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A podcast and blog examining the art and myths of the 21st century renaissance.

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Siren Mythology

This post is available as a podcast on Spotify and Apple Podcasts


Today we are delving into the origin of the siren. A creature with a rich history steeped in Greek myth. This story was inspired by an American roadtrip I recently took, noticing all of the classical symbols that exist in our branded world. We wear these banners of antiquity upon our backs, on our shoes, and in our hands as economic representations of our values, our status, and our identities.


siren mythology

Is a modern mall not unlike an ancient acropolis?

Filled with the temples of various deities, each the ruler of its respective realm?


Much like in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, our present culture is saturated with ideas pulled from centuries past. Brands like Nike, Mazerati, Amazon, Hermes, Versace, and even Apple all take from the stories that embody our highest aspirations and deepest fears.

siren mythology

On my drive across the plains of the midwest, I couldn’t help but notice the siren song signaled by each Starbucks I passed by. The melodies of sugar and caffeine pulling at me from the cafe’s shores. And I must confess, I sailed into their harbor on more than one occasion. Luckily, I survived unscathed, unlike the many Grecian heroes of old, who’s stories will now be retold.




The topic today is the alluring creature called the siren. They have shifted form over the centuries, and the term itself has become a word used increasingly often over the course of the 21st century. Language is how civilization shares and stores dreams, knowledge, and records in the form of census data, encyclopedias, medical records, textbooks, musical compositions, and so on. Much like how whales sing songs that are repeated year after year, we humans echo our culture down the generational canal as the circle of time rolls on.


Etymology, or the history of words is an insightful method used in retracing the connotation a word has carried through the ages, for the present-day meaning is often reflective of a current culture’s values, who change their outfit to fit with the latest trend daily in an attempt to grace the pages of our urban dictionary.


The word "siren" first entered English via French and Latin but is of Greek origin. Its Greek root ‘seira’ denotes ‘cord, rope’ with a metaphoric suggestion of  sirens as entanglers and binders. This referred specifically to the sirens that Odysseus encountered as well as being applied more generally to any deceitful woman.


There are two main stories of sirens from the Greek period. The first being Homer’s Odyssey made in 800 BCE and the Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes in 300 BCE. These tales also provide hints at where the actual islands were that the heroes within them sailed past, in case you wanted to go on your hunt for the sirens.


siren mythology

Some ancient Greek sources tell of Zeus giving the sirens the island of Anthemoessa as a new home, which some have identified as modern day Capri off the coast of Italy.




Later Roman writers would instead have the sirebs living upon the three isles called Sirenum Scopuli. According to the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid, the Sirenum Scopuli were small rocky islands where the sirens of Greek mythology lived and lured sailors to their deaths. Perhaps the siren creature is also an allegory for the geographical danger of hidden rocks along the seemingly safe harbors of an unknown island. Needing rest and supplies, sailors would have had to be wary of the possibility of granite razors cutting apart their boat as they neared an island where the safety of sirens echoed from the shores.



THE SIREN'S FIRST SONG FOR THE ODYSSEY

Homer never describes the sirens, so artists have depicted them as both mermaids and bird-like harpies. This is illustrated in two contrasting examples of Pre-Raphaelite art depicting the same story:

siren mythology
Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse 1891
siren mythology
Uylesses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper 1909

In the Odyssey, the sirens are not described in detail, or at least not physically. The information Homer provides mainly regards the melodic voices of these creatures. With voices so enchanting that upon hearing their sound, sailors would run their ships aground, only to be silenced by the what they found....


Early in his travels, Odysseus was warned by the sorceress Circe to plug the ears of his crew when sailing past the siren island. Using beeswax, he did so to all of his crew. But out of curiosity Odysseus decided to leave his ears open, instead tying himself to the mast of the ship. He told the men to not untie him no mater what he said as they ventured into the territory of these creatures . Here is the passage from the Odyssey in which Odysseus recalls this encounter and relates to his men the perils of the sirens. He calls to his comrades,


“That is the Island of the Sirens.

Circe warned me to steer clear of it,

for the Sirens are beautiful but deadly.

They sit beside the ocean, combing their long golden hair and singing to passing sailors. But anyone who hears their song is bewitched by its sweetness, and they are drawn to that island like iron to a magnet. And their ship smashes upon rocks as sharp as spears. And those sailors join the many victims of the Sirens in a meadow filled with skeletons.”


After hearing their song as his ship sails deafly past, Odysseus recounts the words of the siren song:


“Odysseus, bravest of heroes, Draw near to us,

on our green island, Odysseus, we’ll teach you wisdom,

We’ll give you love, sweeter than honey. The songs we sing, soothe away sorrow, And in our arms, you will be happy. Odysseus, bravest of heroes,The songs we sing, will bring you peace.”


Happiness and peace delivered neatly in a single song, what could possibly go wrong? It sounds a bit like a magical timeshare commercial. In the story of the Odyssey, there were only two recognized sirens, but various sources across the Greek and Roman collections of myths state there are up to eight.



THE SIREN'S SECOND SONG FOR JASON & THE ARGONAUTS

siren mythology
Argo, by Constantine Volanakis 1800

The second tale where sirens make their entrance is in Jason and the Argonauts or the Argonautica. There are Greek mermaids in this poem, but they are referred to as Nereids which are Greek sea nymphs. In contrast to the peril embodied by the sirens, the Nereid Thetis guides Jason's ship the Argo through the rocky channels guarded by the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. In Greek myth, the Nereids are benevolent, and often identified with the common objects we associate with modern-day mermaids like combs and mirrors.


In both the Argonautica and the Odyssey, sirens are feared dangers rather than allies like the Nereids. In the Argonautica, one of the heroes on board is Orpheus, the most talented musician known to mortals. Having been warned early-on by the wise centaur Chiron, Jason knew that that they could overcome the lure of the siren's songs if Orpheus played his music loud enough. So instead of wax, the Argonauts have Orpheus begin to conjure a melody on his lyre in order to drown out the songs of the sirens.



siren mythology
Orpheus, by Hugues Jean François Paul Duqueylard (French, 1771–1845)

Although the Argonautica is an epic poem of imaginary proportion, Orpheus himself may have been a real person, for he holds a status akin to that of King Arthur in Celtic legend. Many Greek writers of the Classical Age believed him to have Thracian origins and it was said his song could tame wild beasts, and change the course of rivers themselves.





So with this rockstar talent on board, the Argo sailed towards the three rocky islands of the sirens. As he played, something strange happened that revealed the weight of the siren's iron pride. As they could not overcome the beauty of Orpheus’s song with their own, the sirens threw themselves into the rocky sea. Thus ending their lives, pierced by the shame of the defeat wrought upon them. They could not survive knowing that they were not the best at what they were designed to do. The only thing they really could do in their island banishment. Sing.


I find this to be a strangely tragic mini-episode within the Argonautica, as it illuminates the pain these creatures experienced as sentient beings, not altogether human, but not at all unfeeling. The minor characters in the Argonautica harbor pearlescent lessons if you choose to dive in after them.

 If you’ll come with me, we’ll swim towards the origin of these enigmatic figures who have survived the centuries of cultural evolution. Never loosing their reputation for music, mystery, and beauty. Perhaps your pride will empathize with that of the sirens, for the masks of mythology come in infinite forms and colors. And if you hunt around long enough, one or two are bound to fit perfectly when placed upon your own soul.


HOW THE

SIRENS BECAME SIRENS


siren mythology
Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse 1909

Once upon a time, long ago a young girl lived with her mother in a glowing garden. Her name was Persephone, and she bloomed with the roses and danced with birds, filling her mother’s heart and soul with the golden contentment only possible beneath the rays of an eternal summer. To watch over Persephone, her mother Demeter found three nymphs. These three were the daughters of the river god Potamoi Achelous and the muses themselves. Needless to say, their parentage endowed the nymphs with grace and beauty far outpacing any human below Olympus. With their talents they sung and twirled with the little Persephone in the wildflower fields of the harvest goddess. Happiness rained and the there was no pain

Until one day, when the charm of Persephone called about a shadow, as all light is bound if given enough time. A darkened eye watched the girl from under rocks. It gazed from beneath gnarled roots, around trees, and through green leaves with a fixation that could not be swayed.


Biding its time, the shadow waited for Persephone to wander farther, and father into the woods. Into the outer reaches of wild rose bushes and thistles that held no charm for her nymph guardians. They wandered about bluebells and plucked forest berries as the girl spent more and more time in the deep of the emerald forest. All was quiet in the summer of honeybees and dew drops and wild woodland things.

One evening, when the summer spell broke like a storm. Persephone did not return home as Helios pulled his sun chariot below the horizon despite Demeter’s pleas to keep it up just a bit longer to allow her daughter a light home in the dark. What became of poor Persephone’s fate is a tale for another day, but needless to say, the wrath of Demeter thundered down upon all.

