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Odysseus and the sirens
Circe had told Odysseus about the sirens. No one who heard their song had survived. Through their music the sirens lured passing sailors to their deaths as they passed by.
As they sailed, an island appeared on the horizon and the sound of sweet music began to slowly fill the air as the sun shone brightly on their golden instruments, lighting up the landscape.
Odysseus knew what to do. He must not panic. He ordered the sailors to stuff their ears with wax and to be ready at the oars. When he gave the signal, they were to row as fast as they could.
“Under no circumstances are you to take that wax out of your ears, or else we will all die!”
What about Odysseus? What would he do?
Well, Odysseus was a curious type who always wanted to explore. He wanted to be the first man to hear the song of the sirens and survive. He got his men to strap him to the mast so he could not break free. That way he could listen safely.
The golden harps grew louder and the singing filled his ears. Odysseus pleaded with his men to release him so he could stay and swim closer to those heavenly sounds. But they could not hear him. Around the island could be seen the wrecks of ships and the bones of men who had tried to get closer to the music.
The sirens were beautiful and sat on a meadow of summer flowers. “Come to us, Odysseus!” they sang.
The ship sailed out beyond into the sea until eventually the spell on him was broken. Odysseus’ men untied him and unplugged their ears. They had overcome the sirens. Perhaps their luck was turning. Maybe they would make it home to Ithaca after all.
The Oldest Intact Shipwreck “Odysseus” was an Ancient Greek Vessel
“Odysseus” is thought to be the oldest intact shipwreck in the world. Credit: Screenshot from Youtube
The discovery of the ancient Greek shipwreck “Odysseus,” thought to be the oldest of its kind ever found, at the bottom of the Black Sea could change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.
The 75ft ancient Greek trading vessel was found lying whole with its mast, rudders and rowing benches intact after more than 2,400 years in 2018.
The Odysseus shipwreck was found in a well known “shipwreck graveyard” in the Black Sea that has already revealed over 60 other vessels.
Oxygen free waters preserved the Odysseus shipwreck
A remote-controlled submarine piloted by British scientists spotted the ship lying on its side about 50 miles off the coast of Bulgaria.
The ship lies in over 1.3 miles of water, deep in the Black Sea, where the water is anoxic (oxygen free) which can preserve organic material for thousands of years.
A small piece of the vessel has been carbon dated and it is confirmed as coming from 400 BC – making the ship the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind.
During the most recent exploration in late 2017, the team discovered what has now been confirmed as the world’s ‘oldest intact shipwreck’ – a Greek trading vessel design previously only seen on the side of ancient Greek pottery such as the ‘Siren Vase’ in the British Museum.
Well-preserved shipwreck is thought to be oldest ever found
This vase shows the same kind of ship as the wreck found in the Black Sea. Odysseus and the Sirens, eponymous vase of the Siren Painter, c. 480–470 BC (British Museum). Credit: Jastrow / Public Domain
The ship could shed new light on the ancient Greek tale of Odysseus tying himself to a mast to avoid being tempted by sirens.
The vase shows Odysseus, the hero from Homer’s epic poem, tied to the mast of a similar ship as he resisted the Siren’s calls.
Jon Adams, the project’s chief scientist, said the wreck was very well-preserved, with the rudder and tiller still in place.
“A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over 2 km of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” he said.
“This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”
The story of Odysseus
The Odyssey (Odysseia in Greek) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. Scholars believe it was composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia.
It is one of the oldest works of literature still read by millions of people around the world. As with the Iliad, the poem is divided into 24 books.
It follows the Greek hero Odysseus, king of the island of Ithaca, and his journey home after the Trojan War which lasted for ten entire years.
Odysseus’ journey lasts for ten additional years, during which he encounters many dangers, temptations, and perils, and all his crewmates are killed.
In his absence, Odysseus is assumed dead by his fellow countrymen in Ithaca, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must contend with a group of unruly suitors who compete for Penelope’s hand in marriage.
The Story of the Sirens
Odysseus and his men were sailing along when they heard the most beautiful sound. It sounded like singing. It was hypnotic. All the men stopped what they were doing, and listened. No one steered the ship. No one moved. They just listened.
Odysseus and his men had run into the Sirens. The Sirens were magical creatures. They looked like mermaids, but they were evil. They loved to lure sailors to their death. With no one at the wheel, ships crashed into the rocks. And everyone was killed. This was great fun to the Sirens.
Odysseus was lucky. He had heard of the Sirens. He knew they were dangerous. He stuffed his ears so he could not hear. He stuffed all his men's ears. They sailed safely away.
Discover the myth of Odysseus
Odysseus, a legendary man
According to Homer, Laertes and Anticleia were the parents of Odysseus. He was married to Penelope and they gave birth to a son, Telemachus. Odysseus was often called "Odysseus the Cunning" because of his clever and quick mind. Autolycus, his grandfather, was a famous skilled thief in the Peloponnese. The Romans transformed the name Odysseus to Ulysses and that is how he is mostly known today all over the world.
Odysseus had a proud and arrogant character. He was the master of disguise in both appearance and voice. He also excelled as a military commander and ruler, as is evident from the role he played in ensuring to the Greeks the victory over Troy, giving thus an end to the long Trojan War.
The fall of Troy
All began the day Paris of Troy abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Enraged, Menelaus called upon all kings of Greece, including Odysseus, as all had once vowed to defend the honour of Helen, if someone ever tried to insult her. Odysseus, however, tried to escape the promise made to Menelaus by feigning insanity. Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus proved Odysseus to be lying and henceforth the legendary warrior set out for Troy, along with Agamemnon the lord of men, Achilles the invincible, Nestor he wise and Teucer the master archer, as they were called.
Ten years had passed since the Greeks attacked Troy and they were all still there, outside the strong walls, fighting with the locals, who proved themeselves brave warriors. In the tenth year of the war, Odysseus the Cunning, the most trusted advisor and counsellor of king Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, devised a plan to deceive the Trojans. He wanted to make them believe that the Greeks had lost their nerves and had returned back to Greece.
In the middle of the night, the Greeks deserted Troy leaving only a gigantic wooden horse on wheels outside the gates of the city. When dawn broke, the Trojans were surprised to see no Greek army surrounding them, only a wooden horse. They indeed believed that the Greeks had gone and had left this horse as a gift to the gods, to give them a good sea trip. Thus they wheeled the wooden horse into their city and started revelry to celebrate the end of the war.
However, unknown to the Trojans, Odysseus had built a hollow into the wooden horse to hide there a few Greek warriors. This plan was the only way to gain entry to the city that had held its defences for so many years. Now that they were inside Odysseus and his men went out the dummy horse and slaughtered the unsuspecting guards. Then they opened the city gates and allowed the entire Greek army, who were hiding some miles away, to enter the city. Thus, thanks to the plan of Odysseus, the Greeks won the Trojan War. With the war over, Odysseus and his men set sail for their homeland, Ithaca, but in the end only one of them would come back.
The long journey home
The journey home for Odysseus and his fellows would be long and full of adventures. Their eyes would see all the strange of the world and Odysseus would come home with more memories and experiences than any other person in the world.
Odysseus and his legion set sail from Troy aboard twelve ships. Tranquil waters facilitated the movement of the ships and they were well out to sea. After a few days, they sighted land and Eurylochus, second-in-command to Odysseus, convinced him to weigh anchor, go ashore and devastate the city with the assurance that they would not be harmed.
