Greek Sculpture of a Siren, Athens
Athens National Archaeological Museum: NM 6236
This beautiful marble sculpture of a siren, a figure from Greek mythology, once graced a tomb in the ancient city of Athens.
I've dusted off my classical studies training to dig up some information on this statue, since I sometimes use her face as my calling card. Who is she? When she was she carved? Why did the ancient Greeks depict sirens on grave monuments?
If you're a student trying to identify this sculpture, or just someone who's seen this photo which I use as my avatar on several online discussion forums, let me tell you about her. She's one of my favorite sculptures in the Athens National Archaeological Museum.
Photo Credit: Retouched/enhanced from high-res photo by Marsyas, Wikimedia Commons.
Funerary Sculpture of Siren - Found at the Kerameikos Cemetary, Athens
Photo Taken in Athens National Archaeological Museum.
© 2005 Ellen Brundige. Some Rights Reserved.
This siren was one of of a symmetrical pair each other on either end of a wall enclosing a young aristocrat's tomb just outside the Kerameikos (potters') district of ancient Athens.
She plays a tortoise-shell lyre tucked under her arm, which would originally have had bronze strings. Her right hand would have held a plectrum, a pick. Her neighboring siren played the flute. They are singing a lament for the dead warrior. The feathers of her wings and other details were originally painted.
Pentelic marble is the same sort of stone as the Parthenon. That soft golden-pink glow is typical, although my photograph doesn't do it justice. Everything about this statue conveys a sense of peace and melancholy. She's not very big, as I recall, just a few feet high.
Athens NM 6236
What: Siren Statue
Type: Funerary Sculpture
Where: Kerameikos, Athens
Part of Monument of Dexileos,veteran of Corinthian War
Material: Pentelic Marble
Date: ca. 370 BCE [Source]
Sirens in Greek Funerary Sculpture: Why?
Rather More Dangerous Than Angels
Winged women appear in the funerary art of many cultures. Paintings or sculptures of the winged goddesses Isis and Nephthys guard the mummies of many Egyptian pharaohs, including King Tut. The Etruscan death-goddess Vanth is a kindly or sometimes terrifying figure in Etruscan tomb frescoes. Angels are common in western cemeteries to this day.
The sirens of Greek funerary art are more ambivalent figures, although to our eyes they convey the same tone of sadness, maternal comfort and otherworldly benevolence. In Greek mythology, sirens are deadly monsters with the heads of beautiful women but the bodies of birds, said to lure sailors to their deaths with their beauty and enchanting voices.
In Homer's Odyssey Book XII, Odysseus hears the Sirens singing of how they know all the sufferings of the Trojans and Greeks. They are well-acquainted with death, yet that is no guarantee of pity. Had he not been warned by Circe to plug his men's ears with wax and had himself bound to the mast (above right; click for larger view), he would've ordered his ship too close and been torn to pieces.
Sirens are often confused with harpies, another form of bird-women in Greek mythology. In older representations, however, harpies are ugly, unkempt, demon-like monsters who snatch at food, whereas sirens are dangerous for their enchanting beauty and sweet voices. Also, harpies are related to spirits of wind and storm, whereas sirens are sea-coast dwellers, more like mermaids in habits if not appearance.
So why put sirens in a cemetery?
In many cultures, things which are frightening, lethal or dangerous are also paradoxically associated with healing and resurrection. Beings with the power to kill are thought to have powers over life and death. Moreover, sirens soothe with their sweet music, so that their hapless victims never feel death's talons. I think that is the reason for sirens appearing in ancient Greek grave art, despite being terrifying monsters in mythology.
The Funerary Monument of Dexileos
More Information on This Sculpture
This Siren was one of a pair flanking the monument of Dexileos, a young warrior who died in Athens' wars with Corinth in the 4th century BCE. Just outside the city walls, Dexileos' tomb is set back from a street leading out of the Kerameikos, the potters' district of Athens.
At right is the centrepiece of the monument, a gravestone portrait of Dexileos as a courageous knight on horseback. Beneath is an epitaph in Greek verse, translated:
Dexileos, son of Thorikos,
He was born in the archonship of Teisandros [414/3 B.C.E.]:
He died in that of Euboulides [394/3 B.C.E.],
at Corinth, one of the five horsemen.
-- trans. by J. Hurwit, AJA (111) 2007
There are a number of other fine funerary sculptures of this style in the Athens National Museum and the Kerameikos Museum. This tradition came to an end in 317, when sumptuary laws were passed banning extravagant grave monuments.
Photo Credit for Stele of Dexileos: Templar52, Wikimedia Commons
Useful Links For Art History Students - Resources Used to Research This Page
- File:NAMA Sirene.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
High-Resolution photo of this sculpture in Wikimedia Commons; includes French and English translations of the museum plaque (I think) giving detailed information on the statue.
- Another photo of the Siren Sculpture
This photo of Athens NM 6236 shows the left hand more clearly; obviously the limbs of the lyre were carved separately (of marble?) and have been lost like the strings. Or were they bronze, too?
- Kerameikos, Attractions of Athens, Greece
Short but good Greek travel site with photos of the Kerameikos district and cemetery and an overview of its history.
- Quicktime VR Panorama of the site of Dexileos' Tomb
There isn't much there now, but here is a virtual panorama of the site where this statue was found -- a very lovely spot!
- The Hegeso, Dexileos and Ilissos and other Stelai
Michael Lahanas' website on ancient Greek art, architecture and mythology includes a good write-up, translations, and photos of several well-known Kerameikos funerary sculptures.
- Article: "The Problem of Dexileos" by Jeffrey Hurwit
10-page scholarly article in the American Journal of Archaeology on Greek funerary sculpture, focused on the Dexileos Stele. Some photos of the site and passing info on the sirens.
- Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.05
Archaeologist Brunilde Ridgway discussing older funerary sculptures in the same area; she mentions the sirens in passing.
© 2010 Ellen Brundige