Homer’s Odysseus and the Mythology of the Sirens

Greece - Scott #1483 (1983)
Greece – Scott #1483 (1983)

I had planned on opening this article mentioning that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were probably the oldest named works that I have yet read. Of course, a brief peek at Wikipedia will tell one that the Odyssey (Ὀδύσσεια or Odýsseia in Classical Attic Greek) is the second-oldest extant work of Western literature, while the Iliad (Ἰλιάς or Iliás) is the oldest. Scholars believe the Odyssey was composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia.

Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy (Ilium) by a coalition of Greek states, the Iliad  tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. The Odyssey mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (Ὀδυσσεύς or Ὀdysseús in Greek, also known as Ulyssēs or Ulixēs in Latin), king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed Odysseus has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, the Mnesteres (Μνηστῆρες) or Proci, who compete for Penelope’s hand in marriage.

Map of Odysseus' journey home following the Trojan War.
Map of Odysseus’ journey home following the Trojan War.

The Odyssey continues to be read in the Homeric Greek and translated into modern languages around the world. Many scholars believe the original poem was composed in an oral tradition by an aoidos (epic poet/singer), perhaps a rhapsode (professional performer), and was more likely intended to be heard than read. The details of the ancient oral performance and the story’s conversion to a written work inspire continual debate among scholars. The Odyssey was written in a poetic dialect of Greek — a literary amalgam of Aeolic Greek, Ionic Greek, and other Ancient Greek dialects — and comprises 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter. Among the most noteworthy elements of the text are its non-linear plot, and the influence on events of choices made by women and slaves, besides the actions of fighting men. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.

The Odyssey has a lost sequel, the Telegony, which was not written by Homer. It was usually attributed in antiquity to Cinaethon of Sparta. In one source, the Telegony was said to have been stolen from Musaeus of Athens by either Eugamon or Eugammon of Cyrene.

Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus. Marble, Greek, probably 1st century AD. From the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga. Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga. Photo taken during the Iliad exhibition at the Colosseum on September 14, 2006.
Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus. Marble, Greek, probably 1st century AD. From the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga. Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga. Photo taken during the Iliad exhibition at the Colosseum on September 14, 2006.

Odysseus is a legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of the Odyssey. He also plays a key role in Homer’s Iliad and other works in that same epic cycle. Son of Laërtes and Anticlea, husband of Penelope and father of Telemachus, Odysseus is renowned for his intellectual brilliance, guile, and versatility (polytropos), and is thus known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (μῆτις or mētis, “cunning intelligence”). He is most famous for his nostos or “homecoming”, which took him ten eventful years after the decade-long Trojan War.

On the way home from Troy, after a raid on Ismarus in the land of the Cicones, Odysseus and his twelve ships are driven off course by storms. They visit the lethargic Lotus-Eaters and are captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus while visiting his island. After Polyphemus eats several of his men, Polyphemus and Odysseus have a discussion and Odysseus tells Polyphemus his name is “Nobody”. Odysseus takes a barrel of wine, and the Cyclops drinks it, falling asleep. Odysseus and his men take a wooden stake, ignite it with the remaining wine, and blind him. While they escape, Polyphemus cries in pain, and the other Cyclopes ask him what the matter is. Polyphemus cries, “Nobody has blinded me!” and the other Cyclopes think he has gone mad. Odysseus and his crew escape, but Odysseus rashly reveals his real name, and Polyphemus prays to Poseidon, his father, to take revenge.

They stay with Aeolus, the master of the winds, who gives Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. However, the sailors foolishly open the bag while Odysseus sleeps, thinking that it contains gold. All of the winds fly out, and the resulting storm drives the ships back the way they had come, just as Ithaca comes into sight.

“Laestrygonians Hurling Rocks at the Fleet of Odysseus”, the fourth panel of the so-called “Odyssey Landscapes” wall painting in the Musei Vaticani, Biblioteca Apostolica, Città del Vaticano, Rome, Italy, 60–40 B.C.E.

