Siren (mythology)

In Greek mythology, the sirens (Ancient Greek: singular: Σειρήν, Seirḗn; plural: Σειρῆνες, Seirênes) were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. It is also said that they can even charm the winds.[1] Roman poets placed them on some small islands called Sirenum scopuli. In some later, rationalized traditions, the literal geography of the "flowery" island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa,[2] is fixed: sometimes on Cape Pelorum and at others in the islands known as the Sirenuse, near Paestum, or in Capreae.[3] All such locations were surrounded by cliffs and rocks.

NAMA Sirène.jpg
Attic funerary statue of a siren, playing on a tortoiseshell lyre, c.  370 BC


Archaic perfume vase in the shape of a siren, c. 540 BC

The etymology of the name is contested. Robert S. P. Beekes has suggested a Pre-Greek origin.[4] Others connect the name to σειρά (seirá, "rope, cord") and εἴρω (eírō, "to tie, join, fasten"), resulting in the meaning "binder, entangler",[5][better source needed] i.e. one who binds or entangles through magic song. This could be connected to the famous scene of Odysseus being bound to the mast of his ship, in order to resist their song.[6]

The English word "siren", referring to a noise-making device, derives from the name.


Moaning siren statuette from Myrina, first century BC

Sirens were believed to look like a combination of women and birds in various different forms. In early Greek art, they were represented as birds with large women's heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps and lyres.

The seventh-century Anglo-Latin catalogue Liber Monstrorum says that sirens were women from their heads to their navels, and instead of legs they had fish tails.[7] The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, sirens had the form of sparrows, and below they were women or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women's faces.[8]

By the Middle Ages, the figure of the siren had transformed into the enduring mermaid figure.[9]

Originally, sirens were shown as male or female, but the male siren disappeared from art around the fifth century BC.[10]

The first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder discounted sirens as a pure fable, "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."[11] In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, "The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners."

Odysseus and the Sirens, eponymous vase of the Siren Painter, c. 475 BC

English artist William Etty portrayed the sirens as young women in fully human form in his 1837 painting The Sirens and Ulysses, a practice copied by future artists.[12]


Although a Sophocles fragment makes Phorcys their father,[13] when sirens are named, they are usually as daughters of the river god Achelous,[14] either by the Muse Terpsichore,[15] Melpomene[16] or Calliope[17] or lastly by Sterope, daughter of King Porthaon of Calydon.[18]

In Euripides's play Helen (167), Helen in her anguish calls upon "Winged maidens, daughters of the Earth (Chthon)." Although they lured mariners, the Greeks portrayed the sirens in their "meadow starred with flowers" and not as sea deities. Epimenides claimed that the sirens were children of Oceanus and Ge.[19] Roman writers linked them more closely to the sea, as daughters of Phorcys.[20] Sirens are found in many Greek stories, notably in Homer's Odyssey.

List of sirensEdit

Their number is variously reported as from two to eight.[21] In the Odyssey, Homer says nothing of their origin or names, but gives the number of the sirens as two.[22] Later writers mention both their names and number: some state that there were three, Peisinoe, Aglaope and Thelxiepeia[23] or Aglaonoe, Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia;[24] Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia;[25] Apollonius followed Hesiod gives their names as Thelxinoe, Molpe, and Aglaophonos;[26] Suidas gives their names as Thelxiepeia, Peisinoe, and Ligeia;[27] Hyginus gives the number of the sirens as four: Teles, Raidne, Molpe, and Thelxiope;[28] Eustathius states that they were two, Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia;[29] an ancient vase painting attests the two names as Himerope and Thelxiepeia.

Their individual names are variously rendered in the later sources as Thelxiepeia/Thelxiope/Thelxinoe, Molpe, Himerope, Aglaophonos/Aglaope/Aglaopheme, Pisinoe/Peisinoë/Peisithoe, Parthenope, Ligeia, Leucosia, Raidne, and Teles.[30][31][32][33]

  • Molpe (Μολπή)
  • Thelxiepeia (Θελξιέπεια) or Thelxiope (Θελξιόπη) "eye pleasing")
Comparative table of sirens' names, number and parentage
Relation Names Sources
Homer Epimenides Hesiod Sophocles (Sch. on) Apollonius Lycophron Strabo Apollodorus Hyginus Servius Eustathius Suidas Tzetzes Vase painting Euripides
Alex. Tzet. Brunte Grant
Parentage Oceanus and Gaea
Achelous and Terpsichore
Achelous and Melpomene
Achelous and Sterope
Achelous and Calliope
Number 2
Individual name Thelxinoe or Thelxiope
Peisinoe or Pisinoe



