The Siren - Legendary Creature of Greek Mythology -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

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 Sevillean 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

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