Everyone knows the Sirens. They sing their enchanting songs and lure men to their deaths.
And that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?
Seductive. Dangerous to men. What else do you need?
Oh, but why end there, when you can speculate about how the men die? Shipwrecked on the rocks? Torn to shreds and devoured by the Sirens?
In appearance, the ancients stuck to a standard bird-woman combo, a bird’s body with a woman’s head.
Some later depictions went with more of a woman’s body than just the head, because if you’re going to be
fantasizing about describing the dangers of seductive women, why stop at the neck?
Alkman (a Spartan poet, active mid- to late seventh century b.c.e.), in a song he wrote for a chorus of girls, describes the Sirens only as marvelous singers. There is no mention of any danger posed by them.
The Sirens, it is true,
have more songful voices,
for they are goddesses . . .
In Homer’s Odyssey, following Circe’s advice, Odysseus famously manages to hear their song without danger.
Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing;
for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship
until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues
from our lips; then [he] goes on, well pleased, knowing more than ever
he did; for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans
did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods’ spite.
Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens.
That is much more interesting. Their enchantment is not only in the beauty of their song but in what they sing about. Odysseus was at Troy; he knows what happened there. But he knows only what he experienced himself or heard others tell about. There is always more to know. To hear the Sirens’ song was to gain knowledge beyond what other mortals possess.
At this point in the story, Odysseus is recently back from his dangerous trip to the Underworld, where he talked with the dead prophet Teiresias and many others. In his account of the journey he lists all the famous women of the past whose stories he heard firsthand. It’s quite a list. The scene is a little odd. What’s the point of talking with the ghost of Alcmena (the mother of Herakles), Leda (the mother of Helen), and so many others? Modern readers really start wondering on the second and third pages of the list, as Odysseus waxes poetic about talking with Chloris and then Iphimedeia. Then mentions Maira and Klymene. Who are these people?
But think about it. Who else still living and looking on the light of the sun (as Homer would say) has talked to them? Who else has learned the wisdom of their experiences in the world? Is that what the Sirens embody? Wisdom—more complete wisdom than any human could ever gain alone—of what happens in the world and why?
Homer describes the Sirens living in a flowery meadow, but the beach nearby was littered with the bones and rotting flesh of men who became enchanted by their song. There is no hint that they were killed by the Sirens, let alone devoured by them. Perhaps, as some have suggested, the men died of starvation on the beach. Maybe they were enchanted by the song and unable to leave—much like the fate of those poor souls who ate the fruit offered by the Lotus-eaters. The men come and then just can’t leave.
Now, isn’t that more interesting than just a bunch of dangerous bird-women, sexy femmes fatales out for a bit of man? Why toss aside the irresistible enchantment of knowledge for just . . . . Oh, yeah, never mind.