After pleading in vain with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embark and encounter the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. Odysseus’ ship is the only one to escape. He sails on and visits the witch-goddess Circe. She turns half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warns Odysseus about Circe and gives him a drug called moly, which resists Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus’ resistance, falls in love with him and releases his men. Odysseus and his crew remain with her on the island for one year, while they feast and drink. Finally, Odysseus’ men convince him to leave for Ithaca.

Guided by Circe’s instructions, Odysseus and his crew cross the ocean and reach a harbor at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrifices to the dead and summons the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias for advice. Next Odysseus meets the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief during his long absence. From her, he learns for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus also talks to his fallen war comrades and the mortal shade of Heracles.

Odysseus' ship passing between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Scylla has plucked five of Odysseus's men from the boat. The painting is from an Italian fresco by Alessandro Allori, circa 1575.
Odysseus’ ship passing between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Scylla has plucked five of Odysseus’s men from the boat. The painting is from an Italian fresco by Alessandro Allori, circa 1575.

Returning to Circe’s island, she advises them on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirt the land of the Sirens, pass between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, where they row directly between the two. However, Scylla drags the boat towards her by grabbing the oars and eats six men.

They land on the island of Thrinacia. There, Odysseus’ men ignore the warnings of Tiresias and Circe and hunt down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. Helios tells Zeus what happened and demands Odysseus’ men be punished or else he will take the sun and shine it in the Underworld. Zeus fulfills Helios’ demands by causing a shipwreck during a thunderstorm in which all but Odysseus drown. He washes ashore on the island of Ogygia, where Calypso compels him to remain as her lover for seven years. He finally escapes when Hermes tells Calypso to release Odysseus.

Odysseus is shipwrecked and befriended by the Phaeacians. After telling them his story, the Phaeacians, led by King Alcinous, agree to help Odysseus get home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbor on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus, and also meets up with Telemachus returning from Sparta. Athena disguises Odysseus as a wandering beggar to learn how things stand in his household.

The return of Ulysses, illustration by E. M. Synge from the 1909 Story of the World children's book series (book 1: On the shores of Great Sea)
The return of Ulysses, illustration by E. M. Synge from the 1909 Story of the World children’s book series (book 1: On the shores of Great Sea)

When the disguised Odysseus returns after 20 years, he is recognized only by his faithful dog, Argos. Penelope announces in her long interview with the disguised hero that whoever can string Odysseus’ rigid bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe shafts may have her hand. According to Bernard Knox, “For the plot of the Odyssey, of course, her decision is the turning point, the move that makes possible the long-predicted triumph of the returning hero”. Odysseus’ identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, as she is washing his feet and discovers an old scar Odysseus received during a boar hunt. Odysseus swears her to secrecy, threatening to kill her if she tells anyone.

When the contest of the bow begins, none of the suitors is able to string the bow of Apollo but then, after all the suitors have given up, the disguised Odysseus comes along, bends the bow, shoots the arrow, and wins the contest. Having done so, he proceeds to slaughter the suitors (beginning with Antinous whom he finds drinking from Odysseus’ cup) with help from Telemachus and two of Odysseus’ servants, Eumaeus the swineherd and Philoetius the cowherd. Odysseus tells the serving women who slept with the suitors to clean up the mess of corpses and then has those women hanged in terror. He tells Telemachus that he will replenish his stocks by raiding nearby islands. Odysseus has now revealed himself in all his glory (with a little makeover by Athena); yet Penelope cannot believe that her husband has really returned — she fears that it is perhaps some god in disguise, as in the story of Alcmene (mother of Heracles) — and tests him by ordering her servant Euryclea to move the bed in their wedding-chamber. Odysseus protests that this cannot be done since he made the bed himself and knows that one of its legs is a living olive tree. Penelope finally accepts that he truly is her husband, a moment that highlights their homophrosýnē (“like-mindedness”).