When darkness came she knew some force had disrupted her balance, and so let her tantrum loose on the swelling gardens, green woodlands, teal seas, and blue skies of the world. Flowers stopped blooming, fruit rotted from the vine, and dirt froze under the howling winds of her screams. Winter had come, the eternal summer of childhood was over, and at last, when all the goodness of youth had come to pass, the raging goddess turned to her three nymphs. With a twisted grin, Demeter crushed their fragile legs under her thumb, she twisted their arms, dislocated joints, and ripped tendons into shredded tatters. Into their skin she pricked thousands of thorns, each one rooting into the nymph’s bodies like weeds, bursting forth into iridescent feathers. She left nothing on the poor creature’s bodies unscorched save the their angelic faces and bird-like voices. They could no longer dance, no longer entrance, and so were sent to live on an island in the sea. Where the only beauty they could make came from their music. The only right thing these broken beings could do, was sing.


So perhaps in the Argonautica, when Orpheus bested the sirens, shattering their pride, the one task they had placed their identity in, it was too much for the bird women. They flung themselves into the sea… to swim away free, as birds no longer they’d be. But perhaps their feathers became scales, and they grew tales green.




siren mythology
The Siren, by John William Waterhouse 1900

There is no extrapolation on the fate of the sirens in the Argonautica after they dash themselves against the rocks that strengthens my daydream of them poetically morphing into fish. I’m merely stretching the world of myth from one cultural connotation to the next in order to form logical bridges over the chasms of narrative valleys.

In all reality, the etymology of the word siren first took on fish-like connotations in the Middle Ages, when monks were making bestiaries. These books employed the attributes of animals to teach moral lessons, and here the danger of the siren in the Greek mind became a useful allegory to warn against the danger of following female temptation. Since mermaids were a seperate creature with similar meaning, they became fused with the sirens.


In her paper “From Bird-Woman to Mermaid: The Shifting Image of the Medieval Siren” Librarian Claire Cannell examines the evolution of the image of the siren from a classical bird with the head of a women to a female with a fish tale.

She writes, “The siren’s movement from a frightening bird-woman to a beautiful mermaid represents female beauty becoming monstrous. Throughout the middle ages sirens increasingly represented a male fear of female seduction, suggesting a growing fear of female sexuality.”

Art from bestiaries in the Middle Ages show the visual evolution of how the word siren stayed the same as the associated creature shifted from bird to fish as Christianity became more popular. This change from bird to fish was likely due to how the money funding the preservation of language and ideas in came from the Church. With economic power flowing from a new monotheistic source, many of the pagan words for mythical creatures took on new forms to fit the moral lessons the cultural producers needed to further their perspective on life. Sadly, this this did not bode well for the sirens, mermaids, or women. Often, sirens were associated with demons, temptation, lust, vanity, and greed.

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siren mythology
A Mermaid, by John William Waterhouse 1900

A rather interesting evolutionary stage of the siren made in 1510 shows a siren with the beautiful upper body of a red haired woman holding two instruments, alluding to her musical talents. From her back sprout two angelic wings, and below the waist is a bird body complete with a second set of wings, and a tail. The fish tail and two sets of wings look like something an AI image generator would create from the prompt of an exuberant six-old on a Lucky Charms binge.



She gracefully stands on the heads of drowning men in a blue pond. The scene is stagnant and cartoonish. Featuring a light-hearted color palette that lends an air of humor to the murders taking place in the scene. The Middle Ages were a rather confusing time, as were Greek times.











The unique aspect of our present state in the twenty-first century is that so many people in the world have access to archives. To pools of free information that outpace the shelves Library of Alexandria. If we take the time, we can trace the origin of myths, the origins of ourselves. Students of history come to see how nothing normal is ever objectively normal, it just happens to blend in with the day’s current outfit. Sometimes fishnet stockings look good, other times they’re cold or improper. Just as sirens have shifted in their meaning and popularity, so have we as parts of a society.

Keep in mind, these creatures are not true mermaids. They were originally bird women, transformed by the goddess Demeter in her rage. I illustrated my conception of what their metamorphoses would have looked like as they shifted from female form into their aviary bodies using coffee, salt, and watercolor.


siren mythology
Demeter's Nymphs, Hope Christofferson 2024

The Starbuck's siren now decorates every cup of the world’s largest coffee company. Soothing us with melodies of caffeine and the promise of warmth and clarity. Modern myths swim around us everyday, the trick to seeing them walks hand-in-hand with curiosity. Take the time to seriously ask a silly question. Listen to the siren song that’s been calling all along!


On another mythical note,

Loreland (an illustrated mythology about the world's most magical creatures) is being published October 29th! BUT preorders are incredibly helpful, so I wanted to share the links for the actual tomb below.

This has been such a wonderful adventure, and includes writing and illustrations from years of my travels as a freelance illustrator in search of magic and the roots of myth.




If you'd like to listen to the auditory version of Loreland, it is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.


Thank you so much for diving into the world of history and myth with me. My field work from imaginary realms is available on my Etsy, along with modern bestiaries for the technologcal renaissance.





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