Seeing the ships weigh anchor and thenceforth the warriors coming ashore, the Ciconians, the local residents, fled to the nearby mountains. Odysseus and his men plundered and looted the empty city. However, the men of Odysseus resisted his efforts to get them back aboard the ship immediately and after a hearty meal accompanied by wine that flew like water, they fell asleep on the shore.
Before the first light, the Ciconians returned with their fierce neighbors and set upon the warriors, killing as many as they could. Odysseus and his men beat a hasty retreat to their ships but heavy damages had already been inflicted on their number. Berating himself for having listened to Eurylochus and thereafter losing so many valuable men, Odysseus and Eurylochus fought with each other but they were separated by their fellow-men and peace was once again established amidst the warriors.
Rounding to the south, Odysseus and his men were blown off-course, towards the land of the Lotus-Eaters. While Odysseus was scouting around the land, some of his men mingled with the natives and ate the local lotus grown on the land. Soon, everything went hazy and the men found themselves under the heavy influence of some intoxicant that caused them to fall asleep.
The lotus flowers they had eaten were narcotic in nature and made them forget all about their family and homeland. These men wanted to stay on this land and eat lotus for the rest of their lives. They refused to go home. Desperately, Odysseus and some other men had to carry them back to the ship. Without delay, they set sail and upon waking these men had to be bound to the masts to prevent them from jumping into the sea and swimming back to the shore to consume the lotus flower that they had got so addicted to.
Polyphemus the Cyclops
After sailing for many weeks without further adventure, the warriors chanced upon a strange land. Odysseus and a handful of his men went ashore to search the land.
A few minutes walk from the ships brought them to the mouth of a gigantic cave. Curious, the warriors entered the cave and found it to be the habitation of some gigantic being. Further on, they found flocks of sheep inside the cave and being hungry, they slaughtered a few of them and feasted on their flesh. Unknown to them, this was the lair of Polyphemus the Cyclops and this land was the home of the gigantic Cyclopes.
Returning to his cave, Polyphemus blocked the entrance with a huge rock, as he usually did. Odysseus and his men ran towards the entrance but they were dismayed at the sight that greeted them. Here was a huge rock preventing their escape from a being that was even bigger than the rock. Laying his only eye on the warriors, Polyphemus asked who they were. Without revealing their identity or mission, Odysseus told Polyphemus they were sea-farers who had lost their way and had come ashore looking for food.
Unhappy that his sheep had been killed and eaten by these men, Polyphemus refused them to exit his cave. Every day he made a meal of two brave warriors, dashing their brains out on the walls of the cave and chewing them raw. Unable to bear this act of cruelty, Odysseus devised a plan to get them out. He had with him a gourd of strong wine and one day he offered it to Polyphemus, who grabbed it and poured it down his throat greedily. The wine made the Cyclops drowsy and within minutes he fell asleep. Odysseus and his remaining men took a red-hot poker from the fire-place and thrust it into the Cyclop's only eye, blinding him.
The sleeping giant awoke in shock, howling in pain and bellowing in rage, demanding to know who had done this. Yet again Odysseus presence of mind proved of the very essence and he shouted out that his name was "Nobody". Polyphemus, now on his feet and stumbling around created such a commotion that his fellow Cyclops came running to his lair to see what had happened. When they stood outside the cave and asked Polyphemus what had happened, the Cyclops said that Nobody had blinded him. The other Cyclopes laughed out loud, called him an idiot and told him there was nothing they could do for "Nobody" had hurt him.
The following morning, Odysseus and his men strapped themselves to the belly of the sheep and in this manner, they escaped when Polyphemus let his flocks out of his lair to graze. Once outside, the warriors ran to the safety of their ships. Odysseus, however, priding his brilliance, could not resist taunting Polyphemus. The moment they set sail, he shouted out to the Cyclops that it was he, Odysseus, who had blinded him. Enraged and unable to see, Polyphemus threw a massive rock in the direction of the voice. Luckily for Odysseus, it fell short of its target for else his ship would have been smashed. Polyphemus cried out to his father, the sea-god Poseidon, to avenge this ignominy and hereafter Odysseus became a sworn enemy of Poseidon.
The Bags of Aeolus
Fleeing the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus found his ships nearing Aeolia, home of Aeolus, the god of the winds. Aeolus used to blow the wind over the sea and the land. After hearing of Odysseus' journey home, Aeolus gave him a bag full of winds that would guide him home safely. Odysseus set sail the seas once again and spent many sleepless nights guarding the bag until one day, too tired and overcome with fatigue, he fell asleep.
Curiosity overcame a couple of his men who had been awaiting the opportunity to grab the bag to see what their leader was guarding with his life. They got their chance the moment Odysseus fell asleep, as they were approaching the shore of Ithaca. Without a minute of hesitation, the two sailors opened the bag. The winds caught in the bag escaped and created a furious storm that drove the ships backwards. Sensing something wrong in the motion of the ship Odysseus awoke with a start only to find himself back at Aeolia. This time, Aeolus declined to give again the gift of the winds and a heartbroken Odysseus set out once again on the arduous journey back to Ithaca.
Out of the darkness of night, an island was raising in the distance. This was Telepylos, an island with natural defences in the form of the cliffs and with only one narrow passage in. Each ship passed into the calm harbor surrounded by cliffs with the exception of Odysseus, who for some reason anchored it in the turbulent waters outside.
Two warriors went ashore to explore the island and they came across a girl who took them to her father. Nearing the castle, they saw a gigantic woman who called out to her husband. A giant man, her husband, came running out and snatching up one of the men devoured him alive. The other ran for his life and the entire race of giants that inhabited the land gave chase to him. At the harbor, Odysseus' men ran for cover but the giants smashed their ships with massive rocks and speared them alive. Only Odysseus managed to escape on his ship with some sailors on it since he had anchored it outside the island.
Circe the Enchantress
Having barely saved their lives, Odysseus and the men aboard the one surviving ship landed on the island, Aeaea, home to the powerful Circe, enchantress and powerful sorceress. With the help of strong magic and unknown to the warriors, Circe had already envisioned their arrival on her island. Some fellows of Odysseus who had been sent to explore the island, walked into the palace of Circe and saw her sitting on her magnificent throne, surrounded by wild animals who were once men. The beautiful enchantress, with one touch of her stick, turned the mighty warriors into pigs.
With the help of god Hermes, Odysseus drank a certain herb that protected him from Circe's magic. When she saw him, the sorceress found her spells to be ineffective and on his demand that his men be turned back into human form, the sorceress agreed but only if Odysseus shared her bed-chamber. Odysseus consented and moreover, he and his men spent a whole year on this island. At the end of that year, Odysseus decided to depart from Aeaea and continue his way home. Circe, having the ability to predict the future, gave him instructions on what to do afterwards. She advised him to go to the Underworld and meet the blind prophet Tiresius to ask him for instructions.
The Journey to the Underworld
No alive man had ever entered the Underworld. But brave Odysseus decided to do so, in order to continue his journey and reach Ithaca at last! Odysseus and his men made sacrifices to god Hades by the shores of the River Acheron and Odysseus alone took the path to the dark Underworld. Tiresius appeared to Odysseus and the blind prophet told him that in order to get home he had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, two great monsters.
Leaving Hades, Odysseus and his men sailed for many days without sight of land. Not before long, though, strange disquieting sounds reached the ears of the men aboard the ship. The sounds tugged at their hearts and made them want to weep with joy. Odysseus at once realized that they were approaching the Sirens that Circe had warned him about.
The sorceress had told him to block every man's ears with wax for if any were to hear the song of the Sirens, he would surely jump off the ship, go close to the Sirens and the winged monsters would kill them. Odysseus did exactly that with his men, but he himself wanted to hear their strange song. He thus ordered his sailors to tie him up to the mast so he could not jump into the sea in an attempt to meet the Sirens.
With their ears blocked with wax, the men heard nothing and the ship passed near the Sirens. Suddenly, Odysseus wanted to get free of his bonds and swim towards the Sirens for their song had just become clear and it was very beautiful and captivating. But the ropes were very tight and fortunately he could not untie himself. His fellows could hear neither the Sirens neither the screams of their leader, who was praying them to untie him. As the ship was sailing away from the shore, the song of the Sirens was fading out.
Scylla and Charybdis
Following the advice of Tiresius, Odysseus chose the route that would take him on one side close to Scylla, a six-headed monster who had once been a woman and on the other side Charybdis, a violent whirlpool. Tiresius had advised Odysseus to sacrifice six men to Scylla so they might pass through without losing any more men.
Approaching the mouth of the strait between Scylla and Charybdis the warriors shrank back in fear for on either side were violent deaths. Only Odysseus was quiet, sad that he would have to lose six brave warriors but he was ready to do so, in order to save the others. As they passed by Scylla, she picked up six men and allowed the rest to pass through safely. Odysseus never forgot the screams of the men he had to sacrifice and to the very end of his days he lamented his betrayal. He had not informed a single warrior of his motive. Then his ship passed from Charibdys but managed to survive.
The Cattle of Helios
Weary and tired from the ordeal, Odysseus ordered his ship to weigh anchor at the island of Thrinacia. This island was sacred to the sun god Helios whose cattle grazed freely here. Even though Odysseus had been warned by Tiresius and Circe not to harm any of the cattles, his men defied him and set about slaughtering and feasting on them.
Immediately Helios complained to Zeus, vowing to take vengeance by sending the sun down to Hades, never to rise again. Zeus in response sank Odysseus ship with a thunderbolt as it was leaving Thrinacia and destroyed every man aboard with the exception of the valiant leader. Somehow, a floundering Odysseus was swept past Scylla and Charybdis and washed up ashore on an unknown island.
Seven years with Calypso
The island that Odysseus found himself was Ogygia and it was there where he spent seven years with the nymph Calypso, who found him unconscious on the beach. She promised him immortality in exchange for his love, but soon Odysseus sensed once again the desire to see Ithaca and his family, his unfortunate wife and his son who would have grown up till then.
Even a beautiful and powerful goddess like Calypso couldn't fill this feeling of the unaccomplished that Odysseus was always carrying into his heart. However, Calypso had fallen in love with him and wouldn't let him go. On the behalf of Zeus, Hermes appeared before Calypso and told her to let Odysseus go. One day finally, on a raft that he built himself, Odysseus set off for Ithaca with a wooden float but once again he was caught in the middle of a storm and shore to another strange land.
Meanwhile on Ithaca
Telemachus, the son of Odysseus who had just turned twenty, decided to set out in search of his long-gone father. His mother had woes of her own. She was constantly plagued by suitors asking for her hand, since ten years had passed from the end of the Trojan War and her husband had not returned. Day after day, she fended off their advances with an ingenious trick. She told the suitors that she was weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus' father and only when it was complete, would she even think to marry anyone of them.
Penelope's trick was to weave the cloth in the daytime and undo it at night, so the suitors were kept waiting indefinitely, until her husband would return. However, a chambermaid betrayed her to the suitors and soon they were back, asking for her hand and the kingdom of Ithaca.
Knowing that his mother was successfully keeping her 108 suitors away, Telemachus decided to set out on his quest. Aided by goddess Athena and along with some of his faithful warriors, he went to Sparta to meet Menelaus and ask him if he had any news from his father. Unfortunately, Menelaus knew nothing and Telemachus disappointed returned to Ithaca.
The land of the Phaeacians, which the historians believe is modern Corfu, was where Odysseus found himself after a terrible storm. Nafsica, the local princess, found Odysseus exhausted and naked on the shore and led him to the palace of her father. While in the court of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, he heard the bard Demodocus sing of the Trojan War.
Odysseus was overcome with grief at hearing stories about the war and of the Trojan Horse that had been his invention. It was then that the emotions came crashing down on him and he broke down into tears. The people gathered around him asked who he really was and why the story affected him. It was then that Odysseus revealed his true identity and his struggles to reach Ithaca.
After listening to his ordeals, the Phaeacians gave him their fastest ship, the best of their provisions and bid him good luck on his way home. And so it was that the hero finally returned to Ithaca, eager to see his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, from both of whom he had been separated for two whole decades.
Finally on Ithaca
The arrival of Odysseus on Ithaca went unnoticed and, in the guise of a beggar, he approached the palace. He first met his old servants and his beloved son, Telemachus. From them, he learnt about the suitors that have been bothering Penelope for so long. Odysseus, still in the form of a beggar, he met his wife, who didn't recognize him.
He told her about her husband's bravery and how he had helped in winning the Trojan War. These tails brought tears to her eyes. Calming herself, she approached the suitors who were always hanging around the palace and set them a simple task. Penelope would marry any one of them who could string Odysseus' bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe-handles joined together.
The suitors pushed and shoved each other to be the first to succeed but little did they know that the task they faced was impossible. Stringing the bow that belonged to Odysseus was not an easy task for it required not brute strength but dexterity. One by one, each suitor tried his luck but to no avail. Finally, Odysseus picked up the bow, stringing it with ease and in one fluid motion letting fly an arrow that pierced all the twelve axe-handles. After that, there was chaos.
Revealing his true identity, Odysseus began massacring the suitors and, aided by Telemachus and the swineherd Eumaeus, they had soon cleared the court of all 108 of them. The suitors were killed and the maid-servants, who had made themselves the pleasure slaves of the suitors, were all hung. When Penelope heard the massacre, she run to the court. Fazed by the sudden spate of events, she refused to believe that this strange beggar was indeed her long lost husband Odysseus, so she set up another test for him.
In front of Odysseus, Penelope ordered the palace servants to remove the bed from her bed-chamber to the hall outside. On hearing this, Odysseus bristled with anger and opposed the idea, saying that this bed had been fashioned out of a living oak by his own hand and none, save a god, none in the whole world could move it. Joyful, Penelope rushed to Odysseus and hugged him, with big tears in her eyes, for she was reassured that this man was her beloved husband returned to her. Only Odysseus knew the secret about their bed and his words were the proof she needed to believe him.
The real end
This, however, was not the end of Odysseus' journey. Prophet Tiresius had forewarned him that once he had reasserted himself as King of Ithaca, he should travel inland holding the oar of a ship. Indeed, after a few years, Odysseus crowned Telemachus King of Ithaca and left him and his wife Penelope to travel on the opposite inland.
Many days did he wander with the oar in hand seeking for people who would not know what it was but wherever he went, people recognized it as an oar. One day, far inland, opposite the shores of Ithaca, Odysseus came across those people who had never seen the sea and hence did not know what an oar was. There it was that Odysseus finished his life travel and took a local princess for his bride. For many years, he lived amongst these people and it was here that he breathed his last, far from the sea, his family and his beloved Ithaca.
Odysseus, Precommitment, and the Siren Song
Homer wrote of Odysseus and the Sirens, who’s beautiful song lured countless sailors to shipwreck on the rocky island of Anthemoessa. Odysseus knew that he must pass the Sirens before he would be reunited with his home land, so he took action to protect the lives of his sailors and himself.
Odysseus plugged all of his sailors’ ears with beeswax and ordered them to tie him to the mast. The Sirens would make order and beg the sailors to let him go, but he gave strict orders: No matter what he said, the sailors, under no circumstances, could untie his binds.
Odysseus understood that his personality would change when he was subjected to temptation. That his willpower would wane. That, without some sort of preventative device, he would lose all control and give in to temptation.
The ship drifted towards the feared chasm. The sailors patiently waited.
“‘Come here,’ the Sirens sang, ‘renowned Odysseus, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song- and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’ (quoted from here)
This was the enchanting song of temptation, that which had caused many a sailor to perish. But Odysseus had used a technique that Daniel Akst calls precommittment—one of the most effective devices for behavioral and habit change.
For as Odysseus knew that his willpower would fail as he approached temptation, he also knew that capitulation would mean his demise. Instead, he decided to take action to protect his future self from, well, himself by creating a system that made failure impossible.
The song of the Siren’s isn’t so much more tempting than the call of the buzzing phone, or the dinging email notification, or the delicious Coca-cola. And the few times that we, as modern citizens, try to protect ourselves from indulging, we say something like, “I shouldn’t eat that, so I won’t anymore.” And then, when we find ourselves approaching the temptation, we buckle and yield and find ourselves only strengthening the neural path of bad habit.
How many times have you heard your friend painfully say, “I’m never drinking again,” only to find him wobbling home from the bar the next day?
Odysseus, however, knew that there is a way to protect against one’s temporally-separated future self. He precommitted to an action, while in his sane state, in a manner that was impossible to cancel. Even though his future self would want to escape, he made compliance absolutely obligatory.
We today are subjected to previously nonexistent levels of temptation. Never before have humans had so much free time and so many different companies vying for our attention. And succeeding.
Today, we have to protect ourselves from ourselves. As Odysseus recognized that he would become a different person when subjected to temptation, we must recognize the same in ourselves. And take action to protect ourselves.
Precommitment means irreversibly setting up ourselves to resist failure. Consider this: you want to start waking up at 7am. Rather than setting an alarm and repeatedly hitting the snooze button, what if you hired someone to, every day, wake you up at 7am? And what if he would only be paid if he managed to wake you up? And you gave him permission to use your bucket and refrigerator?
Or what if you precommited to finish an assignment by a specific date by giving $1000 to your friend? The condition, of course, being that you only got your $1000 back if you hand him the paper on time.
If you are finding yourself unable to make a change, repeatedly falling into old patterns and criticizing yourself—it’s time to consider your method of commitment. It’s time to think about engineering an irrevocable promise that will drive you to change.
In the past year, I’ve tested this theory of precommitment in three distinct experiments. I’ve tweaked and tested the variables, and found a specific combo that works fantastically for me—and has allowed me to be more productive and effective in the past twelve months than in all the years that preceded it. I want to share these experiments with you, in the hope that you can use them to improve your life in the way you want.
For now, I want you to think about the temptations that surround you, daily. Ask yourself, what action do you want to take? And how can you hack a system that will FORCE you to succeed?
Even if your future self will hate yourself for having created this indestructible obstacle, your future future self will thank you. For As Odysseus successfully navigated past the Sirens, his screams and cries unanswered, Odysseus yelled and belittled his sailors. But when his ship drifted out of earshot, when he became the first ever survivor of the Siren song, it was only he himself that he had to thank.
P.S. In my next post, I’ll tell you about one of my habit-building experiments. I’ll show you how I used a precommitment device to complete two of my most successful projects of all time.
In my next post, you’ll learn why I hired a girl on Craigslist to slap me in the face.
Maneesh, do you know about a website called Beeminder.com ?
You pledge money for a set goal, say weight loss or running a specific # of miles a week, you set a time limit by when you want to accomplish that goal, and if you fail to accomplish your goal in time, you pay the company money. The whole thing is very interactive and you log your progress daily, so, if your goal was to run 70 miles a week, you would log 10 miles a day to stay on track in order to meet your goal. Check it out!
P.S I dont work there, I just use it and really like it.
http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goldstein_the_battle_between_your_present_and_future_self.html here’s another one who has enhanced the story of Odysseus, this tme for explaining the subject of behavioral economics.
I LOVE this story. I have been working with my own habits for 6 years or so and a personal commitment is the best way to go. But I have never hear it laid out like this story, I like it a lot. Eager to hear your stories over the past year. :):) Keep it up bro, Cheers from Peru
Man…someone calling me at 7 am to wake up. I freaking love it.
I can start with that as an experiment. 1000 bucks is a bit much. But yes I love this precommitment concept, it’s like forcing us to be back in school again, finish that essay or get an F.
long time reader, 1st time poster. keep it up man!
I can’t wait for your next post. This one has me thinking of who I could pay to get myself to get my assignments and readings done on time.
Your writings are getting better by the minute!
This could not be more timely. Thank you Maneesh. Really, commitment has been on my mind for weeks now, driving me insane as it try to figure out what opportunity to move forward on. I’ve been availing commitment since March when I ended my lease, quit my job, and basically became a hobo. Sure, I say I’m a professional hackathonner who programs something new and exciting every week, but half a year later I’m incredibly stressed and I try to figure out whose couch I’ll be sleeping on each night, if it’s worth buying food, etc.
My laptop (my ThinkPad, my most valuable possession) got ran over by a car two days ago. I was so depressed. Yesterday my friend forced me to sign a contract saying I would contact a recruiter and apply to YC by the weekend. Because he saw the need to commit to moving forward. Really, this post is awesome and timely.
(By the way, did you get my email with more Regus photos? I emailed a week or so ago.)
The Mythology of the Sirens
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous creatures of the sea.
They lived on a rocky island called Anthemoessa, the “flowery island.” There, they laid in wait for ships to pass by.
When a ship came near, the Sirens would begin to sing. Their voices and the lyrics to their songs were so lovely that no one could resist them.
The sailors who were lured in by the Sirens would ultimately die. Some suggested that their ships sank on the rocks, while Homer’s description of a meadow covered in rotting corpses implied that the Sirens were cannibals.
The monsters with the beautiful voices were depicted in a variety of ways in Greek art and literature.
They were often shown with features that combined those of beautiful women with birds. Sometimes they had female heads on bird-like bodies, while in other images they had more human bodies with wings, talons, and feathers.
Later images showed a more mermaid-like form and often included the Sirens playing instruments to accompany their voices. While some early accounts had both male and female Sirens, by the 5th century BC they were exclusively female.
Greek writers did not agree on the number of Sirens or their origins. There were said to be anywhere from two to eight of them and many sea deities were named as their parents.
The Sirens are most well-known from two famous Greek stories that took place on the sea. The sailors in both the Argonautica and the Odyssey passed by the alluring monsters.
The Argonautica was written at a later date but took place earlier in history than the Odyssey. Largely based on Homer’s well-known epic, it features many heroes from earlier Greek legends.
