“First you will raise the island of the Sirens, those creatures who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way.
Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air— no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face.
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transﬁx him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses, rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones …”
(Circe’s warning to Odysseus) Odyssey 12: 44 – 52
Somewhere along the lines, Sirens lost their true form.
Merged with the concepts of Mermaids, Sirens became half-human, half-fish women who lured male sailors to their death by their beauty and song. However, according to Greek Mythology, they didn’t start off that way.
Daughters to the minor Greek god Achelous, the three original sirens were initially sea nymphs, also called naiads. Together, they served as the handmaidens of Persephone, and in some versions, were very close friends to her. It became their main duty to serve the daughter of Demeter, and in the end, that relationship would be the reason for their transformation. 1
One beautiful evening, Persephone decided to go to a meadow and pick flowers. During this excursion Hades, the god of the Underworld, saw and fell in love with her at once. Abducting her, and carrying her off on his chariot, Persephone was forcefully taken into the Underworld. 2
Once Demeter caught wind of Persephone’s kidnapping, she turned her fury towards the Sirens for failing to protect her daughter. In retaliation, she cursed all three of them to take a half-bird form.
While the former story is more common, in other versions of this story, Demeter only grants the Sirens the forms of birds to help search for Persephone across the Earth. However, once they failed to locate her and gave up trying, Demeter cursed them-making their transformations permanent.
It would be these sirens that would later bear down upon Jason on his trip with the Golden Fleece. When they sung their enchanting song, they captured the Argonauts in a trance to lure them to their death. It would only be thanks to Orpheus, a demi-god musician, that Jason and his men were saved. 3
In the Odyssey, Odysseus was tasked to sail past the sirens as well.
Whether or not these are the same sirens that Jason travelled past is not likely as legends state the only way to successfully kill a siren is to resist their song. So theoretically, the sirens that surrounded Jason most likely died as the Argonauts escaped.
Sadly though, Odysseus did not have the son of a muse on board like Orpheus, so he was forced to look for another way to solve his siren problem. Circe, a sorceress of the island Aiai, solved this puzzle for him. Circe instructed Odysseus to fill his men’s ears with wax so they couldn’t hear the sirens song.
Odysseus, a man of curiosity, however, wanted to hear what the siren’s song sounded like. So he had his men tie him to the mast so he could listen to the sirens without leading himself to his own death. Unlike most portrayals of sirens, the sirens didn’t sing of love or beauty. No, the feathered-creatures sang of power and ambition, and how Odysseus could become a great warrior.
Thanks to Circe’s advice, however, Odysseus and his men survived the encounter.
After Odysseus endured their song, the sirens proceeded to throw themselves off the shore, dying in the process
The remaining sirens, in later mythology, would lose their wings after being defeated by the muses (Greek goddesses of art and science) in a singing contest. The muses, being the victors, chose to pluck and wear the sirens’ feathers as crowns.
(So how in the world did they become to be portrayed as mermaids?)
After the muses took their wings, the sirens were left with normal physiques yet still retained their enchanting voice. It might be after this myth that artists decided to add onto sirens’ features, giving them another ending besides death.
“But why mermaids?”
Remember that the Sirens were daughters of the river deity Achelous, and were originally sea nymphs. After losing their wings they might have tried to return to their beginning element: water.
Perhaps artists took that in account as portraying them to be half-woman, half-fish?
Side Note: My personal favorite portrayal of sirens is how they are depicted in the movie Sinbad. That’s what I picture a sea nymph to look like.
Of course, it also speculated that the last of the Sirens died, joining Persephone and Hades in the Underworld.
But who knows with all the mythological versions of the story, am I right?
Until next time: Keep Calm and History On!
1 : Sherman, Josepha. Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore. (New York: Routledge, 2009.) 416 – 417
2 : Cartwright, Mark. “Persephone.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. March 24, 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/persephone/.
3 :The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Orpheus.” Encyclopedia Britannica. May 30, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Orpheus-Greek-mythology.