Monstrous Mondays – The Sirens

-by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff

(portions of this post were originally from a paper written for the class “Heroines and Heroic Traditions” in October, 2011)

The Sirens are some of the most famous monsters from Greek mythology, luring sailors to their death with song. Popularly depicted as beautiful women, sometimes mermaids, on an island, their original forms were slightly more monstrous. The sirens were among the hybrid monsters, crosses between animals and women, and were often depicted as either birds with the heads of women, or women with half-formed wings and bird feet. Their most famed appearance is in the Odyssey, attempting to lure Odysseus and his crew to their deaths with their song, crashing against the rocks of their island.

John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891

John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891

The danger of the sirens lies in their ability to control narrative. Sailors are unable to ignore their song, and even though Odysseus in his hubris attempts to listen, his crew who stop their ears with cotton and rags) must tie him to the ship’s mast to stop him from casting himself into the sea or directing them to turn the boat to the rocks of the island. Popular imaginings of the sirens depict their song as alluring, luring sailors to their doom with the promise of sex and sensuality. They are seducing passing ships, but not with their sexuality, but instead their ability to tell a story. However, their storytelling is dangerous because it presents a counter-narrative; they are women telling the story, and have no allegiance to men who would determine how they tell a story. The narrative of the sirens is specifically a woman’s narrative, told by woman about men, instead of a narrative told by men for men. Odysseus is so desperate to hear the Sirens’ song because he desires to know how he figures in a narrative told from the point of view of the Other. The Siren’s song is seductive to the men of Greece, who value storytelling, but also incredibly damaging to them because it can replace their narratives by the narratives of the women who are killed, subdued, or cast aside (often by the very men whose narratives are presented as heroic).

The sirens, existing as they do on an island in the middle of the ocean, uninhabited by anyone save themselves, are apart from societal norms. They do not have to defer to traditional narrative standards or paradigms, and can tell a non-normative or counter narrative. In a phallocentric culture where honor is garnered in part by your fame (in story and narrative, and how many people know your name and deeds), the allure of storytellers was powerful, and the prospect of someone with no allegiance telling a story the way it really happened, was enough to run your ship aground for. The Sirens will tell the story as it actually occurred, without care for censorship or padding of the (man’s) ego.

John William Waterhouse, The Siren, ~1900

John William Waterhouse, The Siren, ~1900

This way, oh turn your bows,
Akhaia’s glory,
As all the world allows
Moor and be merry.
Sweet coupled airs we sing.
No lonely seafarer
Holds clear of entering
Our green mirror.
Pleased by each purling note,
Like honey twining
From her throat and my throat,
Who lies a-pining?
Sea rovers here take joy
Voyaging onward,
As from our song of Troy
Greybeard and rower-boy
Goeth more learned.
All feats on the great field
In the long warfare,
Dark days the bright gods willed,
Wounds you bore there,
Argos’ old soldiery,
On Troy beach teeming,
Charmed out of time we see.
No life on earth can be hid from our dreaming. (Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII, lines 220-245)

The Sirens are telling “our song of Troy,” and not the Achaeans’ story, not the story Odysseus would tell of his own feats. Their alternative narrative is dangerous, because it is closer to the true than the fictions the men of Greece would tell themselves for their own self-aggrandizement.  When the Sirens sing “no lonely seafarer/holds clear of entering/our green mirror,” their words hold a double meaning. The green mirror means both the sea where the sailors will be drowned, but also means the story that will be told s a reflection of the actual truth. The Sirens hold up a mirror to the seafarers, and tell their own stories back at them. The mirror is complete and un-warped that reflects the entirety of the individual and their story, not an edited version that serves only to glorify the listener and censor his trespasses and mistakes. The listener runs the risk of being drowned in the truth of the story. “All feats in that great field/in the long warfare” will be told, not just the flattering ones.