Jason, the leader of the voyage, was told that it would be important to take the musician Orpheus on the Argo as part of his crew. This would, he later realized, allow the Argo to pass safely by the Sirens.
As they neared Anthemoessa, Orpheus began to play his lyre and sing as loudly as he could. His playing drowned out the voices of the Sirens so the crew was not tempted by them as they sailed by.
The more famous appearance of the Sirens in mythology was in the Odyssey. Odysseus used a much different technique to bypass the danger of the Sirens.
He was warned of the danger by Circe but was determined that he should hear the beautiful song for himself. He ordered his men to tie him to the mast of the ship and seal their own ears with wax.
The ship sailed by Anthemoessa. The crew could not hear because of the wax in their ears.
Tied to the mast, Odysseus was prevented from diverting the ship or jumping overboard because of the Siren’s song. He had ordered the crew not to release him no matter how hard he struggled against the bonds.
Some later authors added to Homer’s account. They said that the Sirens were fated to die if anyone heard their song without succumbing to it, so after Odysseus sailed safely by they all threw themselves into the sea and drowned.
My Modern Interpretation
There were many monsters who lived on the sea in Greek mythology. Among these, however, the Sirens were somewhat unique.
Most monsters of legend represented a specific physical threat. The Gorgon turned men to stone, Charybdis smashed ships, and the Minotaur was a cannibal.
The exact nature of the Sirens, however, was not made clear. Some said they drowned their victims, some claimed that their song lulled them to sleep, and others believed that the stranded sailors simply died of starvation on their isolated island.
The Sirens were not monsters who attacked outright or, as some later portrayals suggested, temptresses who used their beauty to attract victims. In the Odyssey, they did not promise Odysseus physical delights when he heard their song, but wisdom.
The Sirens claimed to know everything that had happened to the Greeks and Trojans during and since the war. They promised that the hero could learn of all things that had come to pass on earth if he joined them.
In offering knowledge, the Sirens represented a much different threat than other creatures in mythology. Many scholars believe that this was because they were not simple sea monsters but were closely linked to death.
The Sirens were used in funerary art throughout much of Greek history. It is clear that in art, they were linked to the afterlife.
With their bird-like forms, these Sirens may have served as psychopomps. They would have guided the dead into the Underworld, perhaps through their songs.
Literature, too, seems to support the idea that the Sirens were chthonic beings. Later writers created many stories that tied the Sirens to the Underworld.
In some stories, for example, they were handmaidens of Persephone. One writer claimed that Demeter had given them wings so they could search for the young goddess after her abduction by Hades, while others said that they had been cursed for failing to stop the kidnapping.
Other legends said that the Sirens were Underworld counterparts of the Muses. While the Muses inspired greatness in music and poetry, the Sirens sang songs that led to death.
According to one myth, Hera had convinced the Sirens to challenge the Muses to a music competition. In a story similar to that of Marsyas and Apollo, the Sirens were punished with their monstrous traits when they lost the contest.
The Sirens were a different type of monster than those found elsewhere in Greek mythology, even in other scenes of the Odyssey. They promised the knowledge found in death, which was so alluring that none could resist them.
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were human-bird hybrid monsters. They lived on an isolated island and used their beautiful singing to lure ships and sailors to death.
Two of ancient Greece’s most well-known stories featured encounters with the Sirens.
In the Argonautica, Jason and his crew were able to pass by the Sirens’ island with the help of the musician Orpheus. His playing drowned out the Sirens’ song so the men were in no danger.
When Odysseus sailed by the Sirens, he was able to be the first person to hear their song. His men sealed their ears with wax, but Odysseus had himself tied to the mast so he could hear them without losing control of himself.
According to some myths, this was the end of the Sirens. Because someone had heard their song and lived to tell of it, they were doomed to die.
Death was a major theme in the legends and iconography of the Sirens. They seem to have been linked to the Underworld and the knowledge found within it.
They attempted to lure Odysseus by promising him information. Their appeal was depicted as sexual in later portrayals, but in Homer’s story it was the allure of hidden knowledge.
Imagery of the Sirens was common in funerary art and grave goods. Several later legends linked their origins to Persephone or made them chthonic versions of the Muses.
The Sirens appeared to have been more than simple monsters. They were Underworld beings who took people, willingly or not, to death.
Publication details for Art Bulletin 40
J. W. Waterhouse’s Ulysses and the Sirens: breaking tradition and revealing fears
In the picture which has been purchased for the National Gallery, Mr Waterhouse has selected for illustration the well-known passage in the twelfth book of the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer, in which the poet has described the passage of the wanderer’s vessel through the Strait of Messina, with Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other. Forewarned by Circe that he must shun ‘the heavenly-singing Sirens’ harmony’, Ulysses caused himself to be strapped securely to the mast of his vessel, and ordered his crew on no account to release him, however earnestly he might afterwards importune them to do so. He had previously taken the precaution to stop their ears with wax, so that they might be deaf to the alluring voices of the winged sorceresses, whose melodious throats poured forth
the sweetest strain
That ever open’d an enamoured vein.
Ulysses was enchanted with their delicious and beguiling song, and struggled to extricate himself from his bonds, but Eurylochus and Perimedes wound the coil of rope around him and the sturdy rowers applied themselves with all their might and main to their oars a fresh breeze filled the swelling sail and they shot past the Sirens’ Isle, and so escaped peril.
– The Pictorial: Academy and Salon Pictures of 1891 (c.1891)
Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, by John William Waterhouse (fig. 1) 1 A. Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA, 1849–1917, London, 1980, no. 90. was purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria by Sir Hubert Herkomer, for £1200, in June 1891. 2 For Herkomer’s appointment as the London adviser to the Gallery Trustees, see I. Zdanowicz, ‘Prints of Fortune: Hubert Herkomer’s 1891–92 Etching Purchases for the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 33, 1993, pp. 2–4. The picture had recently been exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and had been reviewed at length in the British press. The critical interest centred on the artist’s interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. At the forefront, seemingly, of most critics’ minds was one question: how far had Waterhouse stretched his artistic licence? Once the Ulysses reached Australian shores, Melbourne critics were quick to pounce on Waterhouse’s wayward interpretation of the Greek legend, holding the picture as evidence of the Gallery Trustees’ misuse of public funds. So passionate were the critics in questioning the literal accuracy of the picture, and in their insistence that there had been foul play with respect to its acquisition, that they generally overlooked a quintessential element of Ulysses and the Sirens: its depiction of women as femmes fatales, unleashing their all-encompassing and terrifying power over men.
This article will firstly survey contemporary responses, both British and Australian, to Waterhouse’s imaginative interpretation of the Ulysses and the Sirens legend. The place of the picture within the artist’s oeuvre as a whole – and within the broader context of depictions of women in the late Victorian era – will then be considered.
‘Half women, half birds’ and half right: assessments of Waterhouse’s Classicism
On examining the critical responses to Ulysses and the Sirens, we find that it is very clear that the main concern for both British and Australian commentators was the picture’s obvious departure from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. When it was first exhibited, at the Royal Academy in 1891, Ulysses and the Sirens attracted predominantly favourable criticism from the British press. The critics who approved of the picture believed that the artist had been successful in imaginatively or romantically representing his subject, even if he had departed from the classical text. Most were convinced that Waterhouse had drawn his inspiration from a fifth-century-BC Greek stamnos at the British Museum (fig. 2), a work known throughout the world from an illustration in William Smith’s A Smaller Classical Mythology. 3 W. Smith (ed.), A Smaller Classical Mythology … with Translations from the Ancient Poets and Questions upon the Work, rev. edn, London, 1867, p. 444.