The next day Odysseus and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laërtes. The citizens of Ithaca follow Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to make peace.

Greece - Scott #1472-1486 (1983) complete set on three first day covers (purchased using Buy It Now, eBay August 6, 2018).
Greece – Scott #1472-1486 (1983) complete set on three first day covers (purchased using Buy It Now, eBay August 6, 2018).

On December 19, 1983, Greece issued a beautiful set of 15 stamps with Classical Greek artwork illustrating major events from Homer’s epic poems (Scott #1472-1486). Five of the stamps depict scenes from the Iliad: the abduction of Helena by Prince Paris (ancient pottery: 3 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1473); the Trojan Horse (wood carving: 4 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1474), the single-handed battle between Ajax and Hector (a dish: 14 drachmas horizontal, Scott # 1478), an image of Achilles (6 drachmas vertical, Scott #1476); and the heroes of the Iliad, painted on a cup (75 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1485). Three stamps in the set portray the opening scenes of the Odyssey, illustrating the disorder that has arisen in Odysseus’ household during his long absence: King Priam requesting the body of Hector (pottery: 15 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1479); Odysseus escaping from Polyphemus’ cave (27 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1481); and Hector receiving arms from his parents (a vase: 10 drachmas vertical, Scott #1477).

The second half of the Odyssey begins with Odysseus’ arrival at his home island of Ithaca. Here, exercising infinite patience and self-control, Odysseus tests the loyalty of his servants, plots and carries out a bloody revenge on Penelope’s suitors, and is reunited with his son, his wife, and his aged father. Five stamps from the 1983 set depict scenes from the second half of the poem, mostly from Attic red-figured vases: Odysseus on the Island of the Sirens (32 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1483); Odysseus meeting with Nausicaa (30 drachmas vertical, Scott #1482);  Odysseus slaying the suitors (50 drachmas vertical, Scott #1484); the blinding of Polyphemus (20 drachmas vertical, Scott #1480); and Achilles throwing dice with Ajax (ancient jar: 5 drachmas horizontal, Scott #1475). Two stamps in the set depict a bust of Homer (100 drachmas vertical, Scott #1486) and a frieze showing the deification of Homer (2 drachmas vertical, Scott #1472).

The stamps were all printed using offset lithography, some as booklet stamps and the others in sheets. The horizontally-oriented stamps, such as Scott #1483, measure 33 x 26 millimeters and are perforated 13 x 13¼ while the vertically-oriented stamps measure 26 x 33 mm, comb-perforated 13¼ x 13. While I’ve had used copies of several of the stamps in this set (courtesy of a packet of 200 stamps purchased by my sister during a trip to Athens several years ago), I’ve only just ordered a set of first day covers of the entire series (illustrated above).

There were 18,000,000 copies printed of the 32-drachma stamp portraying “Odysseus and the Sirens”, the eponymous vase of the Siren Painter, the name given to an ancient Greek artist who decorated but did not sign Attic red-figured vases. His real name is unknown, as are the date of his birth and death. Following usual practice, this artist’s name was derived from the subject of one of his artworks, a red-figured stamnos which illustrates a scene from Homer’s Odyssey (XII, 39): Odysseus is tied to the mast of his ship when he is passing along the island of the Sirens, dangerous bird-women. The Siren painter was presumably working in Athens in the years 480 to 470 BC. The vase is currently in the collections of the British Museum in London, England.

Odysseus and the Sirens, eponymous vase of the Siren Painter, circa 480-470 BC (British Museum).

In Greek mythology, the Sirens (singular, Σειρήν or Seirēn; plural, Σειρῆνες or Seirēnes) were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Roman poets placed them on some small islands called Sirenum scopuli. In some later, rationalized traditions, the literal geography of the “flowery” island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa, is fixed: sometimes on Cape Pelorum and at others in the islands known as the Sirenuse, near Paestum, or in Capreae. All such locations were surrounded by cliffs and rocks.

