Sirens have always been considered a threat to sailors, luring their ships to rocks and the mariners to their deaths.
Asides from their sway over seamen, some old myths attest to the Sirens powers of prophesy.
Origin of the Sirens
Sirens, or Seirenes, didn’t always have chimera characteristics. In their early life they were Nereids or sea nymphs. They were the attendants of Persephone, daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter. When Hades, ruler of the Underworld, kidnapped Persephone, the Sirens went looking for her.
To facilitate their search or to punish them for failing to protect her daughter, depending on which version one reads, Demeter gave the Sirens the bodies of birds.
The Sirens’ captivating song, used to attract the sailors to their doom, was at first the tune they intoned in calling for Persephone.
There is no agreement on how many Sirens there were. Homer state that there were two, others mention up to ten, but the most accepted figure is three. One of the sisters played the flute, another the lyre and the third one sang. Their names were Peisinoe, meaning seductress; Thelchtereia, signifying enchantress; and Aglaope, meaning wonderful face.
Eventually, the Sirens moved to a Mediterranean island full of flowers with a rocky coast, where their enthralling singing could entice the mariners.
Evolution of the Sirens’ Appearance
As the story of the Sirens spread, their form began to change. At first, the total upper body of a female became attached to the bird, kind of a flying centaur. The second step on their progression was that the Siren had a female body with the wings and feet of a bird.
In due course the sirens got to have sexy, beautiful female bodies and the tail of a fish. They became mermaids. The mermaid connection became so strong that in the Romance Languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian – as well as in Polish the word for mermaid is that language’s equivalent of Siren.
While not immortals, the Sirens lived as long as the mortal who heard their song did not pass by them. However, there are at least two stories in which the sailors do get by and the Sirens do not die naturally.
The Ones that Got Away
One of the tales in which the mariners get away is that of Jason and the Argonauts. The wise Centaur Chiron told Jason that he would need the help of the great musician Orpheus to get past the Sirens. Sure enough when they came close to the Sirens’ island and the beautiful chimeras began to sing, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played a much more beautiful melody which protected his companions.
And then there was cunning Odysseus who in his trip back home from the Trojan War – the Odyssey -, wanted to hear the Sirens’ song. Odysseus poured wax on his companion’s ears and then had himself tied up to the mast of the ship so he wouldn’t swim to the Siren’s when he heard their song. Upset that somebody got away from them, the Siren’s committed suicide by throwing themselves into the sea.
To this day, Sirens are a symbol of female sneakiness and the temptation of physical beauty.