Sirens are often mistakenly thought of as a monstrous counterpart 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; Sirens were in fact half-avian, and it was their hybrid bird nature that was responsible for bestowing them with such beautiful voices.
The Sirens did not start out as erotic temptresses; in fact, the Sirens who dated back to the Ancient Greek period weren’t sexual creatures at all. Described and depicted as having a swallow body with a female head, there was nothing feminine about their bodies, let alone anything sexual. Sirens seduced with their beautiful songs and the promise of knowledge and nothing else. The etymology of their name means to bind, or entangle, and that’s exactly what the Sirens did; their songs were spellbinding and entirely captivated those who would listen.
(Siren, depiction 340 -320 B.C.E., British Museum)
With the event of Christianity the Sirens took a hit to their reputation. Being cast in The Bible as some of the main inhabitants of the sin ridden city of Babylon they came to be associated with sexual wickedness and immorality. The Babylonian Sirens danced with demons and lived in temples of pleasure, where no doubt all sorts of scandalous sexual perversions were entertained.
Now beasts make their home there
and an empty echo is heard in the houses.
Sirens have their habitation there
and demons dance.
Onocentaurs dwell there
and hedgehogs breed in the halls.
– Isaiah 13:21-2 (Greek Translation 2nd Century AD)
But wild beasts shall rest there, and their houses shall be filled with serpents, and ostriches shall dwell there, and the hairy ones shall dance there: and owls shall answer one another there, in the houses thereof, and sirens in the temples of pleasure.
– Isaiah 13:21–2 (St. Jerome Translation 4th Century AD)
In the 8th century C.E.. the conflation with mermaids began to take root and the Siren began to display Piscean features. While not the only one, the Bestiary, Libra Monstorum was the first record where fish tails begin to replace the bird features. Here the Siren also began to take on some of their mermaid features, such as the association of feminine beauty, and the exposed female breasts:
Sirens are sea-girls, who deceive sailors with the outstanding beauty of their appearance and the sweetness of their song, and are most like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of the maiden, but have scaly fishes’ tails, with which they lurk in the sea
– Liber Monstrorum 8th Century AD
This marked the beginning of a long running identity crisis for the Siren that began in the Middle Ages, the worst of which is contained in the 10th Century Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Sura, where the Siren was inverted resulting in this rather unappealing specimen.
The fish vs. bird features confusion continued. Some of the artists were smart enough to hedge their bets so many of the manuscripts from the 10th century onward started creating Sirens that had both the wings of a bird and the tail of a fish, until eventually the Piscean version became the preference.
In the golden years of Hollywood, the word Siren experienced a comeback into the popular vernacular and the sexualized image was reinforced. Movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Jane Mansfield, Mae West, Rita Hayworth all began to be referred to as Sirens for their stunning beauty and sultry voices. This was also the era where a whole new role for women opened up on the silver screen: the Femme Fatale. These were attractive, self-sufficient women that were not dependent on husbands, nor interested in homemaking, children and picket fences like traditional women were expected to be. These women were mysterious, seductive and independent; they used their charms to enchant lovers, often making them lose all self-control and descend into the madness of obsession, often leading them into dangerous and potentially deadly situations. The two terms, Siren and Femme Fatale, became interlinked, and the negative connotations, demonization and blame that was attached to Femme Fatales crossed over as the narratives began to blend and new, negative archetypes of dominant and powerful women began to surface as villainous vamps, and man-eating she-devils
While there is no doubt that the traditional Sirens were instrumental in the death of many men, they definitely weren’t the man-eating monsters made out by later interpretations. Returning to the classical material we can see a sympathetic creature whose intention to cause harm to men is dubious at best.
The Sirens were virginal nymphs, and had every intention of staying that way. Many stories say they were the playmates, or handmaidens of Persephone before her abduction into the underworld by her uncle Hades. In the Argonautica they were born as the bird like creatures:
Once they tended Demeter’s noble daughter still unwed, and sang to her in chorus; and at that time they were fashioned in part like birds and in part like maidens to behold.
–The Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius 3rd Century BC
But other traditions say that Demeter cursed the girls; changing them into Sirens for not protecting her daughter from abduction. Others say that they begged the gods to be changed into birds, wanting wings to aid them in the search for their beloved lost companion. Either way, after it was revealed that Persephone had unwillingly been wed to her uncle and was lost to them forever, the Sirens took to the skies, eventually settling on a remote the island, wishing to be alone so they could mourn for their lost friend and sing their song of sadness.
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.
-The Metamorphoses, Ovid 1st Century C.E.
While sailor’s tales of caution warned against the lure of the Sirens, their song was not necessarily meant as one of temptation. Their song was one of sadness for a lost companion, and its emotional authenticity is what made it so alluring. Odysseus recounted that the Sirens had sung exactly what he wanted to hear, but it is questionable whether that was what the Sirens actually sung, or if it was the way men interpreted their song.
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. The Sirens never approached the boats; the men would hear the sound carried on the winds and either wreck their ships on the island’s rocky coast, or throw themselves overboard to swim ashore. For those that reached the island, their death was not caused by any violence from the Sirens. Instead the men just 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.
They sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. –The Odyssey, Homer 8th Century BC
Often from many had they taken away their sweet return, consuming them with wasting desire.
–The Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius 3rd Century BC
Do the Sirens deserve their reputation as killing monsters, or is it the sailors themselves that should take responsibility for their own actions and inability to curb their libido? The men were the ones that encroached on the island where the women had ensconced themselves to mourn the unfortunate loss of their sister. The men were the ones that intruded further, swimming towards the women and creeping into the meadows where they sang. The men were the ones that remained in the meadow, forfeiting their wives and children, while they starved themselves to death in the pursuit of beauty.
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. The virginal maidens are far from the seductress image they were unfairly given. Why should the Sirens be condemned and re-invented into monsters for what boils down to these men’s poor choices? Who out there will mourn the Sirens?