The final line of the Sirens’ song “No life on earth can be hid from our dreaming” is particularly dangerous for the Greeks retuning form the Trojan war. If no life on earth is overlooked by the Sirens, then the people who would be regulated to the background, or to the role of villains by the normative telling are suddenly given a voice, and this voice actively unravels myths of masculinity and heroism in the ancient Greek world. The Sirens have the potential to tell the story of King Agamemnon from the point of view of Clytemnestra, who can then no longer be viewed as a monster who murdered her husband but as a mother seeking justice for her own murdered child. The Sirens have the potential to reposition Agamemnon as the villain and not a noble hero. The Sirens can tell the story of the Trojan War from the point of view of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigenia, which causes the story to end with the fall of the knife, before the Achaean ships even leave for war. Her father sacrificing her for wind to sail ships to war in Troy can be painted as a tragedy by the sirens, instead of a just necessity. Helen can be repositioned by the sirens as no longer an object to be fought over, but as a woman who made a choice about who she wanted to love, and who was then made the scapegoat to justify a tremendously bloody war. By extension the Greek kings are then responsible for the horrible bloodshed and loss at Troy, and would have to own their guilt in starting a bloody war and draining their respective countries of young men over the potential for loot.

The Sirens’ power lies in their ability to reposition the narrative. Had Odysseus not been tied to the mast, he would surely have crossed to their island to listen. If they had told the story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ subsequent journey home before killing him, it would have been a vastly different one from the narrative Homer tells. In fact, the inclusion and role of the Sirens, as well as the fact that the majority of the foes Odysseus encounters are women (save the Cyclopes Polyphemus, Poseidon’s over-arching anger, and the suitors harassing his wife Penelope at home, has lead some to believe that the Odyssey was originally told by a woman, or multiple women, and later attributed to homer.

The “…bones/ of dead men rotting in a pile beside them/ and flayed skins shrivel around the spot” (Homer, the Odyssey, Book XII, lines 54-56) on the island are the remainders of the Siren’s meal, but are also perhaps all that is left of those who heard the Sirens song and could not stand the narrative re-centering. Knowing the story from the downtrodden point of view, they perhaps dashed themselves against the rocks of the Sirens’ island to escape the guilt of their complacency in the erasure of voices that are not their own. Or, perhaps they killed themselves when after learning that their stories were not the only ones that mattered, unable to cope. As Joseph Campbell said, “whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be” (“The Power of Myth, “A Conversation Between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers). This is where the Sirens’ power lies. Their songs have the power to recenter narrative from the traditional “hero” to the “Other.” They are seductive in their ability to tell a good story and dangerous in their lack of allegiance. Alone on their island they are free to tell whatever story they want, however they want. Odysseus and his men, vainglorious and needing stories for their own self-propagation, are at risk of being seduced by the Sirens’ storytelling ability. But they are also at risk of being destroyed by the Sirens’ repositioning of women as the main players in the narrative. The Sirens, as reparative female storytellers, are one of the more dangerous monsters Odysseus encounters, and of the Greek world, not because they can destroy men bodily, but because they can dismantle patriarchal narratives.

Roman mosaic of Odysseus and the Sirens

Roman mosaic of Odysseus and the Sirens

Margaret Atwood presents a slightly different version of the Sirens in her poem Siren Song.

Siren Song

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Margaret Atwood

Here the Sirens are not presenting a counter-narrative, but are still killing through storytelling, manipulating what men want to hear to lure them to their deaths. The Sirens plea for the rugged, heroic men to save them, the helpless, hapless woman, presenting themselves as not like the other women, but better than their sisters. They mirror the phrase “not like other girls,” and use it to kill those who would deploy it as a compliment, and play upon the damsel-in-distress trope, when they are both the damsel and the monster.

A later monster that is similar to the Sirens is the Alkonost, a bird with the head of a woman from Russian folklore. The Alkonost sing so beautifully that their listeners forget everything, only wishing to stay near the woman monster.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Birds of Joy and Sorrow, 1896 featuring a Sirin (left) and an Alkonost (right)

Viktor Vasnetsov, Birds of Joy and Sorrow, 1896 featuring a Sirin (left) and an Alkonost (right)


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