The word Siren refers to two distinct types of spirits:
What these two types of spirits share in common are associations with sex, eroticism, oracles, and death. Both are also famous for their beautiful, alluring voices.
A Siren song is irresistible. Sirens are singing goddesses whose alluring voices can neither be resisted nor ignored. Their most famous appearance is in Homer’s Odyssey where they are categorized among dangers of the sea like Scylla and Charybdis. (They show up in the saga of Jason and the Argonauts, too.)
The Sirens sing while perched on rocks in the rough sea. Odysseus is warned that anyone who hears the Siren song will feel compelled to draw close to them with the end result that they are dashed on the rocks. Odysseus puts wax in his crew’s ears so that they can row past the Sirens without being tempted and has himself lashed to a post so that he can hear their song and resist the impulse to join them. He is allegedly the only man to have heard their song and lived.
The Sirens are more than minor figures of mythic horror. They were significant, not trivial, goddesses. Among those who venerated Sirens was Roman Emperor Tiberias.
The Sirens are bird spirits who manifest as part woman, part bird. What distinguishes them from other bird-women spirits like Lilith or the Harpies is the power of their song, the allure of the Sirens’ voices. However, the Sirens do more than sing:
• They are oracular goddesses, telling Odysseus that they know all that happens on Earth, everywhere, all the time.
• Sirens are erotic goddesses of love and desire.
Sirens are friends and servants of Persephone who assigned them their role as psychopomps and death goddesses. Their function is to escort souls to the Queen of the Dead. It may not just be random unlucky seamen whom the Sirens lure to their deaths. They may collect souls already destined to die. The Sirens appear to those already doomed, so perhaps the true reason Odysseus escaped death was that it was just not his time to go. Allegedly, the Sirens’ sweet, magnetic song causes those who hear them to approach death joyfully, peacefully, and without fear. Some Greek vase paintings depict bearded male Sirens. Mythologist Karl Kerenyi theorizes in his book Gods of the Greeks that male Sirens may have sweetened the experience of death for women as female Sirens did for men.
It is unclear exactly how many Sirens there are. Some are identified by name, but there may be more. The most famous Sirens include:
• Aglaope (also known as Aglaophonos), “She of the Glorious Voice” or “Shrill Voice”
• Leucosia or Leucotheia, “The White Goddess”
• Ligeia, “She of the Bright Voice” or “She of the Clear Voice”
• Parthenope, “The Virginal”
• Peisinoe (also known as Pasinoe), “The Seductive” or “The Persuasive”
• Thelxiepeia (also known as Thelxinoe or Thelxiope), “The Enchantress,” “She of the Soothing Song”
Individual Sirens like Parthenope were sometimes venerated independently. The town of Parthenope, dedicated to that Siren, was founded in the eighth century BCE but was eventually renamed Naples. Greek historian Strabo, who died in approximately 25 CE, describes travelers visiting her shrine. In the Roman era, a temple of Apollo was built over Parthenope’s shrine, followed in the Christian era by the Church of San Giovanni Maggiore.
Other Sirens include Eumolpe (“She Who Sings Well”), Himeropa (“Voice that Provokes Desire”), Kyane (“The Blue”), and Moeolpe (“The Harmonious”). The Sirens’ ancestry is in dispute. They may be daughters of Nereus and thus related to the Nereids. Their mother may be a Hesperid or one of the Muses, or they may be the Muses’ step-sisters. Their parents may be Phorkys and Keto. Achelous may be their father. According to myth, Heracles broke one of Achelous’ horns: the Sirens were born of his blood seeping onto Earth, similar to the births of Aphrodite and the Erinyes. They may always have been bird spirits or may originally have been Nymphs whom Demeter transformed into bird-women as punishment for not searching harder for their friend, Persephone. Alternatively, they begged for wings so they could fly and better search for her.
In addition to attending Persephone, the Sirens also have close associations with Hera. A statue of Hera depicts her holding tiny Sirens in her hands. Hera encouraged the Sirens to engage in musical competition with the Muses, allies of Apollo. The victorious Muses made themselves crowns with feathers that they plucked from the Sirens. Although the Sirens do not live in the water, they are sea spirits (hence their later reinterpretation as fish-tailed women). Myths where Muses and/or Orpheus rout them may be interpreted as the victory of terrestrial spirits over the aquatic (or the victory of one pantheon over another).
Sirens have a bird’s body with a woman’s head and sometimes a woman’s breasts and arms, too. Their feet are taloned, sometimes with a lion’s paw at the end of each bird foot.
Sirens are usually depicted in groups of three: one holds a flute, one holds a lyre, and the third sings. Sirens, usually depicted as if mourning, are among the two most frequent mythic symbols carved into Athenian tombs. (The other is Charon.)
The Sirens inhabit an island called Anthemoessa, “rich in flowers”; its location is subject to debate but is generally believed to be near Sicily or somewhere off the Italian coast. The Sirenuse Islands off the AmalfiCoast near Positano, which may or may not be the same as Anthemoessa, are named after the Sirens and are allegedly their residence (or one of them). They may also live on the nearby Isle of Capri.
Number: 8, the number of eternity.
Achelous; Aphrodite; Apollo; Charon; Demeter; Erinyes; Harpies; Hera; Heracles; Hesperides; Keto; Kyane; Leto; Leucotheia; Lilith; Muses; Nereid; Nereus; Nymph; Orpheus; Persephone; Phorkys; Psychopomp; Scylla; Sirène, La; Sirin and the Glossary entry for Pantheon
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by :Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.