Sirens (those who bind with a cord, or those who wither) In Greek mythology, three water nymphs, Ligeia, Leucosia and Parthenope, who with their singing lured seamen to watery graves. They lived on an island between Circe’s isle and Scylla, where they sat in a flowery bed surrounded by the rotting bodies of the shipwrecked men. When Odysseus sailed past them, he had the ears of his men stopped up with wax so they could not hear the Sirens’ song. He, however, wanted to hear the song so he had his men tie him to the mast. When the Argonauts took the same watery route, they were saved by the song of Orpheus, which defeated the songs of the Sirens. Either Odysseus or Orpheus is responsible for their deaths. The three cast themselves into the sea when they failed to lure Odysseus or Orpheus. They were transformed into sunken rocks. Generally, early Greek art portrayed the Sirens as great birds with the heads of women, or with the upper part of the body like that of a woman, with the legs of a bird, with or without wings. In later Greek art the Sirens were portrayed as beautiful women. They are sometimes associated with the cult of the dead and were believed to guide souls to the underworld. As such they appear on various Greek tombs. Sirens appear in Homer’s Odyssey (book 12), Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, where they are symbols of sensual pleasure, William Morris’s The Life and Death of Jason, and E. M. Forster’s Story of the Siren. Debussy’s last section of his Nocturnes (1898) for orchestra, “Sirènes,” captures the song of the Sirens with a women’s wordless chorus.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante