 6th-century BC black-figure pottery human legs are the most common. In Roman Mythology there is a concept similar to satyrs, with goat-like features: the faun, being half-man, half-goat, who roamed the woods and mountains. In myths they are often associated with pipe-playing.

The other daimons were the divine ones, of “The law”, or “The word”, the rules by which one lived their life.

The daimon “Nomos” (Divine law), was married to the daimon “Eusebia”( Piety), their daughter was “’Dike”(Justice)

The “Good” daimons were referred to as “Eudaimon”( Eudaimonia), or, “Agathodaimon”, noble spirits.

The not so good ones, resembling the jinns, or genies of Arab folklore, were called “Kakodaimon”, such as the “Keres”, daughters of Nyx (Goddess of night) and Erebus  (The personification of shadows), who escaped from the box, opened by Pandora.

Pandora John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse

The Greek idea of daimon, first appeared in ancient Greece, through the works of Plato, (Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates).

  We see, in Plato's masterpiece, Symposium, how Diotima, a female philosopher, teaches Socrates, how love (Eros), is a great daimon, and that;

"Everything daemonic is between divine and mortal"

Diotima goes on to describe daimons as;

"Interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above..."

In other words, daimons are demi-Gods, with divine power, existing between heaven and earth, playing the role of intermediaries, between humans and gods.

  Diotima of Mantinea. Ancient Greece.  Mentioned by Plato in his Symposium
Diotima of Mantinea. Ancient Greece.
 Mentioned by Plato in his Symposium.

In Plato's The Apology, Socrates claimed to have his own, life-time daimon, a favour from the Gods,  that frequently warned him, in the form of a "voice", if he was about to make a mistake, of bad judgment, or danger, but never told him how to act, just advised Socrates, so to speak.

Homer, in ancient Greece (8th century BC), who is best known for the two epic poems the The Iliad and the The Odyssey, considered Gods and daimons to be similar, but distinct.

Homer Ancient Greek Poet
Ancient Greek Poet

The Algerian writer, Apuleius of Madaurus, who lived in The Roman Empire, and, studied Platonism in Athens, states in his book “Metamorphoses”,or, The Golden Ass, that daimons are good souls, blessed souls, with no connotations of malevolence or evil, and goes on to say;

"They are intermediate powers of a divine order. They fashion dreams, inspire soothsayers,"

By the time of the early Roman Empire, cult statues, were seen by pagans and Christians alike, as being inhabited by spirits of the Gods, daimons, and were fed, and even dressed, to be paraded, and worshipped at religious festivals.

One such cult image, created by the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias, was that of Athena Parthenos, Greek Goddess of civilization, wisdom, and just war.

Athena Varvakeion, small Roman replica of the Athena Parthenos by Phidias.  Found in Athens near the Varvakeion school, hence the name.  First half of the 3rd c. AD. National Archaeological Museum in Athens
Athena Varvakeion, small Roman replica of the Athena Parthenos by Phidias.
 Found in Athens near the Varvakeion school, hence the name.
 First half of the 3rd c. AD. National Archaeological Museum in Athens

So far, so good, the daimons are still in favour, still worshiped, still considered as guardian angels, having good, blessed souls.

What happened to change that, how did these delightful beings, become supernatural, malevolent, fallen angels of unclean spirit?

Well, religion raised its head, significantly, the three Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, specifically; Christianity.

Abrahamic religions
Abrahamic religions are the monotheistic faiths emphasizing and tracing their common origin to Abraham or recognizing a spiritual tradition identified with him. They are one of the three major divisions in comparative religion, along with Indian religions and East Asian religions. As of the early 21st century, it was estimated that 54% of the world's population (3.8 billion people) considered themselves adherents of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Abrahmic religions called the cult images idols, and the worshipping of them idolatry.
These statues and effigies, were manmade, with no divine power, no spirit, and were no longer considered beautiful.

“Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made”.
. Isaiah 2.8, reflected in Isaiah 17.8.

