Wednesday, August 4, 2010


We must steer clear of the Sirens, their enchanting

song, their meadow starred with flowers 

Odysseus warns his crewmen, repeating the advice given to him by Circe.  Homer’s Sirens are not beautiful; in their early depictions on Greek vases, they are monstrous hybrids of birds and women. Homer says they

loll in their flowered meadow, round them heaps of corpses

rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.

They do not devour the sailors who jump from their ship and swim to the Sirens’ island, lured by the irresistible song. The men presumably starve, unable to tear themselves away from listening to the Sirens.

When it comes to beautiful singing, Greek mythology supplies us with two main examples: Orpheus, and the Sirens. Both sang with ravishing voices. Animals, enchanted, followed Orpheus; even trees uprooted themselves to follow his song. The song of female Sirens was even more compelling, making men forget all else, listening to the singing until they became piles of bones and rotting skin. Ever since, “Siren song” has stood for “fatal attraction.”

We know the Sirens had beautiful voices and their song, we imagine, had a lovely melody. The Sirens are the daughters of a river god and the muse of tragedy, Melpomene. In an alternate version, their mother is the muse of epic poetry, Calliope.

But what were the lyrics of their song? Let us turn to Homer.

The wind dies down, and the crew starts rowing. Odysseus plugs their ears with wax, has himself lashed to the mast, and hears this:

Come here, honored Odysseus, Achaia’s glory,

and stay your ship to listen to our voices.

No one has sailed past here in his black ship

until he has heard our honey-sweet song;

Then he sails on, well-pleased and richer in knowledge.

We know the grief the Greeks and Trojans suffered 
on the wide plain of Troy because the gods willed it.

We know all that passes on the generous earth.


The song is not about sex, and not about homecoming.  Some scholars argue that it is about fame. On face value, however, the song seems to be about knowledge. Perhaps the song is customized, depending on what the listener most desires. To Odysseus, a man with a brilliant mind, the Sirens offer knowledge: the knowledge of all that happens, but possibly also the knowledge of the past and the future. Odysseus wants to stop and listen; he wants to be untied, which he desperately tries to signal to his crew by jerking his eyebrows; he is clearly tempted by the song.

The Sirens know how seductive, even irresistible, the search for knowledge can be; these ancient psychologists may even understand the compulsive nature of unfocused curiosity. Only in our age of “information overload” do we begin to understand the actual horror of it: Odysseus wants to know everything that happens in the world.

But the song of Homer’s Sirens does not seem to satisfy the modern reader. We expected something much more erotic and wonderfully strange. Here is how Margaret Atwood imagines what the Sirens sing:


This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer.  This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last.  Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

~ Margaret Atwood, from You Are Happy


This is an appeal both to altruism (Help me!) and to vanity (only you are powerful and unique enough to help me).

Linda Pastan remains closer to Homer, beginning with a lament:

Is there no music now  . . .

for which a man would go breathlessly

off course, would even drown?


Is there no music now

except the chime

of coins in the pocket

for which a man would go breathlessly

off course, would even drown?

Odysseus tied to his mast

regretted his own foresight.

In ordinary days to come in Ithaca

the song of some distant bird,

the chords of water against

the shore, even Penelope

humming to herself at the loom

would make his head turn, his eyes

stray toward the sea.

~ Linda Pastan, The Imperfect Paradise


Pastan is not concerned with the words of the Sirens’ song. What’s ravishing is the music, the pure sound. We could even argue that it’s a beautiful death, listening to the divine melody. “Now more than ever it seems rich to die,” Keats said about listening to a nightingale.

Edward Hirsch, however, picks up on the image of the Sirens “lolling,” and the result is a marvelous poem not about music and singing, but another kind of bliss.


  (The Odyssey, Book Twelve)

I listened so the goddess could charm my mind
against the ravishing sunlight, the lord of noon,

and I could stroll through country unharmed

toward the prowling straits of Scylla and Charybdis,

but I was unprepared for the Siren lolling

on a bed in a dirty room above a tavern

where workers guzzled sour red wine

and played their cards late into the night.

It takes only a moment to cruise eternity

who dressed quickly and left, after twenty minutes,

taking my money. I went back to the ship

and the ordinary men pressing for home,

but, love, some part of me has never left

that dark green shore sweetened with clover.

