Readings for reflection: the Sirens

Apollodoros, Bibliotheka E7. 18
The Sirens, daughters of Achelous and the muse Melpomene, and their names were Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia.

Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika 4. 892 ff
Before long the Argonauts sighted the beautiful island of Anthemoessa, where the clear-voiced Sirens, Akheloios’ daughters, used to bewitch with their seductive melodies whatever sailors anchored there. Lovely Terpsichore, one of the Mousai, bore them to Acheloios, and at one time they had been handmaids to Demeter’s gallant Daughter, before she was married, and sung to her in chorus. But now, half human and half bird in form, they spent their time watching for ships from a height that overlooked their excellent harbour; and many a traveller, reduced by them to skin and bones, had forfeited the happiness of reaching home. The Sirens, hoping to add the Argonauts to these, made haste to greet them with a liquid melody; and the young men would soon have cast their hawsers on the beach if Thracian Orpheus had not intervened. Raising his Bistonian lyre, he drew from it the lively tune of a fast-moving song, so as to din their ears with a medley of competing sounds. The girlish voices were defeated by the lure; and the set wind, aided by the sounding backwash from the shore, carried the ship off. The Sirens’ song grew indistinct; yet even so there was one man, Boutes the noble son of Teleon, who was so enchanted by their sweet voices that before he could be stopped he leapt into the sea from his polished bench. The poor man swam through the dark swell making for the shore, and had he landed, they would soon have robbed him of all hope of reaching home. But Aphrodite, Queen of Eryx, had pity on him. She snatched him up while he was still battling with the surf; and having saved his life, she took him to her heart and found a home for him on the heights of Lilybaion.

Euripides, Helen 167
Helen of Troy: Winged maidens, virgin daughters of Gaia, the Sirens, may you come to my mourning with Libyan flute or pipe or lyre, tears to match my plaintive woes; grief for grief and mournful chant for chant, may Persephone send choirs of death in harmony with my lamentation, so that she may receive as thanks from me, in addition to my tears, a paean for the departed dead beneath her gloomy roof.

Homer, Odyssey 12. 39 ff
You will come to the Sirens first of all; they bewitch any mortal who approaches them. If a man in ignorance draws too close and catches their music, he will never return to fine wife and little children near him and to see their joy at his homecoming; the high clear tones of the Sirens will bewitch him. They sit in a meadow; men’s corpses lie heaped up all round them, mouldering upon the bones as the skin decays. You must row past there; you must stop the ears of all your crew with sweet wax that you have kneaded, so that none of the rest may hear the song. But if you yourself are bent on hearing, then give them orders to bind you both hand and foot as you stand upright against the mast-stay, with the rope-ends tied to the mast itself; thus you may hear the two Sirens’ voices and be enraptured. If you implore your crew and beg them to release you, then they must bind you fast with more bonds again.

Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 364-65
It must have been a festival of all-souls related to the Athenian Anthesteria. One of these choës from Italy shows – through a siren approaching the sacrificial altar – a connection with the realm of souls, and the picture on a larger vase even indicates that this form of vessel was used in the funeral sacrifice. The conception of the departure of the youthful dead, especially women, as an exodus from the city to Dionysian nuptials – such an exodus is represented on innumerable south Italian vases – was based on actual departures to private mysteries during the Anthesteria. An Italic chous bears the image of a characteristic figure in this nocturnal exodus: a boy satyr with torch and situla. A chous from near Brindisi shows Dionysos and his female companion on a couch served by a boy satyr. The vases with these scenes were found in tombs, and it was for this purpose no doubt that they were manufactured in such quantity. The spread of this conception required vases for burial with men as well as women; or better still, vases with pictures of two kinds that could be buried with persons of either sex.

