The Sirens were half-woman and half-bird, although they are sometimes wrongly associated with mermaids (so half-woman and half-fish), probably because of their proximity to the sea (although they were strictly land-based, they tended to hang about down on the shore so they could attract the passing boats full of hapless sailors). They were enchantresses whose song lured sailors onto their rocks so the Sirens could devour them.
This confusion – Sirens as mermaids – was alive and well in the Renaissance and has continued beyond: in his ‘Song’, John Donne spoke of mermaids singing:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
And then, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), T. S. Eliot has his title character (and speaker) announce that he has ‘heard the mermaids singing, each to each’. Did both Donne and Eliot (or, at least, Prufrock) conflate – whether deliberately or in error – mermaids and sirens?
Perhaps: after all, Sirens are more famous for their song than mermaids, and the oceanic associations of both, combined with their half-woman half-animal composition, may have contributed to a confusion or conflation of the two mythical beings. Shakespeare also encouraged parallels between the two, in The Comedy of Errors. In Act 3 Scene 2, Antipholus of Syracuse commands Luciana:
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears.
Sing, Siren, for thyself, and I will dote.
Curiously, though, when the word ‘Siren’ first entered the English language, it was in reference to yet another imaginary creature: a fantastical serpent. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, this meaning of ‘Siren’ was ‘derived from glossarial explanations of Latin sirenes in the Vulgate text of Isaiah xiii. 22, where the Wycliffite versions have “wengid edderes” [i.e. winged adders] and “fliynge serpentis”.’ So the confusion appears to go back some way.
Although the OED makes mention only of their enchanting singing, the Sirens didn’t just sing: according to Homer in the Odyssey, there were just two of them, but Apollodorus, in his The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World’s Classics) , added a third: one sang, one played the lyre, and another the flute.
Which Greek hero saved his crew from succumbing to the song of the Sirens? You may be tempted to ask Odysseus, who famously heard the Sirens’ song, according to Homer, but had his crewmates tie him to the mast of the ship so he would not be tempted to steer them onto the rocks to become the Sirens’ dinner. (His crew, meanwhile, stopped up their ears with wax so they could not hear and be influenced by the Sirens.)
Sure enough, Odysseus was possessed by an overwhelming desire to go towards the Sirens, and only his bonds prevented him from doing so. According to Homer, the Sirens were so frustrated at having failed to lure Odysseus onto their rocks, that they threw themselves into the sea and drowned. Divas. Even rock stars after bad gigs tend to draw the line at smashing up their guitars.
But there is another Greek hero who is also involved in the myth of the Sirens, although he’s better-known for his involvement in another story: Orpheus, the musician.
Orpheus accompanied Jason on his voyage aboard the Argo, when Jason went to find the Golden Fleece. And when the ship passed the island on which the Sirens sang and played their fatal melody, Orpheus sang loudly to drown out their song, to save Jason and the rest of the crew from running aground and becoming Siren-food, although one of the unfortunate Argonauts, Butes, did succumb and was whisked off by Aphrodite.
Ovid adds some ‘backstory’ for the Sirens. According to his Metamorphoses, they were once ordinary maidens who accompanied Persephone, but when she was abducted by Pluto (Hades in the original Greek myth), they requested some wings from the gods, so they could go in search of Persephone.
And the Sirens are bound up, curiously, with Italy. Much as Scylla and Charybdis are thought to be mythical explanations for real, natural geographical features (sharp rocks and a vortex or whirlpool off the coast of Sicily), so the island of the Sirens was believed to have a surprisingly specific location: namely, off the southern coast, near the Sorrento peninsula. And one of the names of the Sirens has become well-known. Parthenope, whose tomb was said to be in Naples, has a name meaning ‘maiden-voiced’ in reference to her singing, and when she died it was said she became the city of Naples (which began as a colony named Parthenope). Curiously, Florence Nightingale – who was named after the Italian city of that name – had a sister named Parthenope, after another Italian city, Naples.
Why are police sirens so named? There is, as we might expect, a link with the mythical Sirens: the Oxford English Dictionary lists ‘siren’ under the same entry which also mentions the bird-woman hybrids we’ve been considering. The OED defines ‘siren’ in the more modern sense as ‘An instrument … used on steamships for giving fog-signals, warnings, etc. Also, more generally, a device which produces a piercing note … used as an air-raid warning, or to signify the approach of a police car, etc.; the noise itself. Formerly, a motor-horn.’
The modern ‘siren’ clearly sprang from the mythical ‘Siren’ – because they are both about emitting a loud and attention-grabbing noise – but it’s curious that they serve completely opposite purposes: whereas the Sirens wished to attract you towards them, the sirens on police cars and ships want you to stay away. The fact that this modern meaning of ‘siren’ originated at sea, on steamships, offers another reason why ‘Sirens’ gave birth to ‘sirens’.
Curiously, in one of the OED’s earliest citations for the modern instrument called the siren, from the Daily News in 1880, the word is capitalised: ‘The Siren can be sounded with either steam or compressed air, made to pass through a fixed flat disc fitted into the throat of a long trumpet.’
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.