The Siren of Canosa, statuette exposing psychopomp characteristics, late fourth century BC

According to Ovid (43 BC–17 AD), the sirens were the companions of young Persephone.[34] Demeter gave them wings to search for Persephone when she was abducted by Hades. However, the Fabulae of Hyginus (64 BC–17 AD) has Demeter cursing the sirens for failing to intervene in the abduction of Persephone. According to Hyginus, Sirens were fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs were able to pass by them.[35]

The MusesEdit

One legend says that Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded the sirens to enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won the competition and then plucked out all of the sirens' feathers and made crowns out of them.[36] Out of their anguish from losing the competition, writes Stephanus of Byzantium, the sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera ("featherless"), where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Leukai ("the white ones", modern Souda).[37]


In the Argonautica (third century BC), Jason had been warned by Chiron that Orpheus would be necessary in his journey.[38] When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their voices. One of the crew, however, the sharp-eared hero Butes, heard the song and leapt into the sea, but he was caught up and carried safely away by the goddess Aphrodite.


Odysseus was curious as to what the sirens sang to him, and so, on the advice of Circe, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he might beg. When he heard their beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they bound him tighter. When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus demonstrated with his frowns to be released.[39] Some post-Homeric authors state that the sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them, and that after Odysseus passed by they therefore flung themselves into the water and perished.[40]

Sirens and deathEdit

Odysseus and the Sirens, Roman mosaic, second century AD (Bardo National Museum)

Statues of sirens in a funerary context are attested since the classical era, in mainland Greece, as well as Asia Minor and Magna Graecia. The so-called "Siren of Canosa"—Canosa di Puglia is a site in Apulia that was part of Magna Graecia—was said to accompany the dead among grave goods in a burial. She appeared to have some psychopomp characteristics, guiding the dead on the afterlife journey. The cast terracotta figure bears traces of its original white pigment. The woman bears the feet, wings and tail of a bird. The sculpture is conserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, in Madrid.

The sirens were called the Muses of the lower world. Classical scholar Walter Copland Perry (1814–1911) observed: "Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption."[41] Their song is continually calling on Persephone.

Miniature illustration of a siren enticing sailors who try to resist her, from an English Bestiary, c. 1235

The term "siren song" refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad conclusion. Later writers have implied that the sirens were cannibals, based on Circe's description of them "lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones."[42] As linguist Jane Ellen Harrison (1850–1928) notes of "The Ker as siren": "It is strange and beautiful that Homer should make the sirens appeal to the spirit, not to the flesh."[43] The siren song is a promise to Odysseus of mantic truths; with a false promise that he will live to tell them, they sing,

Once he hears to his heart's content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all![44]

"They are mantic creatures like the Sphinx with whom they have much in common, knowing both the past and the future", Harrison observed. "Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm. The end of that song is death."[45] That the sailors' flesh is rotting away, suggests it has not been eaten. It has been suggested that, with their feathers stolen, their divine nature kept them alive, but unable to provide food for their visitors, who starved to death by refusing to leave.[46]

Christian belief and modern receptionEdit

Late antiquityEdit

By the fourth century, when pagan beliefs were overtaken by Christianity, the belief in literal sirens was discouraged. Although Saint Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate version of the bible, used the word sirens to translate Hebrew tannīm ("jackals") in the Book of Isaiah 13:22, and also to translate a word for "owls" in the Book of Jeremiah 50:39, this was explained by Ambrose to be a mere symbol or allegory for worldly temptations, and not an endorsement of the Greek myth.[47]

Middle AgesEdit

The early Christian euhemerist interpretation of mythologized human beings received a long-lasting boost from the Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville:

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.[48]

Italian poet Dante Alighieri depicts a siren in Canto 19 of Purgatorio, the second canticle of the Divine Comedy. Here, the pilgrim dreams of a female that is described as "stuttering, cross-eyed, and crooked on her feet, with stunted hands, and pallid in color."[49] It is not until the pilgrim "gazes" upon her that she is turned desirable and is revealed by herself to be a siren.[49] This siren then claims that she "turned Ulysses from his course, desirous of my / song, and whoever becomes used to me rarely / leaves me, so wholly do I satisfy him!"[49] Given that Dante did not have access to the Odyssey, the siren's claim that she turned Ulysses from his course is inherently false because the sirens in the Odyssey do not manage to turn Ulysses from his path.[50] Ulysses and his men were warned by Circe and prepared for their encounter by stuffing their ears full of wax,[50][51] except for Ulysses, who wishes to be bound to the ships mast as he wants to hear the siren's song.[51] Scholars claim that Dante may have "misinterpreted" the siren's claim from an episode in Cicero's De finibus.[50] The pilgrim's dream comes to an end when a lady "holy and quick"[49] who had not yet been present before suddenly appears and says, "O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?"[49] Virgil, the pilgrim's guide, then steps forward and tears the clothes from the siren's belly which, "awakened me [the pilgrim] with the stench that issued from it."[49] This marks ending the encounter between the pilgrim and the siren.

Early Modernity (1550-1800)Edit

By the time of the Renaissance, female court musicians known as courtesans filled the role of an unmarried companion, and musical performances by unmarried women could be seen as immoral. Seen as a creature who could control a man's reason, female singers became associated with the mythological figure of the siren, who usually took a half-human, half-animal form somewhere on the cusp between nature and culture.[52]

Sirens continued to be used as a symbol for the dangerous temptation embodied by women regularly throughout Christian art of the medieval era; however, in the 17th century, some Jesuit writers began to assert their actual existence, including Cornelius a Lapide, who said of woman, "her glance is that of the fabled basilisk, her voice a siren's voice—with her voice she enchants, with her beauty she deprives of reason—voice and sight alike deal destruction and death."[53] Antonio de Lorea also argued for their existence, and Athanasius Kircher argued that compartments must have been built for them aboard Noah's Ark.[54]

Late Modernity (1801-1900)Edit

Charles Burney expounded c. 1789, in A General History of Music: "The name, according to Bochart, who derives it from the Phoenician, implies a songstress. Hence it is probable, that in ancient times there may have been excellent singers, but of corrupt morals, on the coast of Sicily, who by seducing voyagers, gave rise to this fable."[55]

