Mythology is full of amazing and frightening creatures, and the Siren is no exception. Having her place in the Greek mythos, our vision of this alluring creature may be a little skewed by invalid storylines.
Debunking the Siren as a Mermaid
To understand where the lines have been blurred in the tales of sirens, it seems best to start with what they are not. Somehow, people began to lump sirens and mermaids into the same creature, but according to the mythology of the trickster songstresses, sirens were bird-like, not fish-like.
The confusion about the Siren may come from where one is most likely to discover such a mythological beast — on the water. While it’s typical to see different species of birds near water, it may seem more logical for men in myths to succumb to the call of some beautiful woman who is part fish, lurking just above the surface of the water than that of a bird-like creature not hidden by waves and seaweed.
The confusion as to the original “look” of sirens in ancient tales and the mermaid we mistake them for could also be the addition of singing to "The Little Mermaid" story by Hans Christian Andersen. This story of a young mermaid who falls in love with a man she saves from drowning was turned into plays, musicals, operas, ballets, and a Disney song — all full of singing. While we don’t see Ariel and her sisters calling forth ships to crash into rocks, it’s still possible the song of the little mermaid was confused with the song of the Siren.
Describing the Siren, According to Mythology
Now that your whole view of sirens is shattered, let’s get an idea of what they really look like. The primary difference between the mermaid as a siren and the actual sirens from myth is that sirens have wings rather than fins.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Siren appears to be a creature with a human torso and bird-like bottom half. They may have feathered wings, as well. From the descriptions of these bird-like ladies, they may have been depicted as harp-playing angels and look comparatively like the Harpies of mythology.
Myths About the Sirens
A glance into any text about mythology is sure to bring you some info on the sirens. In “The Mythic Bestiary” by Tony Allen, the sirens are described as alluring or beautiful, unlike the somewhat similar harpies, which were hag-like bird creatures.
While the sirens make appearances throughout mythology, one of the most popular myths about them is tied in with Odysseus. In Homer’s epic poem “Odyssey,” the tale is told that Odysseus finds himself curious as to what the sirens are singing to him, so he has his fellow sailors bound him to the mast of the ship, and they all put in earplugs. He makes them all swear not to let him go, no matter what he says, until they are clear of the singing seductresses.
The problem is, according to some myths, if a siren's song doesn’t work, she will then die. That would mean that Odysseus’ escape from their song would cause those sirens to fling themselves into the water to drown (remember, they’re bird ladies, not fish ladies). Or, perhaps they'd have come up with some other creative ways of unliving themselves. Then again, they may just die, once the song doesn't do its job.
Stories of sirens and mermaids will probably always cross paths since both mythological creatures make their home on the wide-open waters of the sea. Just be sure that when you hear a beautiful voice singing to you while you’re sailing, you turn your boat the other way.