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The Origin of Sirens

As BIRD people

By Alexandrea CallaghanPublished 10 months ago 4 min read

So something that bothers me to no end is when people either casually or in the media depict Sirens as mermaids. Now I know that this is a weird hill to die on but as someone who studied Greek Mythology for years for a screenplay it is something that I am very passionate about. This entire video stems from a conversation and debate I had with my father a couple of years ago about the origins of Sirens because he, like many people of his generation, thinks he knows more than me by the simple nature of me being his child. But I don’t engage unless I’m right so here we are with the history of Sirens.

First of all the term Siren has several official definitions including; a creature in ancient Greek stories that sang to sailors in order to make them sail toward rocks and crash

a beautiful but dangerous woman

Both from the MacMillen dictionary

Classical Mythology

any of several sea nymphs, represented as part bird and part woman, who lure sailors to their death on rocky coasts by seductive singing

a woman who uses her sexual attractiveness to entice or allure men; a woman who is considered seductive

From the Collins Dictionary

And…

any of a group of female and partly human creatures in Greek mythology that lured mariners to destruction by their singing

: a woman who sings with enchanting sweetness

From Merriam Webster's Dictionary

The word comes from the Greek work seira which literally translates to cord or rope, the word Seirēnes or Seiren comes from the Odyssey which is dated somewhere in the 7th century, definitely proving that nothing predates the Greek usage of the word. The magical fusion of Sirens with Mermaids happened because of the figurative definition that appeared in the 1580s, meaning “one who sings sweetly and charms and allures”.

The original myth surrounding the sirens and their allure is that they were half woman half bird, that perched themselves onto the rocks luring sailors in by singing, encouraging them to crash their ships. The Odyssey brings this to life when Odysseus has to tie himself to the mast of his ship as to not steer it into the rocks.

There have always been clear depictions of a sirens appearance;

Euripides, Helen 167 (trans. Vellacott) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :

"Winged maidens, virgin daughters of Gaia (Gaea, the Earth), the Seirenes (Sirens)."

Lycophron, Alexandra 712 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :

"The triple daughters [Seirenes (Sirens)] of Tethys' son [Akheloos (Achelous)], who imitated the strains of their melodious mother [Melpomene] . . . One of them . . . the bird goddess Parthenope. And Leukosia (Leucosia) . . . and Ligeia."

This is also shown to us in literally all Greek art that depicts sirens…as we’ve established the time of Greek mythology predates what we know as medieval times so their depictions and change of lore are irrelevant.

Even predating the Odyssey Greek Myth accounts that these winged women were once Persephone’s handmaidens and after she was stolen to the underworld by Hades they were granted their bird bodies to take to the sky’s and search for her. Other accounts state that they were punished with their bird form because they were incapable of protecting Persephone. Either way the myth predates the idea of mermaids by about 1,500 years.

The first account of sirens being depicted as mermaids was in the Liber-Monstrorum a catalog of fantastical creatures that was published around 8th century AD where it says sirens were “sea girls with the body of a maiden but have scaly fish tails”

In the second century the Clement of Alexandria preached that Sirens were prostitutes who sang pleasant melodies to men as an allegory for temptation.

By the fourth century Christianity had overtaken paganism and the literal belief in these mythical creatures was discouraged. This is when the Sirens were evolved from mythical creatures to a cautionary tale. Saint Jerome used the term Sirens to translate the terms Jackals and Owls in the books of Isiah and Jeremiah in the Latin Vulgate version of the bible. Ambrose of the 4th century also reiterated the idea of Sirens as an allegory for temptation.

Christianity even in its originality was delusional and used other religions' influence to fit their own agenda. Isidore of Seville in the 19th century wrote “They [the Greeks] imagine that "there were three sirens, part virgins, part birds," with wings and claws. "One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck. According to the truth, however, they were prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them." They had wings and claws because Love flies and wounds. They are said to have stayed in the waves because a wave created Venus.”

Dante and Da Vinci both wrote of sirens but kept their descriptions very vague, not truly committing to one depiction or another.

Now mermaids are separate creatures entirely, not truly being documented until “The Nun’s Priest Tale” by Chaucer in 1390. Now this was predated in Scandinavian folklore. Mere meaning sea and menen meaning female slave was documented in 725. The two mistresses of mythology were said to be conflated first by the Teutons, a northern European tribe that were written about by Roman authors.

Most of the need to join together came from the original myth, women-animal hybrids that led sailors to their deaths. Really all people remembered was the sailors part of that, meaning that these creatures had to be on or in the sea. And with Christopher Columbus’ report of mermaids (supported by sailors' delirium) these dangerous women of the seas were ghost stories told by sailors. They became a cautionary tale, the boogeyman for seaman. The two very separate are easily mergeable but the reality is that the original myth states that Sirens as their own entity are bird people, part woman, part bird no parts fish. Mermaids are a separate creature with their own history and mythology.

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About the Creator

Alexandrea Callaghan

Certified nerd, super geek and very proud fangirl.

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Comments (1)

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran10 months ago

    I'm obsessed with sirens and mermaids. I enjoyed reading this!

Alexandrea CallaghanWritten by Alexandrea Callaghan

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