One positive response was from M. H. Spielmann, writing for the Magazine of Art. Spielmann conceded that it was difficult to ‘give up our idea of womanly sirens’, but pointed out that Waterhouse did, after all, have ‘the support of the evidence of classic vases’ for his depiction of the mythic figures of the sirens as part women, part birds. 4 M. H. Spielmann, ‘Current Art: The Royal Academy’, Magazine of Art, 1891, p. 220. Spielmann reminded his readers that it was the voices, not the appearance, of the sirens that had ‘enchanted the unhappy passers-by’. 5 ibid. Artistically speaking, he considered the picture ‘a very startling triumph a very carnival of colour, mosaiced and balanced with a skill more consummate than even the talented artist was credited with’. 6 ibid.
The response of the critic for the Athenaeum was also mostly favourable: ‘Students of ancient art will recognise with pleasure how cleverly the legend has been treated by the artist, some of the motives of designs on fictive vases being ably and sympathetically developed’. 7 ‘Fine Arts: The Royal Academy (First Notice)’, Athenaeum, no. 3314, 2 May 1891, p. 577. The reviewer concludes that Waterhouse has presented a picture ‘in harmony with classic canons’ and that Homer’s story has been ‘well told’. 8 ibid. The only complaint is that the artist has incorrectly depicted the shields of Ulysses’ companions as being on the ship’s deck, instead of hung on the outside of the bulwarks, where they should more correctly have been located ‘according to a fashion in Roman designs as well as in mediaeval drawings and pictures’. 9 ibid. In spite of his objection to this minor inaccuracy, the writer for the Athenaeum seems particularly impressed with the aesthetic aspects of the picture – the ‘shadowy strait’, the ‘dark blue and green water’, the ‘shadow of the land’ and the ‘sunlight of the outer sea’. 10 ibid.
The critic for the Saturday Review, while noting that Waterhouse had departed from Homer, painting seven sirens instead of two and painting them as women above the waist and as birds below, was similarly enthusiastic about the picture. He writes that Waterhouse has ‘happily wedded’ imagination to archaeology. 11 ‘The Picture Galleries’, Saturday Review, vol. LXXI, no. 1853, 2 May 1891, p. 532.
None of these critics seems to have been greatly perturbed by Waterhouse’s deviation from the classical tradition or by his inaccuracies in the rendition of historical detail. Instead, all three writers appear to be impressed by the artist’s composition and by the aesthetic attributes of his picture.
Waterhouse was to face harsher criticism from the Times, which was quick to point out that he had not gone to Homer for his subject, but to later interpretations of the Ulysses and the Sirens episode – and in so doing had risked great danger. Relying on later versions of the Homeric legend could result in ‘grotesque’ and ‘even ridiculous’ depictions that would be incapable of communicating the irresistible charm of the original story. 12 ‘The Royal Academy: Third Notice’, Times, 21 May 1891, p. 4. The reviewer disapproves strongly of Waterhouse’s portrayal of the siren as a kind of harpy – a bird of prey with a woman’s face – and further complains that the artist has failed to convey a sense of the enthralling song that enraptures Ulysses. 13 ibid. The Academy, too, complains that Waterhouse’s sirens are not ‘[s]irens proper according to the Homeric version, luring the unwary to their rock by the magic of their irresistible song’, but rather harpies, ‘strong in attack and prepared to take the offensive’, with ‘the wings and claws of strong birds of prey’ (‘Fine Art: The Royal Academy I’, Academy, vol. XXXIX, no. 992, 9 May 1891, p. 447). The Art Journal similarly complains: ‘These strange birds with human heads are rather Harpies than Sirens, and we feel too much that if the piercing-sweetness of their song should not prevail, they may too easily rend with those cruel eagleclaws of theirs the coveted victims’ (‘The Summer Exhibitions at Home and Abroad II: The Academy and the New Gallery’, Art Journal, June 1891, p. 188). Waterhouse’s rendition of the sirens as monstrous winged creatures, it is suggested, makes it difficult to accept that they were capable of a song of such bewitching beauty. 14 ‘The Royal Academy: Third Notice’.
Similarly, the Art Journal expressed disappointment that Waterhouse had not infused into the picture the drama of the classical narrative, because ‘the temptation, the involuntary effort of Odysseus to follow the ravishing sounds [of the sirens] is hardly suggested’. 15 ‘The Summer Exhibitions’, pp. 187–8. Despite the fact that any viewer schooled in the classics would have been immediately able to identify the scene depicted, the narrative – imperative in Victorian Academic art – was not clearly enough delineated for this reviewer. If narrative is perceived to be lacking, however, artistic ability and technical virtuosity are not. According to the Art Journal, Ulysses and the Sirens is a labour of love ‘wrought out with an abundance of exquisite detail’ in a ‘narrow rock-bound cleft of the sapphire-blue Mediterranean’. 16 ibid., p. 187.
These various assessments raise numerous issues about the artist’s aim. It could be argued, for instance, that Waterhouse painted his picture specifically for an educated audience, able to appreciate his imaginative digression from the original Homeric source. Considered in this light, the careful allusions to the British Museum vase could be seen as an attempt to locate the picture immediately within the classical tradition, so that the artist, his bona fides established, might be free to place before the viewer his extraordinarily imaginative conception of his subject.
What is important to emphasize in looking at the various critical assessments of the Ulysses in Britain is that there appears to be a distinct division among the commentators: some felt the artist’s imaginative approach was permissible, chiefly because he departed only slightly from the Homeric tradition – and then only for the sake of pictorial aesthetics other writers insisted on strict adherence to the classical source.
The Melbourne press, and members of the public whose views are recorded in the form of correspondence with the daily newspapers, would prove to be, on balance, less pleased with the picture and greatly concerned about the sum spent on it. Before the Ulysses reached Australian shores, in late 1891, there had been questioning of the expenditure that Sir Hubert Herkomer (1849–1914), the London adviser to the Gallery, had been allowed, and doubts had been expressed about leaving to one man the choice of purchases for the Gallery’s collection. 17 See C. Murray Puckle, ‘The New Picture at the National Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 4 August 1891, p. 7 S. Dickinson, ‘Pictures for the National Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 26 September 1891, p. 6. Issues of a nationalistic cast also surfaced, with the Ulysses quickly becoming the focal point of a bitter controversy concerning the Trustees’ perceived preference for foreign over local art.
But there were also objections to Waterhouse’s treatment of his subject, with Melbourne’s critics being apparently more vehement than their London counterparts in voicing their disapproval. While local supporters of the Gallery Trustees reminded Melburnians that Ulysses and the Sirens was ‘the finest mythological picture of the year’, 18 ‘Pictures for the National Gallery of Victoria’, Contributor, 1891, Newspaper Clipping Books, LTM 92, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. some critics passionately expressed their dissatisfaction with Waterhouse’s liberal adaptation of the Homeric legend.
The commentaries in the press gave rise to an open debate, offering the perfect opportunity for local scholars and members of the public to display their erudition and their knowledge of classical sources. ‘J. S.’, writing to the Argus, complained that Ulysses and the Sirens was a disappointing picture in that it did not tell Homer’s story. In a more chastising tone than any that had been witnessed in the British press, J. S. perceives a murderous disposition among the harpies, whose ‘claws are about to unclose’ and tear Ulysses’ flesh ‘to ribands’, and is of the view that Ulysses has been depicted as a criminal, bound to the mast of a ship. 19 J. S., ‘The New Pictures in the Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 28 October 1891, p. 6. J. S. further complains that there is no hint in the picture of the ‘celestial music’ used by the 24 sirens to tempt their victims, and adds his voice to those of the British commentators in bemoaning the fact that the sirens have been depicted as half female, half bird. 20 ibid. In another letter to the editor of the Argus, the prominent Melbourne citizen Molesworth R. Green similarly considered that Waterhouse’s Ulysses resembled a criminal, tied to a mast and ‘exposed to the attacks of furious birds of prey’. 21 M. R. Green, ‘Ulysses and the Sirens [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 31 October 1891, p. 5. Like the critic for the Times in London, Green argues that ‘the vulture claws [of the sirens] preclude the possibility of such birds uttering dulcet strains of music’. 22 ibid.
Sir Hubert Herkomer strongly defended his selection of Ulysses and the Sirens for the Melbourne collection. He believed that the work was a worthy, if not entirely accurate, example of erudition, particularly as Waterhouse had been influenced by a classical Greek rendition of the Homeric legend:
Here we have what might be more definitely called imaginative art, i.e., art of conjuring up the probable appearance of an ancient scene, and the subject is treated with a curious regard for Japanese art, and equally so for the art of the Greek vases. It was from one of the latter that he got the idea of the picture, and this is his authority for making sirens such as we have always imagined harpies to be represented. The colour, full and rich, is in no way impossible, but is distinctly agreeable. The painting is direct and simple, everything painted more or less at once (just the reverse method to that employed by [Frank] Dicksee [in The Crisis, 1891, another picture acquired for the Gallery by Herkomer]). But this does not mean that he gets what he desires at once he may paint a part twenty times, but each time it will be complete. This is the French influence upon us. 23 H. Herkomer, in ‘Selection of Pictures for the National Gallery: Important Statement by Professor Herkomer’, Argus, 23 July 1892, p. 5.
For Herkomer, then, Waterhouse was quite in harmony with the classical canon.
Working within the realms of what Herkomer describes as ‘imaginative art’ would of course have allowed a painter considerable artistic licence to make social commentaries disguised in a cloak of myth, in settings far removed from British society. Perhaps Ulysses and the Sirens, with all its classical pretensions, was really a veiled response to the changing status of women in late Victorian Britain.
From femmes fatales to bird-women: Ulysses and the Sirens in the context of late Victorian paining
Victorian society demanded that women be vessels of purity: religious, chaste, self-sacrificing and charitable. In ‘Sesame and Lilies’, Ruskin insisted that purity be guarded and preserved in a young woman:
She is to be taught to strive that her thoughts of piety may not be feeble in proportion to the number they embrace, nor her prayer more languid than it is for the momentary relief from pain of her husband or her child. 24 J. Ruskin, ‘Sesame and Lilies: Lecture II – Lilies’ (1865), in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XVIII, eds E. T. Cook & A. Wedderburn, London, 1905, p. 127.
Ruskin advocates that, in the safe haven of the home, women should be sheltered ‘not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division’ – in their domestic confines, wonien should be protected from danger and temptation. 25 ibid., p. 122.
In the nineteenth century, etiquette guides for women were published by the hundreds, educating their readers on how best to serve their husbands and to maintain their own proper place within society. 26 See, for example, J. Butcher, Instructions in Etiquette, for the Use of All Five Letters on Important Subjects, Exclusively for Ladies and Conversational Hints to Whom Concerned, 3rd edn, London, 1847 T. S. Arthur, Advice to Young Ladies on Their Duties and Conduct in Life, London, 1856 Etiquette for Ladies, Being a Manual of Minor Social Ethics and Customary Observances, London, 1857. However, in the mid to late years of the century, women began to take steps towards establishing a more equitable place for themselves within society. The Women’s Property Act 1883 gave married women the right to retain their personal earnings. 27 See A. C. Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oxford, 1989, p. 200. The women’s suffrage movement was also a cause of concern for men. 28 See V. M. Allen, ‘”One Strangling Golden Hair”: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith‘ , Art Bulletin, vol. LXVI, no. 2, June 1984, pp. 285–94.
The threat women posed to their long reign of dominance in society was perhaps the impetus behind the fact that male painters began increasingly to portray the kind of woman that the twentieth century has come to describe as the femme fatale. Writing of representations of women within the genre today identified as femme fatale painting, Hansen claims:
The woman appears as a seductive fairy without a heart, as a mysteriously fascinating creature whose repressed lustfulness seeks satisfaction as an undine, nymph, vampire, or herald of death who ensnares the man with a strangely captivating magic and brings about his destruction. 29 H. J. Hansen (ed.), Late Nineteenth Century Art: The Art, Architecture and Applied Arts of the ‘Pompous Age’, trans. M. Bullock, New York, 1973, p. 124. For commentaries on femme fatale painting, see B. Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, New York, 1986 J. A. Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny: The Social Discourse of Nineteenth Century British Classical- Subject Painting, Madison, Wisconsin, 1989 E. Prettejohn, ‘Fatal Attraction’, Tate: The Art Magazine, no. 13, Winter 1997, p. 34.
The woman Hansen describes is a far cry from the ideal Victorian woman, who would never show outward signs of her sexuality. Victorian depictions of the femme fatale were thus depictions of ‘deviant’ women, who used their feminine beauty and sexuality to snare their male victims. With her fair looks and her charms, the femme fatale lured man to his destruction. As Bram Dijkstra, a key commentator on femme fatale painting, observes: ‘[Woman] had come to be seen as the monstrous goddess of degeneration, a creature of evil who lorded it over all the horrifically homed beasts which populated man’s sexual nightmares’ 30 Dijkstra, p. 325.
While more than a brief mention of the femme fatale tradition in British painting is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to point out that the femme fatale was a recurrent motif in the late Victorian pictorial repertoire – if not always in the frightening incarnation identified by Dijkstra. 31 Among the many artists to address this theme were Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Bume-Jones, Philip Burne- Jones, John Collier, Herbert Draper and Frederick Sandys. By the mid nineteenth century, temptresses of this kind were also appearing in the works of great poets such as Tennyson and Swinburne. Swinburne made frequent reference to the motif of the alluring female who induces men into a trance, numbing their ‘analytical faculties of the intellect’ to excite erotic sensations (R. Sieburth, ‘Poetry and Obscenity: Baudelaire and Swinburne’, Comparative Literature, vol. 36, no. 4, Fall 1984, p. 351). An example is Dolores, the ‘poisonous queen’ with a ‘cruel / Red mouth like a venomous flower’ (C. Swinburne, ‘Dolores’ (1866), in The Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne: Poems, Philadelphia, 1910, pp. 67, 66).
