The Odyssey is an incredibly rich text and even the briefest of the hero’s adventures can be subject to endless different readings and interpretations. His encounter with the Sirens only takes up 20 lines of Greek text but has been represented countless times in art ever since. These women on the edge of civilization who lure men to their deaths appeal to an almost morbid fascination in the reader, however the scene is also a very self-reflective moment for Homer regarding the nature of his poetry.
Odysseus has been warned by the witch Circe to plug his crew’s ears with earwax, and that if he wants to hear their song he must be restrained to prevent his going to them. The hero’s famous curiosity prevails and he orders his crew members to tie him to the mast. The story in the text is told by Odysseus as he narrates his adventures to the sympathetic Phaeacians.
One interesting point is that at no point does Homer describe the Sirens as birds. This is how they have often been represented since but there is nothing actually in the text to suggest this. Where the bird-image came from we do not know. Perhaps the poet didn’t bother to mention it because he would assume it was obvious to his audience, or perhaps it is a separate detail that later became associated with Homer’s text (it is also interesting that in Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops the poet never explicitly says that the giant has only one eye, although that is a discussion for another time).
We drove past swiftly, but when we were within hail of the shore, the Sirens could not fail to see our speeding vessel as it drew near, and began their clear singing: “Famous Odysseus, great glory of Achaea, draw near, and bring your ship to rest, and listen to our voices. No man rows past this isle in his dark ship without hearing the honeysweet sound from our lips. He delights in it and goes his way a wiser man. We know all the suffering the Argives and the Trojans endured, by the gods’ will, on the wide plains of Troy. We know everything that comes to pass on the fertile Earth.”
Such was the beautiful song of the Sirens, and I longed to listen, commanding my crew by my expression to set me free. But they bent to their oars and rowed harder, while Perimedes and Eurylochus rose and tightened my bonds and added more rope. Not till they had rowed beyond the Sirens, so we no longer heard their voices and song, did my loyal friends clear the wax that plugged their ears, and untie me.’
If you are interested in female characters in myth then the Odyssey is the place to go. The text is full of fascinating women, ranging from his loyal wife Penelope, trapped in the household, to the witch Circe or the nymph Calypso, strange, magical beings who dwell on the edges of the known world and threaten to end Odysseus’ journey home. The Sirens are of the latter category, extremely dangerous and posing a very real threat to the hero’s mission. There are many examples of the power of the female voice in Odysseus, more often than not of its destructive power, and the Sirens are the epitome of this anxiety about the female voice. Their song has the power to lure Odysseus away from his home and loving wife, to bring to destruction to himself and his crew.
It is not only their portrayal as female that is interesting. The actual content of the Siren song is extremely revealing. First of all the Sirens describe themselves in three ways: they are melodious singers, bestowers of pleasurable song, and they are omniscient. These are the traditional attributes of the Muses in Greek thought, the goddesses who inspire Homer’s poetry. However they are not the Muses of the Odyssey. Their language is specifically that of the Iliad, the other great Greek epic which describes the war at Troy in which Odysseus fought. The Sirens identify Odysseus as a Trojan hero, not an Odyssean one. He is the great glory of Achaea, an Iliadic description not used elsewhere in the Odyssey and the stories they tempt him with are those of the Iliad not of the Odyssey.
Pucci notes the self-destructive threat of the Sirens. They tempt Odysseus with a nostalgic remembrance of the great deeds of battle, but in doing so they would take him out of his own epic. The Odyssey would come to an end and Odysseus would die on a far away island; he would never make it to Phaeacia to tell his adventures and so spread his fame. He would die in obscurity. It is an extraordinary dialogue between the poet of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey. Although traditionally they were both written by the same bard called Homer, many scholars now believe that they were written by two separate people. Therefore the poet of the Odyssey acknowledges the allure of that of the Iliad, but understands that ultimately it only brings about death and grief. He keeps his hero chained to the mast, safe from the dangers of the Iliad and able to continue his journey home to his loving wife.
There are many more ways to look at this scene, I have only given my two favourite interpretations. Homer’s texts are so rich it would takes books to cover any scene in full detail.
I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas! Happy holidays everyone!
Further reading: The Song of the Sirens, Pucci (1998).