The Siren in Greek Mythology and Modern Times
What Is A Siren?
Sirens are mythological creatures originating in Greece. The sirens were once thought to have been goddesses, but may have fallen from their position among the Greek pantheon after some unknown misdeed. Sirens are known to have lived on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and they produced such a beautifully seductive song that they would lure weary sailors into dangerous waters and onto jagged rocks inevitably causing the sailors' untimely deaths. In the older writings, the sirens were said to have the head of a woman and the body of a bird. This belief in the siren's appearance is demonstrated in the painting to the upper right.
Some of the Greek mythology states that the Sirens were punished by the Goddess Demeter, after they were unable to find and rescue Demeter's kidnapped daughter, Persephone. The sirens were turned into half-bird creatures and banished to an uninhabited island in the Mediterranean. No one is sure exactly which island this is, or if it ever really existed.
The main discrepancy in these sirens myths is how many Sirens there actually were...some say two, some say three, and others say up to five Sirens total lived on this island and lured men to meet their doom. The most famous of the sirens were Pisinoe, Aglaope and Thelxiepi and they were said to be daughters of a river god named Achelous. Each of these particular sirens played a specific instrument - one played a lyre, another the harp and the third would sing the infamous, bewitching sirens' songs.
Throughout mythological history, there has only been two tales in which lucky men have escaped their rocky deaths from the enchanting sirens' songs. One of those sirens tales was that of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus was smart enough to demand his men to stuff balls of wax into their ears while approaching and passing the Sirens' island; however, Odysseus was also a very adventurous man, so he had himself tied to the mast in order to hear the sirens' music. Why would he have to be tied down? Well, if the ship wasn't going to be sucked into the rocky waters of the Sirens' island, there were tales that men would dive off of their ships to get to the Sirens, still leading to their deaths by way of the sharp rocks off the coast of the island.
Another one of the "escape the sirens" tales was that of Jason and the Argonauts. The men's brush with death came very swiftly, but they were blessed enough to have a very talented and intelligent musician on board their ship...Orpheus. Orpheus bravely and effortlessly played an undulating song loud and beautifully enough that it drowned out the sounds of the Sirens' instruments of destruction. I would have given Orpheus a pay raise for sure and a free spot on every one of my voyages thereafter!
The Mediterranean Sea
Are Sirens Shapeshifters?
Sirens are mentioned in The Odyssey as being bird-women - women with the wings and songs of birds. However, in later mythology and folklore, the Siren somehow morphs into what we know as the modern day image of a mermaid. Is it possible the Sirens were actually shapeshifting beings? The Spanish word for mermaid is Sirena. Did this word come before the Sirens of mythology or after? This might be the key to understanding whether the Sirens were shapeshifters and could turn into mermaids on command or whether humans decided to change their image from bird-women to merfolk.
If indeed the Sirens were shapeshifters, it would explain why they had the ability to turn into birds and fly but also turn into half-fish half-women creatures and swim. Mermaids are said by some to be fairy beings, and if this is the case, shapeshifting would come natural to them as fairies are known to be skilled shapeshifters. They are able to move between the worlds and therefore can change forms like we change our clothing.
The Modern Image of the Siren
Although the original tales consisted of Sirens being ladybirds of sorts, today's image of the Sirens have changed quite a bit. Sirens are depicted as mere mermaids in modern times. Although mermaids have very similar characteristics as Sirens what with the seductive qualities and musical ability to enchant the strongest of men, they do not share the same form of body.
This mermaid-type of Siren makes an appearance in one of the Harry Potter books and the movie. Although, the Sirens that debut in the movie are nothing like one would expect. The Harry Potter Sirens are scaly and downright hideous! This break in the traditional beauty of the Sirens is almost blasphemous. Maybe these sirens are the sea-sisters or cousins of the original Sirens? Maybe they are the same Sirens that were punished by Demeter, but later endured more punishment by Demeter?
The TV Channel FreeForm is currently releasing a show called Siren, that is supposedly a suspenseful thriller detailing a small town and its inhabitants that come in contact with a modern day mermaid. Though, she isn't quite as she seems and she may be closer in personality to the original Sirens of Greek mythology.
If you ever have a chance to read Homer's Odyssey, it is a great and classic read with intriguing illustrations of the Sirens. Or if you do not have the time to read this epic story, check out the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou. George Clooney is the star of this Depression-era flick that is a loose take on Homer's Odyssey. The Sirens mentioned in Homer's tale make an appearance in this movie, and the Sirens' singing is breathtakingly beautiful.
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© 2011 Nicole Canfield