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The Sirens in Greek mythology

Updated on September 1, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Sirens of Greek Mythology

The Sirens are some of the most famous figures to appear in the tales of Ancient Greece, and were famous for luring mariners to their deaths through their songs; the Sirens in Greek mythology really were beautiful and deadly.

The Background Story of the Sirens

In Greek mythology, almost every element of the Ancient World was said to have had a deity or other mythical creature associated with it; these figures would help explain why the world worked.

One part of Ancient Greece that seemingly had more than its fair share of linked figures was the areas of water. Each river would have a Potamoi, a river god, associated with it; every lake and spring would have a nymph; whilst the oceans would have gods and nymphs in abundance.

The more dangerous elements of the world’s water would have a monster associated with it, giving rise to the likes of Ceto, the Gorgons and the Graeae. It was into the grouping of dangerous areas of water that the Sirens were put.

The Sirens by Henrietta Rae (1903)

Henrietta Rae (1859–1928) PD-art-100
Henrietta Rae (1859–1928) PD-art-100 | Source

The Story of the Sirens in Greek Mythology

In the ancient sources, the Sirens were generally considered to be the daughters of the river god, Achelous. The mother of the Sirens is less clear cut, as the Muses, Melpomene and Terpsichore, or Sterope, the sister of Oeneus, are all named by one or more of these same sources.

There is no clear cut figure on how many Sirens in Greek mythology there were; as the different ancient sources state two, three, four or five sisters. When the Greek and Roman sources are also looked at together, ten names can be ascertained, with the most commonly used being Aglaope, Peisinoe, and Thelxiepeia.

The Sirens and Persephone

Initially, the Sirens were very similar to other water nymphs, including the Oceanids and the Nereids, with their role simply being the attendants and playmates of Persephone, the goddess daughter of Demeter.

One day though, Hades ascended from his underworld domain, and abducted Persephone; Hades wishing to make Persephone his wife. A distraught Demeter searched high and low for her daughter, and to aide her, she transformed the Sirens, by providing them with wings, in order that a greater area could be covered.

In some variations of the story, Demeter transforms the Sirens into bird-women, because they had not prevented Persephone’s abduction by Demeter’s brother.

A Siren Alone

Edward Armitage (1817–1896) PD-art-100
Edward Armitage (1817–1896) PD-art-100 | Source

The Sirens by Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100
Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

The Appearance of the Sirens in Greek Mythology

A whole range of descriptions of the Sirens in Greek mythology exist.

Before the abduction of Persephone, the Sirens were simply beautiful young maidens, and even the addition of wings did little to diminish their beauty. At the other end of the scale, the curse of Demeter transformed the Sirens into birds, who only had the heads of women.

A romanticised version of the story would see the beautiful women with wings, transformed once again into beautiful women, devoid of wings. This last transformation occurring when the Sirens competed against the Muses to see who had the most beautiful voices; the Muses won, and so the wings of the Sirens were plucked out.

Of course, any description in ancient sources would only be supposition, for it was said that after the abduction of Persephone, no one ever saw a Siren and lived to tell the tale. The beautiful songs of the Sirens, being do irresistible that anyone who came close to them would be killed on the rocks that surrounded their home.

The Sirens Find a New Home

Persephone was eventually located, but she was now destined to spend half the year in the underworld, and now no longer had any need for the Sirens as attendants.

Roman writers would tell of the Sirens living on three rocky islands known as Sirenum scopuli, whilst others gave an island location of Anthemoessa, as the sisters’ new home.

There is no definitive location for either Sirenum scopuli or Anthemoessa. Anthemoessa has been identified with both Capri, and the volcanic island of Ischia; whilst Sirenum scopuli has been linked with the Sirenuse or Gallos islands off the Amalfi coast, or the promontory which is Sicily’s Capo Peloro.

No matter where the location was, the home of the Sirens was described as being surrounded by cliffs and hidden rocks.

Encounters with Sirens

Despite their fame, the Sirens only appear in two major Greek mythological tales; once when Jason crosses their path, and then when Odysseus does likewise.

The Argo, with Jason and the other Argonauts onboard, encounter the Sirens during their quest for the Golden Fleece. Amongst the Argonauts though was Orpheus, the master musician, and so as they came close to the island of the Sirens, Jason had Orpheus play his beautiful music loudly; the song of the Sirens was effectively drowned out.

Despite the work of Orpheus, Butes still heard the Sirens’ song, and threw himself overboard, but before h could come to harm, Aphrodite rescued him, and transported him safely to Sicily.

Odysseus would also have to travel near to the home of the Sirens as he and his men returned from Troy. Odysseus had been warned by the sorceress Circe about how to avoid the deathly song of the Sirens, and so each of the crew blocked their ears with wax. Odysseus though was determined to hear the Sirens sing, and so he had his crew tie him to he mainmast, and ordered them not to release him, until they were well clear of the island. As none of the crew heard the Sirens, their ship was not sailed on to the deadly rocks.

Death of the Sirens in Greek Mythology

It is commonly thought that the Sirens committed suicide after Odysseus encounter with them; a prophecy having been previously made that if anyone heard the Sirens and lived, then the Sirens themselves would perish.

Odysseus was of course the second person to have heard the Sirens and lived though, as Butes had survived his encounter a generation before Odysseus.

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