Sirens are often mistakenly thought of as the monstrous counter-part to the mermaid, evil temptresses lurking in the sea foam, waiting to lure innocent sailors to their death with their songs. This was not so in the classical tradition. In Homer’s Odyssey during Odysseus’s long journey home, Circe warns him that he must pass the island of the Sirens, and we learn that they are not semi-aquatic. Instead she tells us that they stay on their island, singing songs in their meadow while piles of bones rot beside them. In Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica despite being warned of the dangers, the men start to hear their song and one of the men, Butes, quickly scrambles over board and swims to the island. Just as he begins to reach shore, the waters seize him, and he is drowned. A fate, we are assured, that was much kinder than that which was waiting for him on the island.
Sirens are in fact half-avian, their hybrid bird nature responsible for bestowing them with such beautiful voices. Ovid tells us that the Sirens were the daughters of Achelous, the river god. They were also companions to Proserpina, (Greek: Persephone) and were her playmates and chaperones the fateful date she was abducted by Pluto (Greek: Hades). The girls joined the search for Proserpina, and unable to find her asked for the gift of flight so they could search for her across the oceans. The gods gifted them with the features of birds, yet retaining their human faces and innocent beauty.
The girls – now Sirens – searched the world, singing a mesmerizing song of lament while they traveled. When Proserpina was finally found, stripped of her innocence, and unable to return from the underworld except for a brief period each year, the Sirens settled on an island and continued to sing their song of sadness.
While sailor’s tales of caution warned against the lure of the Sirens, the song was not meant as one of temptation. Their song was one of sadness for a lost companion, and its emotional authenticity was what made it so alluring. While the distraction may have caused men to wreck their ships upon the islands rocky shores, there is little to suggest that the Sirens had any malicious intent. Even those men that bodily scrambled up the cliffs of the island did not meet death at the hands of the Sirens. Instead they stayed, mesmerized by their song until they died from dehydration or hunger. The piles of bones, littering the island while the flesh rotted from them might sound grotesque, but the Sirens never interfered with, nor collected them. Instead they remained absorbed in their collective grief, wailing songs of despair for their lost sister.
Do the Siren’s deserve their reputation, or is it the sailor’s themselves that should take responsibility for their own actions and inability to curb their libido? The Sirens never intended the consequences of their songs, in fact, they seemed somewhat oblivious to them. They had devoted their lives to mourning the lost innocence of their sister, and in doing so kept their own, making them far from the seductress image they were unfairly given. So, who mourns for the Sirens?
But Achelous’ daughters, why do you,
as sirens, have birds’ feathers and birds’ feet – and features like a girl’s? Is it because
you, Sirens skilled in song, had been among
the band of friends who joined Proserpina [Persephone]
when she was gathering spring flowers near Enna?
For after you – in vain – had searched all lands
for her, so that the waves might also witness
that search for the one you loved, you voiced a plea
to be allowed to glide above the sea,
using your arms as oars to beat the air.
You found the gods were well disposed to answer:
your limbs were wrapped – at once – in golden feathers.
But you were mesmerizing, suasive singers,
born to entrance the ears; and that your lips
not lose that gift, each one of you was left
with young girl’s features and a human voice.
The Metamorphoses of Ovid (Book V), a new verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum