Siren | Definition, Legend, & History

Siren, in Greek mythology, a creature half bird and half woman who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of her song. According to Homer, there were two Sirens on an island in the western sea between Aeaea and the rocks of Scylla. Later the number was usually increased to three, and they were located on the west coast of Italy, near Naples. They were variously said to be the daughters of the sea god Phorcys or of the river god Achelous by one of the Muses.

lekythos with a representation of a Sirenlekythos with a representation of a Siren

Siren, miniature terra-cotta lekythos (oil flask) attributed to the Seireniske Painter, mid-5th century

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; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogers Fund, 1941 (accession no. 41.162.123); www.metmuseum.orgmourning Sirenmourning Siren

Mourning Siren, limestone statue with red and white pigment, c. 350–300

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.Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Molly and Walter Bareiss, 2001.28.11

In Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII, the Greek hero Odysseus, advised by the sorceress Circe, escaped the danger of their song by stopping the ears of his crew with wax so that they were deaf to the Sirens. Odysseus himself wanted to hear their song but had himself tied to the mast so that he would not be able to steer the ship off its course. Apollonius of Rhodes, in Argonautica, Book IV, relates that when the Argonauts sailed that way, Orpheus sang so divinely that only one of the Argonauts heard the Sirens’ song. (According to Argonautica, Butes alone was compelled by the Sirens’ voices to jump into the water, but his life was saved by the goddess Cypris, a cult name for Aphrodite.) In Hyginus’s Fabulae, no. 141, a mortal’s ability to resist them causes the Sirens to commit suicide.

Sirens tempting OdysseusSirens tempting Odysseus

Sirens tempting Odysseus, detail of a storage jar by the Siren Painter, 480–470

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; in the collection of the British Museum, London.Fine Art Images/Heritage-Images

mythology. Greek. Icarus and Daedalus

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Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book V) wrote that the Sirens were human companions of Persephone. After she was carried off by Hades, they sought her everywhere and finally prayed for wings to fly across the sea. The gods granted their prayer. In some versions Demeter turned them into birds to punish them for not guarding Persephone. In art the Sirens appeared first as birds with the heads of women and later as women, sometimes winged, with bird legs.

The Sirens seem to have evolved from an ancient tale of the perils of early exploration combined with an Asian image of a bird-woman. Anthropologists explain the Asian image as a soul-bird—i.e., a winged ghost that stole the living to share its fate. In that respect the Sirens had affinities with the Harpies.

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