The above was stated by Isaiah, the 8th century BCE Jewish prophet, who gave his name, to the Book of Isaiah, Old Testament.

The term daimon, acquired much negativity with the Septuagint Bible, the Greek Old Testament translation of the Hebrew bible.

This could literally have been a case of “Lost in translation”, as was the case when the  The New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Apocrypha from Greek and Latin in 1611, and became The King James Bible.

  The Greek word daimon, was translated as the Greek word “Diabolos”, devil, in English.

The King James Bible
The King James Bible

Saint Paul or, Saul of Tarsus, as he is also known, and who converted from Judaism to Christianity, after experiencing an epiphany, on the road to Damascus, considered the daimons of Greek and Roman history, to be malevolent beings, and the first thing converted Gentiles needed to do, was stop worshiping these evil creatures.

Saint_Paul. Apostle of the Gentiles  Bartolomeo_Montagna
Saint_Paul. Apostle of the Gentiles

The late Romans, by this time, believed daimons could take on human form, starting plagues and riots.

In contrast, Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, theologian and philosopher, the most important church father in Western Christianity, considered daimons to be purely psychological, with the ability to possess a man, and cause illusions.

As was often the case, church fathers, had a mania for studying non-Christian ancient authors, poo pooing their works, declaring them to be heresy.

 Saint Augustine was no different, after writing his book Confessions, in which he describes his life, before he “Saw the light”, as one of debauchery and begs for atonement, Augustine goes on to ridicule the works of his fellow African author, Apuleius of Madauros.

Saint Augustine, in another of his books,The City of God ridicules Apuleius’s book “Metamorphoses”, (The only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety, an imaginative, irreverent, and amusing work that relates the ludicrous adventures of one Lucius, who experiments with magic and is accidentally turned into an ass), calling it

“The Golden Ass”

Augustine specifically ridicules Apulieius’s believe that daimons are;

 “Iintermediate powers of a divine order”,

Augustine states, that the only Intermediate power, is Jesus Christ.

Saint Augustine Caravaggio 1600
Saint Augustine
Caravaggio 1600

Today, daimons take the leading role, in cults and the occult, where they are recognized as evil, with the power to posses living creatures.

Mischievous Pan, jolly satyr of ancient Greece, has been replaced by Baphomet, a pagan deity, a product of Christian folklore revived in the 19th century as a figure of occultism & Satanism.

 It first appeared in 11th & 12th century as a corruption of "Mahomet" or "Muhammad" & later appeared as a pagan idol in trial transcripts of the Inquisition of 14th century Knights Templar

 It since been associated with a "Sabbatic Goat", or Satan; representing duality of male & female, Heaven & Hell, night & day, as above so below signified by raised right arm & downward left.


Where daimons are concerned, Guardian Angels have been replaced by Fallen Angels, and that thing on your shoulder, call it an angel, call it your conscience,
 well, watch out, it might just possess you, in the worst way possible!

 To learn, and understand more about Greece, and Greek mythology, you can't go wrong with "Gods, Demigods and Demons"  a concise, yet wide-ranging handbook of Greek mythology, an introduction to the great myths of ancient Greece.

 Here are the gods of the Olympian pantheon, the demigods, demons, heroes, and many of the best-loved (as well as lesser-known) cycles, fables and nature myths.

  Readable and informative, it conveys the significance of Greek mythology and its place at the core of Western culture. It evokes the majesty, as well as the all-too-human foibles, of the Greek deities and their acolytes.

 Whether they find themselves caught up by the single combat of Hector and Achilles before the looming walls of Troy; or find themselves transported, like Odysseus, by the haunting song of the Sirens; or are thrilled by the quest of Jason and his Argonauts for the fabled Golden Fleece - enthusiasts of myth and ancient history will discover many stories to enjoy here.

 "Gods, Demigods and Demons" is both a helpful guide and a one-stop resource that can be consulted again and again. It will prove an indispensable companion to the world of the ancient Greeks and the gods they worshiped.

More Glorious Greek Words

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