The etymology of the name is at present contested, possibly connected to σειρά (seirá — “rope, cord”) and εἴρω (eírō — “to tie, join, fasten”), resulting in the meaning “binder, entangler” or  one who binds or entangles through magic song.

This East Greek type of terracotta perfume vase takes the form of a siren, a mythical creature with a woman's head and a bird's body, known for her connections to the underworld and for her mesmerizing power over men. A pierced lug for hanging is attached to her back. circa 540 BC (Archaic) Currently in the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (purchased during the sale of Joseph Brummer Collection, pt. III, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York. June 8-9, 1949.
This East Greek type of terracotta perfume vase takes the form of a siren, a mythical creature with a woman’s head and a bird’s body, known for her connections to the underworld and for her mesmerizing power over men. A pierced lug for hanging is attached to her back. circa 540 BC (Archaic) Currently in the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (purchased during the sale of Joseph Brummer Collection, pt. III, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York. June 8-9, 1949.

Sirens were believed to combine women and birds in various ways. Originally, Sirens were shown to be male or female, but the male Siren disappeared from art around fifth century BCE. In early Greek art, Sirens were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, Sirens had the form of sparrows, and below they were women or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women’s faces. Birds were chosen because of their beautiful voices. Later Sirens have often been depicted as beautiful women, whose bodies, not only their voices, are seductive.

The first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder discounted Sirens as pure fable, “although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces.” In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote of the Siren, “The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners.”

In 1917, Franz Kafka wrote in The Silence of the Sirens, “Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.”

Although a Sophocles fragment makes Phorcys their father, when Sirens are named, they are usually as daughters of the river god Achelous, with Terpsichore, Melpomene, Calliope or Sterope. In Euripides’ play, Helen (167), Helen in her anguish calls upon “Winged maidens, daughters of the Earth (Chthon).” Although they lured mariners, the Greeks portrayed the Sirens in their “meadow starred with flowers” and not as sea deities. Roman writers linked the Sirens more closely to the sea, as daughters of Phorcys. Sirens are found in many Greek stories, but most notably in Homer’s Odyssey.

Odysseus and the Sirens, a Roman Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo National Museum ( لمتحف الوطني بباردو) in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century AD.
Odysseus and the Sirens, a Roman Ulixes mosaic currently displayed at the Bardo National Museum (لمتحف الوطني بباردو) in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century AD. Photo taken on June 7, 2007.

In Homer’s poem, Odysseus encounters the Sirens following his encounter with the cannibalistic Laestrygonians during which his ship is the only one to escape. He sails on and visits the witch-goddess Circe who turns half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warns Odysseus about Circe and gives him a drug called moly, which resists Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus’ resistance, falls in love with him and releases his men. Odysseus and his crew remain with her on the island for one year, while they feast and drink. Finally, Odysseus’ men convince him to leave for Ithaca.

Guided by Circe’s instructions, Odysseus and his crew cross the ocean and reach a harbor at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrifices to the dead and summons the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias for advice. Next Odysseus meets the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief during his long absence. From her, he learns for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus also talks to his fallen war comrades and the mortal shade of Heracles.

Returning to Circe’s island, she advises them on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirt the land of the Sirens, who sang an enchanting song that normally caused passing sailors to steer toward the rocks, only to hit them and sink. All of the sailors had their ears plugged up with beeswax, except for Odysseus, who was tied to the mast as he wanted to hear the song. He told his sailors not to untie him as it would only make him want to drown himself. They then pass between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis.

“The Siren of Canosa,” statuette of a Siren from Canosa (Magna Græcia), at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, in Madrid. It was sculpted in terra cotta between 340 and 300 BC. She’s represented with legs, wings and tail of a bird, and carrying a zither. This artwork has a condition of a funerary and psychopomp daemon. Photo taken on March 12, 2008.

