The year was 1891, and the Australian press was in uproar. The National Gallery of Victoria had just purchased the latest work by British pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse, an imaginative interpretation of The Odyssey, and critics were scandalized by the vision at hand. Unlike his contemporaries, whose depictions of Sirens from ancient Greek mythology were defined by feminine charm and bodily enticement, Waterhouse’s unveiling of Ulysses and the Sirens was less of an erotic fantasy than a harrowing nightmare.
Why, the critics wondered, had Waterhouse deviated from Homeric legend and depicted the Sirens as monstrous winged creatures? Why were they hovering ominously over the frightened crew instead of combing their golden hair on the sea shore? Above all, where was the seduction, the mystery, the intrigue that was driving the seafaring hero, Odysseus, to distraction? The horror of the scene was roundly written off by one angry Melbourne citizen, who complained that Ulysses resembled a criminal “exposed to the attacks of furious birds of prey.” Waterhouse’s adaptation, it was agreed, did not live up to the beautiful femme fatales of Romanticism that the public had come to expect.
But Waterhouse’s rendition wasn’t based on nothing. To fully understand the origins of the Sirens, we have to travel back to Ancient Greece, where, according to tradition, winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.
Ancient stories of the Sirens' parentage differ greatly. They were most widely depicted as the daughters of the river god, Achelous, and one of the nine Muses—either Terpsichore, Melpomene, or Calliope. In some myths, the Sirens were human companions of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, who were transformed into winged monsters by her mother, Demeter, after they failed to prevent Persephone's abduction by Hades. But according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in the late 1st century, the Sirens beseeched the gods for wings, who granted their wish to assist them in their search for Persephone.
The most famous depiction of the Sirens in classical mythology, of course, comes from Homer’s Odyssey, composed around the end of the 8th century BCE. It is in this first literary record that the famed poet tells of how Circe, the goddess of magic, cautions Odysseus and his crew about the Sirens who inhabit a small island near Scylla and Charybdis. These creatures, with their irresistible voices drifting across the waves, were capable of luring ships completely off course, leaving unfortunate sailors to rot in the flowered meadows over which they flew.
Undeterred, Odysseus orders his crew to block their ears with beeswax and bind him tightly to the ship’s mast so he would not be compelled to jump into the treacherous waters when they encountered the creatures. As they approached the island, melodious voices began to beckon Odysseus with stories of the war at Troy. Enchanted by their song, he rants, raves, and strains at the ropes; but the ship sails on until they have passed the dangerous coast. Thwarted by Odysseus’ ability to resist their song, some tales say that the sirens threw themselves into the dark waters of the Aegean sea to perish.
Homer never describes the physical appearance of the Sirens. Instead, he focuses on their “honey-sweet” voices and intimate knowledge of “the pains Argives and Trojans suffered in the wide land of Troy.” In early Greek art, however, there are rare examples that provide clues to the Sirens' physicality, such as a Corinthian aryballos (oil flask) from the Greek archaic period, which depicts three Sirens as black birds of prey, hovering menacingly above Odysseus’ ship. An archaic perfume vase from c. 540 BC, meanwhile, shows a human-faced Siren in songbird form, while a 6th century terracotta Kylix (two-handled vase) shows a similar creature turned into a red and black motif.
Many scholars today believe that the Sirens were considered to be manifestations of the human soul after death, and duplicitous tricksters. “The bird-woman became a death-demon, a soul sent to fetch a soul, a Ker that lures a soul, a Siren,” writes Jane Ellen Harrison in her essay, "The Ker as Siren.
One can only speculate as to why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but avian symbolism in the Greek imagination was relatively common. In ancient mythology, birds were used to represent everything from oracles, enchantresses, messengers of deities, and mediators between the human world and the supernatural realm.
Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea." Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.
In the 19th-century, an abundance of Victorian mermaid iconography furthered this representation of Sirens. These creatures were ravishingly beautiful and sensuous in the way they moved to seduce passing sailors. Take the comely water nymphs in Herbert James Draper’s Ulysses and the Sirens (1909), or the voluptuous creatures of Léon Belly’s Odysseus and the Sirens (1867). They were also often depicted with harps and lyres, like the maiden in Edward Armitage’s 1888 painting The Siren, who peacefully reclines atop a rock as she surveys the wreckage before her. These are the threatening yet sexy mermaid-like Sirens that we’re familiar with today.
The ancient Greek Siren is a world away from the beguiling mermaids of the nineteenth century. These creatures exclusively “appeal to the spirit, not the flesh,” and interestingly, appear frequently in a funerary context, Harrison writes. Here, there is no trace of seduction, for their sole purpose is to mourn, lament, and act as apotropaic charms over tombs. "They are mantic creatures like the Sphinx with whom they have much in common, knowing both the past and the future", Harrison adds. "Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm. The end of that song is death."
When you look closely, there is plenty of evidence underscoring the Sirens’ connection to the underworld. There are statuettes from the first century BC discovered in Myrina, ancient pottery vases illustrating Odysseus’ adventure, and a Roman mosaic from the second century AD depicting three hybrid bird-women unleashing their fatal song. In his book The Song of the Sirens, Pietro Pucci asserts that, “These singers that have the same knowledge as the muses of the Iliad are really turned to the past, live in a spatial and temporal remoteness which is frightening, since their musean memory becomes forgetfulness of the present, and spells only grief, pity, and death.” The true allure of the Siren, then, lies in their status as in-between creatures, bridging the human world and the unknown afterlife with a powerful knowledge that both attracts and repels the onlooker.
These clues toward the Siren's past life as a death-spirit begin to reveal how the nature of the Siren's power has long been misunderstood—sexualized and obscured like so many other feminine icons throughout history. The beauty of the mermaid-like nymphs is indeed difficult to surrender, but when the Sirens are situated more precisely in their classical context, we can begin to appreciate them as all-powerful creatures whose tainted reputation arise not from feminine seduction, but from knowledge of the afterlife, the ultimate frontier for humankind.
Tracking the aesthetic evolution of the Siren from a deadly demon in ancient times to an impossibly sensuous Renaissance nymph, one could argue that the Siren became the embodiment of societal fears about the dangers of female sexuality. The imagination could speculate about what lay beyond the veil, but the destructive power of a woman’s sexual agency remained very real. The danger was clear: succumb to the temptations of a Siren and lustful human impulses, and face ruination forevermore.