Lycophron, Alexandra 712 ff
And Odysseus shall slay the triple daughters of Tethys’ son, who imitated the strains of their melodious mother: self-hurled from the cliff’s top they dive with their wings into the Tyrrhenian Sea, where the bitter thread spun by the Moirai shall draw them. One of them washed ashore the tower of Phaleros shall receive, and Glanis wetting the earth with its streams. There the inhabitants shall build a tomb for the maiden and with libations and sacrifice of oxen shall yearly honour the bird goddess Parthenope. And Leukosia shall be cast on the jutting strand of Enipeus and shall long haunt the rock that bears her name, where rapid Is and neighbouring Laris pour forth their waters. And Ligeia shall come ashore at Tereina spitting out the wave. And her shall sailormen bury on the stony beach nigh to the eddies of Okinaros; and an ox-horned Ares shall lave her tomb with his streams, cleansing with his waters the foundation of her whose children were turned into birds. And there one day in honour of the first goddess of the sisterhood shall the ruler of the navy of Popsops array for his mariners a torch-race, in obedience to an oracle, which one day the people of the Neapolitans shall celebrate.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 13.313
Lake Katana in Sicily, near the Seirenes, whom rosy Terpsichore brought forth by the stormy embraces of her bull-horned husband Acheloios.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 552 ff
Why should it be that the Acheloides have feathers now and feet of birds, though still a girl’s fair face, the sweet-voiced Sirens? Was it not because, when Proserpine was picking those spring flowers, they were her comrades there, and, when in vain they’d sought for her through all the lands, they prayed for wings to carry them across the waves, so that the seas should know their search, and found the gods gracious, and then suddenly saw golden plumage clothing all their limbs? Yet to reserve that dower of glorious song, their melodies’ enchantment, they retained their fair girls’ features and their human voice.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.34.3
At Koroneia in Boiotia is a sanctuary of Hera; in her hands she carried the Sirens. For the story goes that the daughters of Achelous were persuaded by Hera to compete with the Mousai in singing. The Mousai won, plucked out the Seirenes’ feathers and made crowns for themselves out of them.

Plato, Kratylos 403d
Haides binds with the desire which is the strongest of all. No one has been willing to come away from that other world, not even the Sirens, but they and all others have been overcome by death’s enchantments.

Pliny, Natural History 3.61
The coastal city of Neapolis is also called Parthenope from the tomb of one of the Sirens there.

Christina Pluhar, La TarantellaAntidotum Tarantulae
The origins of this ritual dance are attributed by some theorists to the cult of Dionysus that was disseminated in southern Italy over the centuries. Mythology has left us two tales of the origin of the tarantella that are still told in Sorrento and Capri Homeric poetry preserved in oral traditions. One of these relates that the Sirens tried to enchant Ulysses with their songs, but failed to do so because he had been warned beforehand and stopped his ears with wax. Thereupon the Sirens called the Graces to their aid, asking to be taught an erotic dance. But the Graces made fun of the Sirens and invented the tarantella, knowing full well that the Sirens had no legs and would not be able to dance it… Since that time the tarantella has been performed by the young maidens of Sorrento, who learned it from the Graces.

Strabo, Geography 5.4.7
After Dicaearchia comes Neapolis, a city of the Cumaeans. At a later time it was re-colonised by Chalcidians, and also by some Pithecussaeans and Athenians, and hence, for this reason, was called Neapolis. A monument of Parthenope, one of the Sirens, is pointed out in Neapolis, and in accordance with an oracle a gymnastic contest is celebrated there. But at a still later time, as the result of a dissension, they admitted some of the Campani as fellow-inhabitants, and thus they were forced to treat their worst enemies as their best friends, now that they had alienated their proper friends. This is disclosed by the names of their demarchs, for the earliest names are Greek only, whereas the later are Greek mixed with Campanian. And very many traces of Greek culture are preserved there — gymnasia, ephebeia, phratriae, and Greek names of things, although the people are Romans. And at the present time a sacred contest is celebrated among them every four years, in music as well as gymnastics; it lasts for several days, and vies with the most famous of those celebrated in Greece. Here, too, there is a tunnel — the mountain between Dicaearchia and Neapolis having been tunneled like the one leading to Cumae,340 and a road having been opened up for a distance of many stadia that is wide enough to allow teams going in opposite directions to pass each other. And windows have been cut out at many places, and thus the light of day is brought down from the surface of the mountain along shafts that are of considerable depth. Furthermore, Neapolis has springs of hot water and bathing-establishments that are not inferior to those at Baiae, although it is far short of Baiae in the number of people, for at Baiae, where palace on palace has been built, one after another, a new city has arisen, not inferior to Dicaearchia. And greater vogue is given to the Greek mode of life at Neapolis by the people who withdraw thither from Rome for the sake of rest — I mean the class who have made their livelihood by training the young, or still others who, because of old age or infirmity, long to live in relaxation; and some of the Romans, too, taking delight in this way of living and observing the great number of men of the same culture as themselves sojourning there, gladly fall in love with the place and make it their permanent abode.

Suidas s.v. Seirenas
Seirenes were women with lyric voices who, in bygone Greek myth, dwelled on a small island and so enticed passing sailors with their beautiful voices that crews steered in and perished there. From their chests up they had the form of sparrows, below they were women. Mythologers say that they were little birds with women’s faces who beguiled sailors as they passed by, bewitching with lewd songs the hearing of those harkening to them. And the song of pleasure has no good consequence, only death. Anthemousa is the island they inhabited.

Virgil, Georgics 4.563
I, Virgil, was nursed by sweet Parthenope, and rejoiced in the arts of inglorious ease.