The number of Sirens is variously reported as from two to five. In the Odyssey, Homer says nothing of their origin or names, but gives the number of the Sirens as two. Later writers mention both their names and number: some state that there were three, Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia or Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia. Apollonius followed Hesiod and gives their names as Thelxinoe, Molpe, and Aglaophonos. Suidas gives their names as Thelxiepeia, Peisinoe, and Ligeia while Hyginus gives the number of the Sirens as four: Teles, Raidne, Molpe, and Thelxiope. Eustathius states that they were two, Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia; an ancient vase painting attests the two names as Himerope and Thelxiepeia. Their individual names are variously rendered in the later sources as Thelxiepeia/Thelxiope/Thelxinoe, Molpe, Himerope, Aglaophonos/Aglaope/Aglaopheme, Pisinoe/Peisinoë/Peisithoe, Parthenope, Ligeia, Leucosia, Raidne, and Teles.

  • Aglaope (Αγλαόπη) or Aglaophonos (Αγλαόφωνος) or Aglaopheme (Αγλαοφήμη, all to be translated as “with lambent voice”), attested as a daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Leucosia (Λευκωσία): Her name was given to the island opposite to the Sirens’ cape. Her body was found on the shore of Poseidonia.
  • Ligeia (Λιγεία): She was found ashore of Terina in Bruttium (modern Calabria).
  • Molpe (Μολπή), another daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Parthenope (Παρθενόπη): Her tomb was presented in Naples and called “constraction of sirens”.
  • Peisinoe (Πεισινόη) or Peisithoe (Πεισιθόη), daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Thelxiope (Θελξιόπη) or Thelxiepeia (Θελξιέπεια “eye pleasing”), daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
Miniature illustration of a Siren, portrayed with a fish's tail like a mermaid, lulls sailors to sleep with her song. One sailor stops his ears with his fingers to avoid hearing her. From an English bestiary (or bestiarum vocabulum, a compendium of beasts), originally published/produced in England (Salisbury?), 1230-1240. Held and digitized by the British Library, London, England.
Miniature illustration of a Siren, portrayed with a fish’s tail like a mermaid, lulls sailors to sleep with her song. One sailor stops his ears with his fingers to avoid hearing her. From an English bestiary (or bestiarum vocabulum, a compendium of beasts), originally published/produced in England (Salisbury?), 1230-1240. Held and digitized by the British Library, London, England.

According to Ovid (43 BC–17 AD), the Sirens were the companions of young Persephone. They were given wings by Demeter to search for Persephone when she was abducted. However, the Fabulae of Hyginus (64 BC–17 AD) has Demeter cursing the Sirens for failing to intervene in the abduction of Persephone. According to Hyginus, sirens were fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs were able to pass by them.

It is also said that Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded the Sirens to enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won the competition and then plucked out all of the Sirens’ feathers and made crowns out of them.[29] Out of their anguish from losing the competition, writes Stephanus of Byzantium, the Sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera (“featherless”), where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Leukai (“the white ones”, modern Souda).

In the Argonautica (third century BC), Jason had been warned by Chiron that Orpheus would be necessary in his journey. When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their voices. One of the crew, however, the sharp-eared hero Butes, heard the song and leapt into the sea, but he was caught up and carried safely away by the goddess Aphrodite.

“Ulysses and the Sirens”, oil on canvas by Herbert James Draper, circa 1909. Currently in the collection of Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull, England. Photo taken on March 8, 2010.

Odysseus was curious as to what the Sirens sang to him, and so, on the advice of Circe, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he would beg. When he heard their beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they bound him tighter. When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus demonstrated with his frowns to be released. Some post-Homeric authors state that the Sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them, and that after Odysseus passed by they therefore flung themselves into the water and perished.

Statues of Sirens in a funerary context are attested since the classical era, in mainland Greece, as well as Asia Minor and Magna Graecia. The so-called “Siren of Canosa” – Canosa di Puglia is a site in Apulia that was part of Magna Graecia – was said to accompany the dead among grave goods in a burial. The Sirens were called the Muses of the lower world, classical scholar Walter Copland Perry (1814–1911) observed: “Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.” Their song is continually calling on Persephone.

