Myth and Legend


in Greek mythology, a creature half bird and half woman who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of her song. According to Homer there were two Sirens on an island in the western sea between Aeaea and the rocks of Scylla.  Later the number was usually increased to three, and they were located on the west coast of Italy, near Naples.  They were variously said to be the daughters of the sea god Phorcys or of the river god Achelous.

The Greek hero Odysseus, advised by the sorceress Circe, escaped the danger of their song by stopping the ears of his crew with wax so that they were deaf to the Sirens; yet he was able to hear the music and had himself tied to the mast so that he could not steer the ship out of course.  Another story relates that when the  Argonauts sailed that way, Orpheus sang so divinely that none of them listened to the Sirens. In later legend, after one or other of these failures the Sirens committed suicide.  In art they appeared first as birds with the heads of women, later as women, sometimes winged, with bird legs.

The Sirens seem to have evolved from a primitive tale of the perils of early exploration combined with an Oriental image of a bird-woman. Anthropologists explain the Oriental image as a soul-bird--i.e., a winged ghost that stole the living to share its fate. In that respect the Sirens had affinities with the Harpies.
Encyclopaedia Britannica 97 n [ME, fr. MF & L; MF sereine, fr. LL sirena, fr. L siren, fr. Gk seiren] (14c) 1 often cap: any of a group of female and partly human creatures in Greek mythology that lured mariners to destruction by their singing 2 a: a woman who sings with bewitching sweetness b: temptress 3 a: an apparatus producing musical tones esp. in acoustical studies by the rapid interruption of a current of air, steam, or fluid by a perforated rotating disk b: a device often electrically operated for producing a penetrating warning sound <ambulance ~> <air-raid ~> 4 [NL, fr. L]: either of two No. American eel-shaped amphibians that constitute a genus (Siren) and have small forelimbs but neither hind legs nor pelvis and have permanent external gills as well as lungs adj (1568): resembling that of a siren: enticing

siren song n (1568): an alluring utterance or appeal; esp: one that is seductive or deceptive
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 10th ed.


in Greek religion, one of the nine Muses, patron of tragedy and lyre playing. In Greek art her attributes were the tragic mask and the club of Heracles.  According to some traditions, the half-bird, half-woman Sirens were born from the union of Melpomene with the river god Achelous.
Encyclopaedia Britannica 97


German LORELEY, large rock on the bank of the Rhine River near Sankt Goarshausen, Ger.  The rock produces an echo and is associated with the legend of a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine in despair over a faithless lover and was transformed into a siren who lured fishermen to destruction.  The essentials of the legend were claimed as his invention by German writer Clemens Brentano in his novel Godwi (1800-02).  Lorelei has been the subject of a number of literary works and songs; the poem Die Loreley by Heinrich Heine was set to music by more than 25 composers.
Encyclopaedia Britannica 97

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Background Illustration Courtesy of KIRA YUKO