Half-birds, half beautiful maidens, the Sirens were singing enchantresses capable of luring passing sailors to their islands, and, subsequently, to their doom. Daughters of the river god Achelous and a Muse, they were fated to die if anyone should survive their singing. When Odysseus passed them by unharmed, they hurled themselves into the sea and were drowned.
Family, Number and Dwelling Place
Traditionally, the Sirens were daughters of the river god Achelous and a Muse; it depends on the source which one, but it was undoubtedly one of these three: Terpsichore, Melpomene, or Calliope. However, according to the great tragedian Euripides, the Sirens’ mother was actually one of the Pleiades, Sterope.
In Homer, only two nameless Sirens are mentioned. Later authors usually talk about three, naming them in any number of ways. It would seem that Theixiope, Aglaope, and Parthenope are the three names one encounters with the highest frequency.
In any case, most agree that they lived on three small rocky islands, called Sirenum scopuli by the Romans. It was said that the Sirens’ dwelling place was a ghastly sight to behold: a great heap of bones lay all around them, with the flesh of the victims still rotting off the dead bodies…
In the “Odyssey,” Homer says nothing about the Sirens’ outward appearance, but one can infer from the text that he has in mind humanlike creatures, if not beautiful maidens. However, at a later date, this all changed and both poets and artists started depicting the Sirens in a similar fashion to how the Harpies were usually portrayed – that is, as creatures with the body of a bird and a woman’s face.
Quite a few stories tried shedding some light on this transformation, but the most famous two are related to the abducting of Persephone, to whom it was said that they had been either servants or companions. According to the first one, Demeter turned the Sirens into bird-like monsters because they had failed to help her daughter. The second one is much more flattering to them: in this case, the aggrieved Sirens asked Demeter for wings themselves, so that they can help her search for Persephone better.
After Odysseus had made up his mind to leave Aeaea and head back to Ithaca, the love-stricken Circe had no choice but to let him go. However, on going away, she warned him of the dangers that yet awaited him on his journey.
“First you will come to the Sirens,” she told him, “who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.”
There was only one way for a sailor to pass the Sirens unharmed; and that was by not hearing them sing. So, advised by Circe, Odysseus ordered each member of his crew to stuff his own ears with beeswax. As for himself, he opted for a much riskier solution.
Ever the adventurer, he had himself bound to the mast, instructing his sailors to tie him even tighter if he starts begging them to be unfastened or tries to break loose by himself. Ever the adventurer, Odysseus didn’t want to miss the opportunity to experience the luring song of the Sirens and hear what the fuss is all about.
As enchanting as their singing might have been to mortals, the Sirens seems to have been no match to divine musicians. The Argonauts, for example, had no problem whatsoever to evade these terrible creatures, since they had none other than Orpheus on board. The very moment he heard their voices, the divine poet drew his lyre and started strumming a tune so loud and lovely that the bewitching song of the Sirens was instantaneously drowned out.
Truth be told, even a second of the Sirens’ singing was enough to lure one especially sensitive member of the Argonauts’ crew – a certain Boutes of Athens – to jump overboard and start swimming towards them. Fortunately, he was saved by Aphrodite who, subsequently, took him as her lover and bore him a son, Eryx.
The Sirens were never more humiliated than when Hera persuaded them to challenge the Muses to a singing contest. Unsurprisingly, the Muses won, and, as a punishment, they plucked out the Sirens’ feathers and used them to make crowns for themselves.
The Death of the Sirens
It was said that the Sirens were fated to die if any mortal should hear them sing and live to tell the story. So, once Odysseus passed them unharmed, disheartened by their humbling defeat, the Sirens hurled themselves into the sea and bothered no man ever again.
Find out how Odysseus managed to outlive the song of the Sirens in the 12th book of Homer’s “Odyssey.” You’ll find the episode with Orpheus in the fourth book of Apollonius’ epic poem “Argonautica.” As for the contest with the Muses, consult the ancient geographer Pausanias.