The term “siren song” refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad conclusion. Later writers have implied that the Sirens were cannibals, based on Circe’s description of them “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.” As linguist Jane Ellen Harrison notes of “The Ker as siren”: “It is strange and beautiful that Homer should make the Sirens appeal to the spirit, not to the flesh.” The siren song is a promise to Odysseus of mantic truths; with a false promise that he will live to tell them, they sing,

Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

“Odysseus And The Sirens” oil on canvas, painting by Léon Belly, 1867. Currently in the collection of the Musée de l’hôtel Sandelin in Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France. Photo taken on June 23, 2013.

“They are mantic creatures like the Sphinx with whom they have much in common, knowing both the past and the future”, Harrison observed. “Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm. The end of that song is death.” That the sailors’ flesh is rotting away, suggests it has not been eaten. It has been suggested that, with their feathers stolen, their divine nature kept them alive, but unable to provide food for their visitors, who starved to death by refusing to leave.

By the fourth century, when pagan beliefs were overtaken by Christianity, the belief in literal Sirens was discouraged. Although Saint Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, used the word Sirens to translate Hebrew tannīm (“jackals”) in Isaiah 13:22, and also to translate a word for “owls” in Jeremiah 50:39, this was explained by Ambrose to be a mere symbol or allegory for worldly temptations, and not an endorsement of the Greek myth.

The Early Christian euhemerist interpretation of mythologized human beings received a long-lasting boost from Isidore’s Etymologiae:

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.

The Siren, oil on canvas by Edward Armitage, 1888. Currently in the collection of Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, England. Photo taken on April 19, 2009.
The Siren, oil on canvas by Edward Armitage, 1888. Currently in the collection of Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, England. Photo taken on April 19, 2009.

Sirens continued to be used as a symbol for the dangerous temptation embodied by women regularly throughout Christian art of the medieval era; however, in the 17th century, some Jesuit writers began to assert their actual existence, including Cornelius a Lapide, who said of woman, “her glance is that of the fabled basilisk, her voice a siren’s voice — with her voice she enchants, with her beauty she deprives of reason — voice and sight alike deal destruction and death.” Antonio de Lorea also argued for their existence, and Athanasius Kircher argued that compartments must have been built for them aboard Noah’s Ark.

Charles Burney expounded in A General History of Music (circa 1789): “The name, according to Bochart, who derives it from the Phoenician, implies a songstress. Hence it is probable, that in ancient times there may have been excellent singers, but of corrupt morals, on the coast of Sicily, who by seducing voyagers, gave rise to this fable.” John Lemprière in his Classical Dictionary (1827) wrote, “Some suppose that the Sirens were a number of lascivious women in Sicily, who prostituted themselves to strangers, and made them forget their pursuits while drowned in unlawful pleasures. The etymology of Bochart, who deduces the name from a Phoenician term denoting a songstress, favors the explanation given of the fable by Damm. This distinguished critic makes the Sirens to have been excellent singers, and divesting the fables respecting them of all their terrific features, he supposes that by the charms of music and song they detained travelers, and made them altogether forgetful of their native land.”

The theme of perilous mythical female creatures seeking to seduce men with their beautiful singing is paralleled in the Danish medieval ballad known as “Elvehøj”, in which the singers are elves. The ballad is also conserved in a Swedish version. A modern literary appropriation of the myth is to be seen in Clemens Brentano’s Lore Lay ballad, published in his novel Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter (1801).

The Sirens and Ulysses, oil on canvas by William Etty, Currently in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery. Photo taken on December 19, 2013.
The Sirens and Ulysses, oil on canvas by William Etty, Currently in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery. Photo taken on December 19, 2013.

