Sirens are identified as sea nymphs who by their sweet song they lured mariners to their deaths. They are imaged as raptor birds with female heads. The derivation of the name seems more associated with their bird-like nature. The name means ‘she who grasps, binds, enthralls’ and derives from Indo-European ‘twer-2’, ‘To grasp, hold hard’,’ya-‘, ‘To be aroused’ and ‘en-‘, ‘In’. This concept seems likely to come from the Indo-European culture who were not associated with the sea. So the concept must have been modified when it got to Greece.
The Sirens lived on an island (Hesiod calls this Island Anthemoessa) in the sea. They sang
songs so sweetly that they lured sailors to their deaths. Hesiod also that they calmed the winds from their island and that they had a piercing voice. A picture of a siren follows: <a
A more recent siren:
John William Waterhouse, ‘The Siren’
Apollodorus (E 7.19) discusses the Sirens as follows: “Now the Sirens were
Pisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepia, daughters of Achelous and Melpomene, one of
the Muses. One of them played the lyre, another sang, and another played the
flute, and by these means they were fain to persuade passing mariners to
linger;  and from the thighs they had the forms of birds.1 Sailing by
them, Ulysses wished to hear their song, so by Circe’s advice he stopped the
ears of his comrades with wax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to
the mast. And being persuaded by the Sirens to linger, he begged to be
released, but they bound him the more, and so he [p. 293] sailed past. Now it
was predicted of the Sirens that they should themselves die when a ship should
pass them; so die they did.2”
The notes on this passage are interesting:
“1 Similarly Apollonius Rhodius (Ap. Rhod., Argon. iv.898ff.) describes the
Sirens as partly virgins and partly birds. Aelian tells us (Ael., Nat. Anim.
xvii.23) that poets and painters represented them as winged maidens with the
feet of birds. Ovid says that the Sirens had the feet and feathers of birds,
but the faces of virgins; and he asks why these daughters of Achelous, as he
calls them, had this hybrid form. Perhaps, he thinks, it was because they had
been playing with Persephone when gloomy Dis carried her off, and they had
begged the gods to grant them wings, that they might search for
their lost playmate over seas as well as land. See Ov. Met. 5.552-562. In like
manner Hyginus describes the Sirens as women above and fowls below, but he
says that their wings and feathers were a punishment inflicted on them by
Demeter for not rescuing Persephone from the clutches of Pluto. See Hyginus,
Fab. 125, 141. Another story was that they were maidens whom Aphrodite
turned into birds because they chose to remain unmarried. See Eustathius on
Hom. Od. 12.47, p. 1709. It is said that they once vied with the Muses in
singing, and that the Muses, being victorious, plucked off the Siren’s
feathers and made crowns out of them for themselves (Paus. 9.34.3). In
ancient art, as in literature, the Sirens are commonly represented as women
above and birds below. See Miss J. E. Harrison, Myths of the Odyssey (London,
1882), pp. 146ff. Homer says nothing as to the semi-bird shape of the Sirens,
thus leaving us to infer that they were purely human.”
“2 This is not mentioned by Homer, but is affirmed by Hyginus, Fab. 125,
141). Others said that the Sirens cast themselves into the sea and were
drowned from sheer vexation at the escape of Ulysses.
See Scholiast on Hom. Od.xii.39; Eustathius on Hom. Od. 12.167, p. 1709;
Tzetzes, Scholiast on Lycophron 712; compare Strab. 6.1.1. ”
The sirens were creatures who sang so sweetly that they attracted
sailors to their death. The Sirens are a threat because they give the choice
of hearing about life instead of experiencing it. Sirens were temtresses who
with their sweet voices represent the distractions that keep you from your goal.
The Greeks thought the Sirens were daughters of one of the Muses and were
perhaps related to Hera. Odysseus brought about their destruction by listening
to them while he was tied to the mast. Their fate was only to live as long as
they were successful in their lure. Odysseus listened but was not lured. They
ceased to exist as a result.
The fact that they are half human and half bird suggests that
they came from the goddeses of another mid-eastern land. The deites of the
other countries, such as Egypt, are more commonly of this form.
Sirens and Their Impact on Greek Art and Culture
Questions and Answers
Question: Could you please send me some info and books & websites that
would help me give a presentation on the Sirens? Thank you!
Answer: This is it.
Question: Are there any songs about the Sirens?
Answer: Journeyman, by Stephen Thomas, Tsunami, Inc., Walla Walla, WA, 1997,
127 pages, paperback, “The Sirens’ Song”
Question: i’m doing a speech on the Sirens for my english class and what i really don’t understand is , whether or not the sirens father is acheloos the river god , or phorcys the sea god. also i’ve read that there are actually five sirens instead of three but i can’t find much info on that.
Answer: Robert E. Bell says they were the daughters of Achelous. He also
lists various groupings of Sirens incluing the following names:
As if this were not enough there are also variations on these names.
Question: How were the Sirens born?
Answer: They were daughters of a god and goddess.
Question: why do the sirens lure sailors to their deaths?
Answer: One reason given is that they want to eat them. They also may want
the possessions of the sailors. They serve as a warning to men not to be
distracted by lovely women.
Question: did sirens eat human flesh? ive read that they did but im not sure
Answer: Homer says: “To the Sirens first shalt thou
come, who bewitch all men, whosoever shall come to them.
Whoso draws nigh them unwittingly and hears the sound of
the Sirens’ voice, never doth he see wife or babes stand by
him on his return, nor have they joy at his coming; but the
Sirens enchant him with their clear song, sitting in the
meadow, and all about is a great heap of bones of men,
corrupt in death, and round the bones the skin is wasting.”
Homer, Odyssey, Book XII. This suggests that the sirens were not
cannibals because they left the skin to rot. But others are not
so sure. The fact that eating has a sexual connotation may be very relevant.
The Sirens seem to be temptresses that distract men from their work so
their work does not get done. The song seems to attract the men because
it gives a sexy impression. The Sirens then kill the men off with sexual
Question: Which myth except for Atlantis do the Sirens appear in
Answer: Jason, in the voyage of the Argo, and Odysseus, in the Odyssey,
both had to deal with the Sirens.