John Lemprière in his Classical Dictionary (1827) wrote, "Some suppose that the sirens were a number of lascivious women in Sicily, who prostituted themselves to strangers, and made them forget their pursuits while drowned in unlawful pleasures. The etymology of Bochart, who deduces the name from a Phoenician term denoting a songstress, favors the explanation given of the fable by Damm.[56] This distinguished critic makes the sirens to have been excellent singers, and divesting the fables respecting them of all their terrific features, he supposes that by the charms of music and song they detained travellers, and made them altogether forgetful of their native land."[57]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Scholiast on Homer, Odyssey 12.168 with Hesiod as the authority, translated by Evelyn-White
  2. ^ "We must steer clear of the sirens, their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers" is Robert Fagles's rendering of Odyssey 12.158–9.
  3. ^ Strabo i. 22; Eustathius of Thessalonica's Homeric commentaries §1709; Servius I.e.
  4. ^ Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 1316 f.
  5. ^ Cf. the entry in Wiktionary and the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  6. ^ Homer, Odyssey, book 12.
  7. ^ Orchard, Andy. "Etext: Liber monstrorum (fr the Beowulf Manuscript)". Archived from the original on 2005-01-18.
  8. ^ "Suda on-line". Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2010-01-30.
  9. ^ Mittman, Asa Simon; Dendle, Peter J (2016). The Ashgate research companion to monsters and the monstrous. London: Routledge. p. 352. ISBN 9781351894326. OCLC 1021205658.
  10. ^ "CU Classics – Greek Vase Exhibit – Essays – Sirens". Archived from the original on 2016-06-25. Retrieved 2017-10-20.
  11. ^ Pliny the Elder, Natural History X, 70.
  12. ^ Robinson, Leonard (2007). William Etty: The Life and Art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 9780786425310. OCLC 751047871.
  13. ^ Sophocles, fragment 861; Fowler, p. 31; Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales – Symposiacs, Moralia 9.14.6
  14. ^ Ovid XIV, 88.
  15. ^ Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.892; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 13.309; Tzetzes, Chiliades, 1.14, line 338 & 348
  16. ^ Apollodorus, Epitome 7.18; Hyginus, Fabulae Preface, 125 & 141; Tzetzes, Chiliades, 1.14, line 339 & 348
  17. ^ Servius, Commentary on Virgil's Aeneid 5.864
  18. ^ Apollodorus, 1.7.10
  19. ^ Epimenides, fr. 8, suppl = Fowler, p. 13 (2013)
  20. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 5.846
  21. ^ Page, Michael; Ingpen, Robert (1987). Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were. New York: Viking Penguin Inc. p. 211. ISBN 0-670-81607-8.
  22. ^ Homer, Odyssey 12.52
  23. ^ Apollodorus, Epitome 7.18; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 7l2
  24. ^ Tzetzes, Chiliades 6.40
  25. ^ Eustathius, l.c. cit.; Servius on Virgil, Georgics 4.562; Strabo, 5.246, 252; Lycophron, 720-726; Tzetzes, Chiliades 1.14, line 337 & 6.40
  26. ^ Scholia on Apollonius, 4.892 = Hesiod, Ehoiai fr. 47
  27. ^ Suda s.v. Seirenas
  28. ^ Apollodorus, Epitome 7.18; Hyginus, Fabulae Preface p. 30, ed. Bunte
  29. ^ Eustathius on Homer 1709
  30. ^ Linda Phyllis Austern, Inna Naroditskaya, Music of the Sirens, Indiana University Press, 2006, p.18
  31. ^ William Hansen, William F. Hansen, Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.307
  32. ^ Ken Dowden, Niall Livingstone, A Companion to Greek Mythology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p.353
  33. ^ Mike Dixon-Kennedy, Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology, ABC-Clio, 1998, p.281
  34. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses V, 551.
  35. ^ Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 141 (trans. Grant).
  36. ^ Lemprière 768.
  37. ^ Caroline M. Galt, "A marble fragment at Mount Holyoke College from the Cretan city of Aptera", Art and Archaeology 6 (1920:150).
  38. ^ Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica IV, 891–919.
  39. ^ Odyssey XII, 39.
  40. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 141; Lycophron, Alexandra 712 ff.
  41. ^ Perry, "The sirens in ancient literature and art", in The Nineteenth Century, reprinted in Choice Literature: a monthly magazine (New York) 2 (September–December 1883:163).
  42. ^ Odyssey 12.45–6, Fagles' translation.
  43. ^ Harrison 198
  44. ^ Odyssey 12.188–91, Fagles' translation.
  45. ^ Harrison, 199.
  46. ^ Liner notes to Fresh Aire VI by Jim Shey, Classics Department, University of Wisconsin
  47. ^ Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, Book 3, chap. 1, 4.
  48. ^ Grant, Robert McQueen (1999). Early Christians and Animals. London: Routledge, 120. Translation of Isidore, Etymologiae (c. 600–636 AD), Book 11, chap. 3 ("Portents"), 30.
  49. ^ a b c d e f Dante Alighieri (1996–2013). The divine comedy of Dante Alighieri. Robert M. Durling, Ronald L. Martinez. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-508740-6. OCLC 32430822.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date format (link)
  50. ^ a b c Lectura Dantis : Purgatorio. Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn, Charles Ross. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2008. ISBN 978-0-520-94052-9. OCLC 193827830.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  51. ^ a b Homero, s. IX a. C. (2004). Odisea. Carlos García Gual, John Flaxman. Madrid: Alianza. ISBN 84-206-7750-7. OCLC 57058042.
  52. ^ Dunbar, Julie C. (2011). Women, Music, Culture. Routledge. p. 70. ISBN 978-1351857451. Retrieved 9 August 2019.
  53. ^ Longworth, T. Clifton, and Paul Tice (2003). A Survey of Sex & Celibracy in Religion. San Diego: The Book Tree, 61. Originally published as The Devil a Monk Would Be: A Survey of Sex & Celibacy in Religion (1945).
  54. ^ Carlson, Patricia Ann (ed.) (1986). Literature and Lore of the Sea. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 270.
  55. ^ Austern, Linda Phyllis, and Inna Naroditskaya (eds.) (2006). Music of the Sirens. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 72.
  56. ^ Damm, perhaps Mythologie der Griechen und Römer (ed. Leveiow). Berlin, 1820.
  57. ^ Lemprière 768. Brackets in the original.


Further readingEdit

  • Siegfried de Rachewiltz, De Sirenibus: An Inquiry into Sirens from Homer to Shakespeare, 1987: chs: "Some notes on posthomeric sirens; Christian sirens; Boccaccio's siren and her legacy; The Sirens' mirror; The siren as emblem the emblem as siren; Shakespeare's siren tears; brief survey of siren scholarship; the siren in folklore; bibliography"
  • "Siren's Lament", a story based around one writer's perception of sirens. Though most lore in the story does not match up with lore we associate with the wide onlook of sirens, it does contain useful information.

External linksEdit