The Sirens and Ulysses is a large oil painting on canvas by the English artist William Etty, first exhibited in 1837. While traditionally the Sirens had been depicted as human–animal chimeras, Etty portrayed them as naked young women, on an island strewn with decaying corpses. The painting divided opinion at the time of its first exhibition, with some critics greatly admiring it while others derided it as tasteless and unpleasant.

The topic of Odysseus encountering the Sirens was well suited to Etty’s taste; as he wrote at the time, “My aim in all my great pictures has been to paint some great moral on the heart … the importance of resisting SENSUAL DELIGHTS”. In his depiction of the scene, he probably worked from Alexander Pope’s translation,

Their song is death, and makes destruction please.
Unblest the man whom music wins to stay
Nigh the curs’d shore, and listen to the lay
… In verdant meads they sport, and wide around
Lie human bones that whiten all the ground.
The ground polluted floats with human gore
And human carnage taints the dreadful shore.

The bodies rotting on the Sirens' island were drawn from actual corpses, offending some critics.
Detail from William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses. The bodies rotting on the Sirens’ island were drawn from actual corpses, offending some critics.

Etty put a great deal of effort into the painting, including visiting a mortuary to sketch the dead and decaying bodies on the Sirens’ island. His use of real corpses became publicly known, causing complaints from some critics. Although he visited Brighton in 1836 to make studies of the sea in connection with the painting, Etty had little experience of landscape and seascape painting, and the painting of the sea and clouds is rudimentary in comparison with the rest of the work.

Odysseus is visible in the background tied to the mast of his ship, while dark clouds rise in the background. Odysseus appears larger than his fellow sailors, while the Sirens hold out their arms in traditional dramatic poses. The three Sirens are very similar in appearance, and Etty’s biographer Leonard Robinson believes it likely that Etty painted the same model in three different poses. Robinson considers their classical poses to be the result of Etty’s lifelong attendance at the Academy’s Life Classes, where models were always in traditional poses, while former curator of York Art Gallery Richard Green considers their pose a tribute to the Nereids in Rubens’s The Disembarkation at Marseilles, a work Etty is known to have admired and of which he made a copy in 1823.

The physical appearance of the Sirens is not described in the Odyssey, and the traditional Greek representation of them was as bird-lion or bird-human chimeras. Etty rationalized the fully human appearance of his Sirens by explaining that their forms became fully human once out of the sea, an approach followed by a number of later painters of the subject.

Detail from William Etty's The Sirens and Ulysses (1837). The bound Ulysses is shown as considerably larger than his crewmates.
Detail from William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses (1837). The bound Ulysses is shown as considerably larger than his crewmates.

The work was completed in 1837 and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts later that year, and hung in the Academy’s new building at Trafalgar Square (now the National Gallery). The work, and Etty’s methods in making it, divided opinion: The Gentleman’s Magazine considered it “by far the finest [painting] that Mr. Etty has ever painted … it is a historical work of the first class, and abounds with beauties of all kinds”, while The Spectator described it as “a disgusting combination of voluptuousness and loathsome putridity — glowing in colour and wonderful in execution, but conceived in the worst possible taste”.

Possibly owing to its unusually large size, 14 feet 6 inches by 9 feet 9 inches (442.5 cm by 297 cm), the work initially failed to sell, and was bought later that year at a bargain price by the Manchester merchant Daniel Grant. Grant died shortly afterwards, and his brother donated The Sirens and Ulysses to the Royal Manchester Institution.

The Sirens and Ulysses was painted using an experimental technique, using a strong glue as a paint stabilizer which caused the paint to dry hard and brittle, and to flake off once dry, a problem made worse by the painting’s large size causing it to flex whenever it was moved. From the moment it was complete it began to deteriorate. It was shown in a major London exhibition of Etty’s work in 1849 and at the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester, but was then considered in too poor a condition for continued public display and was placed in the gallery’s archives.