   ~ Edward Hirsch, The Desire Manuscripts,

               from Lay Back the Darkness

When I read Hirsch’s poems, only my delight keeps me from crying with envy. “It takes only a moment to cruise eternity” is my favorite line, but the entire poem ravishes the reader with its natural flow of a little narrative where everything seems natural and inevitable, and yet is a marvelous surprise at the same time.

When I was growing up in Warsaw, I was fascinated by what glimpses I could get of the city’s nightlife. It was presided over by beautiful, elegant women. Their every gesture was erotic, with a stylized, film-noir quality to it. It didn’t seem to matter what these Sirens whispered or crooned to the men kissing their hands and lighting their cigarettes; their power was a self-confident eroticism.

But I hated the thought of how much time those women had to spend on their looks; besides, I didn’t feel I’d ever have the expertise about the arcana of hairdos, make-up, and clothes. Not that I was attracted to the ideal of the modest service-type woman, the opposite of the temptress. Basically I didn’t want to grow up to be a woman; I desperately wanted to stay myself, a young girl watching the great city, exhilarated by its energy and mystery. 

My own “Siren” poem grew out of the earlier “women” version --


Sirens shimmer fluorescent 
in shop windows, signs

tremble like thin ice

over cafés and bars –

narrow skirts, tight blouses
serving up their breasts,
Sirens lean toward men
lighting their cigarettes;

dusky voices uncoil
from lipstick and smoke.
I still cross myself
when passing a church,

but I want the bell of darkness

over the unfinished

arc of streetlights,

the electric hues

hiving in wet asphalt.

Chilled in winter sleet, 
I can't wait to ride
on the express C bus

through downtown Warsaw
at night: thin moons
of my breath on the pane,

a slippery algebra of lights.

The accordion doors
swoosh open and shut with a sigh;
on the radio, a song of those years:

The Dancing Eurydices.

Eurydices dance in hell,
the lights flow like destinies:
soon I will be a woman,

a Siren or a Eurydice –

multiplied, spiraled with neon,
arriving in metal and mirrors –
steep glare of entrances,

though the shivering signs

shuffle the avenues 
like a pack of cards;
the lights change but keep silent 
about the price of song. 

   ~ Oriana


On a more elevated level, I could also say that the choice presented to me was between Mary and Martha: Mary who “chose the better part,” listening to divine teaching, and poor Martha laboring in the kitchen. My father would sometimes remark, with some sarcasm, “I know those who chose the better part.” 


(I wish to thank Una, Lenny Lianne, and Jackleen Holton for their contributions to this part of the post, especially for their patience with my serial revisionism. The passages from Homer have been arranged by me using both the Richard Lattimore and the Robert Fables translations).


I must add one more thing. Only yesterday, while visiting the “Hero” exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art, I was astonished to learn that the concept of the Siren evolved away from the Homeric femme fatale toward something more akin to our notion of an angel.  The wings stayed, as well as the attribute of music. The most striking piece of art in the whole show was a funerary Siren: sculpted in marble, a lovely woman with large wings, playing a kithara, a string instrument resembling a lyre. It turns out that Sirens were believed to accompany the dead to the Underworld, consoling them with music. Ultimately, the Sirens, who could impart mystical wisdom, also became a symbol of the soul yearning for paradise.

And since I mentioned Orpheus as another ravishing singer, let us not forget that Orpheus too had a connection with the Underworld, and the Orphic mysteries were similar to the Eleusinian mysteries that honored Demeter and Persephone. While Orpheus sang in Hades, all suffering ceased. Need we say more about the power of music? Lovers of classical music often say that this is the closest we can come to the divine. Orpheus and the Sirens have more in common than enchanting music – not the Homeric Sirens, but the consolers of the dead. We lose the world, but we gain the song.

[Alas, this image of a funerary Siren, dating to the first century BC, is nowhere as lovely as the one I saw.]


  1. which translation of the odyssey did you use? "meadow STARRED with flowers." its helpful for my research

  2. Alas, I've lost track of the translation -- it's not Fitzgerald, and not Stanley Lombardo, so I suspect I had yet another text from the library. It's from Book 12:

    Circe warned, “First we must steer clear of the Sirens,
    their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers.
    I alone was to hear their voices”, so she said,
    “but you must bind me with tight chafing ropes
    so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot,
    erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast.
    And if I plead, commanding you to set me free,
    then lash me faster, rope on pressing rope.”

    Sorry not to be able to be of more help.

    Thanks for reading the blog ~ Oriana