In 2003, Manchester Art Gallery staff determined that if conservation work were not undertaken, the painting would soon be beyond repair. The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and AXA Art Insurance provided funding for the restoration. A replacement canvas to which the painting had been attached in the 1930s was removed. Following this, a mixture of isinglass adhesive and chalk was used to restore the surface of the painting, and the paint added during the earlier attempted restoration was removed. A new double layer of canvas was added to the back of the painting, and the three layers were glued together.

Detail from The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty (1837). The Sirens are similar in appearance, and the painting probably depicts the same model in three different poses.
Detail from The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty (1837). The Sirens are similar in appearance, and the painting probably depicts the same model in three different poses.

In 2006, the repaired painting was moved back from the conservation studios to the Manchester Art Gallery. The Gallery Nine section of the MAG was converted into a temporary studio, open to the public to watch the final retouching work until it was completed in 2010, and The Sirens and Ulysses went on  display over 150 years after being consigned to storage. The painting currently hangs in Gallery Three.

Today, the Odyssey is regarded as one of the most important foundational works of western literature. It is widely regarded by western literary critics as a timeless classic.

Straightforward retellings of the Odyssey have flourished ever since the Middle Ages. Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis (“On the Wandering of Ulysses, son of Laertes”) is an eccentric Old Irish version of the material; the work exists in a 12th-century AD manuscript, which linguists believe is based on an 8th-century original. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, first performed in 1640, is an opera by Claudio Monteverdi based on the second half of Homer’s Odyssey. The first canto of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1917) is both a translation and a retelling of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld. The poem “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is narrated by an aged Ulysses who is determined to continue to live life to the fullest. The Odyssey (1997), a made-for-TV movie directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, is a slightly abbreviated version of the epic.

Ulysses by James Joyce, published on February 2, 1922. Cover of the first edition.
Ulysses by James Joyce, published on February 2, 1922. Cover of the first edition.

Other authors have composed more creative reworkings of the poem, often updated to address contemporary themes and concerns. Cyclops by Euripides, the only fully extant satyr play, retells the episode involving Polyphemus with a humorous twist. A True Story, written by Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century AD, is a satire on the Odyssey and on ancient travel tales, describing a journey sailing westward, beyond the Pillars of Hercules and to the Moon, the first known text that could be called science fiction. James Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses (1922) is a retelling of the Odyssey set in modern-day Dublin. Each chapter in the book has an assigned theme, technique, and correspondences between its characters and those of Homer’s Odyssey. Homer’s Daughter by Robert Graves is a novel imagining how the version we have might have been invented out of older tales.

The Japanese-French anime Ulysses 31 (1981) updates the ancient setting into a 31st-century space opera. Omeros (1991), an epic poem by Derek Walcott, is in part a retelling of the Odyssey, set on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. The film Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) directed by Theo Angelopoulos has many of the elements of the Odyssey set against the backdrop of the most recent and previous Balkan Wars. Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998) adapts the epic to the American South, while also incorporating tall tales into its first-person narrative much as Odysseus does in the Apologoi (Books 9-12). The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is loosely based on Homer’s poem. Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novella The Penelopiad is an ironic rewriting of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey (2007) is a series of short stories that rework Homer’s original plot in a contemporary style reminiscent of Italo Calvino. The Heroes of Olympus (2010–2014) by Rick Riordan is based entirely on Greek mythology and includes many aspects and characters from the Odyssey.

Authors have also sought to imagine new endings for the Odyssey. In canto XXVI of the Inferno, Dante Alighieri meets Odysseus in the eighth circle of hell, where Odysseus himself appends a new ending to the Odyssey in which he never returns to Ithaca and instead continues his restless adventuring. Nikos Kazantzakis aspires to continue the poem and explore more modern concerns in his epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which was first published in 1938 in modern Greek.

In 2018, BBC Culture polled experts around the world to nominate the stories they felt had shaped mindsets or influenced history. Odyssey topped the list.

Flag of Greece
Flag of Greece
Coat of arms of Greece
Coat of arms of Greece
Greek text of the Odyssey’s opening passage. Click for an English translation of the entire epic poem.

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