Portrayals of bewitching enchantresses in the work of late Victorian painters could not, however, have prepared audiences for the dark vision of J. W. Waterhouse’s bird-women. Contemporary commentators, in both London and Melbourne, were virtually unanimous in considering Waterhouse’s sirens to be either birds of prey 32 The Graphic described them as ‘birds of prey with huge claws’ (‘The Royal Academy’, Graphic, vol. XLIII, no. 1120, 16 May 1891, p. 547). The Art Journal similarly described them as ‘beautiful women’, but with ‘bodies of strong birds of prey’ and ‘cruel eagle-claws’ (‘The Summer Exhibitions’, pp. 187–8). See also note 13 above. or monsters. 33 In Melbourne, Molesworth R. Green referred to Waterhouse’s sirens as ‘monstrous fowl’ (Green, p. 4), and a correspondent writing to the Argus considered them ‘winged monsters’ (‘Ulysses and the Sirens’ [letter to the editor], Argus, 5 November 1891, p. 7). The critics lashed out at the hideous spectacle with which the artist had presented the Victorian art world: female heads on vulture-like bodies. 34 Like many artists painting femme fatale pictures in the late nineteenth century, Waterhouse portrayed his female figures with the faces of sweet English maids. Jenkyns claims that Waterhouse derived this concept of the sweet, shy temptress from Edward Burne-Jones (R. Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance, London, 1991, p. 284). A number of reviewers speculated that the faces of Waterhouse’s sirens had been modelled on the face of one fair English model. The critic for the Graphic, for example, expressed this view and described the faces as being ‘of a thoroughly English type’ (‘The Royal Academy’). The reviewer for the Art Journal complained that the artist had ‘too uniformly given the beautiful type of English womanhood’ to the sirens (‘The Summer Exhibitions’, p. 187). Strapped to the mast, Ulysses would be utterly defenceless if the sirens were to pierce his skin with their fearsome claws.
It may well be that the critics expected and desired to see voluptuous full-bodied women, using their feminine charms to tempt the ancient Greek voyagers. The tradition of the erotic femme fatale was by 1891 well established in art, especially in paintings of mermaids and sirens: the temptresses of the sea. The femme fatale depicted as sensuous and alluring may have fulfilled a male fantasy of helplessness in the face of seduction and feminine bodily enticement. However, there is nothing erotic or seductive in the squat, feathered bodies of Waterhouse’s sirens. It is even possible to read a symbolist intent in this extraordinary interpretation of the Ulysses legend. The fundamental symbolist agenda of giving visual (material) form to human feelings, fears and anxieties, seems to find a frightening articulation in the wing-flapping forms of Ulysses’ tormentors: the stuff of symbolist nightmares. 35 Woman as both angel and demon is an important theme in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), a key influence for the French symbolists. In ‘Hymne à la Beauté’, for example, Baudelaire speaks of Beauty/Woman as a monster (‘monstre’) and, seeking to determine whether she is inherently good or evil, poses a question that aligns the figure of the siren quite explicitly with the forces of darkness: ‘De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène / Qu’importe’ (Whether from Satan or from God, what does it matter? Angel or Siren / What does it matter’) (C. Baudelaire, ‘Hymne à la Beauté’ (1860), in Les Fleurs du mal, Paris, 1961, p. 28). I would like to thank Dana Rowan for this material.
Whatever Waterhouse’s intention, his hybrid bird-women, despite their classical antecedents, clearly displeased the critics. A commentator in the Pictorial no doubt speaks for many of the picture’s detractors:
‘Sirens’, said I to myself, ‘I had no notion of them except as lovely creatures of the Loreley kind, strictly confined to their own rock, to whose fatal contact they lured the voyager by their singing’. 36 The Pictorial: Academy and Salon Pictures of 1891, c.1891, Newspaper Clipping Books, LTM 92, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
The writer further states, referring to the artist’s use of an antique vase as the source for his harpy-like sirens:
I maintain, however, that the idea of the sirens, indeed of any insidious form of fascination, is not conveyed by Mr Waterhouse, however ‘learned’ (to use a favourable term of art jargon) his adaptation in its antique form of the Homeric story of the prudent precaution of that eminently ‘canny’ personage, Ulysses may be. 37 ibid.
It appears that Waterhouse had taken his bestial and monstrous vision of femmes fatales too far.
Sirens and sorceresses: Waterhouse’s interlude with mythical Greek femmes fatales
At the time Ulysses and the Sirens was executed, Waterhouse had made a decided shift in subject matter, towards Greek legend. In his youthful pictures, clearly influenced by the Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), Waterhouse had shown a predilection for scenes of everyday domestic life in ancient Rome. In the words of the artist’s early biographer, Alfred Baldry, Waterhouse subsequently entered a period of ‘picturesque mysticism’ 38 A. L. Baldry, ‘J. W. Waterhouse and His Work’, Studio, vol. V, 1894, p. 111. and it was only in Ulysses and the Sirens that the style for which he is now recognised first began to appear.
The theme of dangerous women was constant throughout Waterhouse’s career, but never again would the sinister harpies of Ulysses and the Sirens surface in his art.
His other femmes fatales were beautiful, sometimes pensive, and entirely human young women. To gain any sense of sexual danger from Waterhouse’s representations, viewers were expected to rely on their own knowledge of the stories associated with the figures depicted. Many Victorian art connoisseurs, as well as members of the public, would have been schooled in classical mythology and would thus have been familiar with the antique legends. Viewers who were not could undoubtedly consult one of the many classical dictionaries published in the late nineteenth century – volumes such as William Smith’s A Smaller Classical Mythology.
In the early 1890s, Waterhouse’s preoccupation with Ulysses and with his love interest, Circe, is unequivocal. In 1891, the year Ulysses and the Sirens was shown at the Royal Academy, the artist also painted Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (Oldham Art Gallery), exhibiting the picture at the New Gallery in London, 39 Hobson, Art and Life, no. 91, fig. 50. In Circe Offering the Cup, the sorceress Circe, daughter of Helios (the sun) and Perseis (the daughter of Okeanos), dwelling on the island of Aeaea, is seen offering Ulysses a cup of magic brew intended to transform him into a swine. Circe is framed by a gigantic mirror that reflects an image of Ulysses as a wary hero, approaching her with much trepidation. It is interesting to note that the figure of Ulysses resembles the artist himself. 40 See A. Hobson, J W Waterhouse, London, 1989, p. 49. For a photograph by Ralph W. Robinson of the artist (c.1891), see J. Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984, p. 132. Do we here have evidence that Waterhouse was afraid of skilled and learned women who threatened men’s masculinity with their feminine capabilities and mysterious powers? 41 See B. Taylor, ‘Female Savants and the Erotics of Knowledge in Pre-Raphaelite Art’, in Collecting the PrerRaphaelites: The Anglo-American Enchantment, ed. M. F. Watson, Brookfield, Vermont, 1997, pp. 121–31. Circe, known for her mastery of the craft of magic and for her ability to change men into hapless wild beasts, could easily be interpreted as a mythic metaphor for the defiant modern woman intent on making her mark in society.
According to Casteras, the late-nineteenth-century woman who displayed genius or extraordinary creative achievement was seen by her Victorian brothers as a decided ‘outsider and anomaly’, and typically found her visual equivalent in the witch or sorceress. 42 S. P. Casteras, ‘Malleus Maleficarum or the Witches’ Hammer: Victorian Visions of Female Sages and Sorceresses’, in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, ed. T. E. Morgan, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1990, p. 142. Representations of ‘female anomaly and inversion’ served simultaneously as ‘spectacles for erotic consumption by men (both artists and spectators)’ and as ‘manifestations of masculine fears, desires and fantasies’. 43 ibid., p. 143. Both aspects are certainly evident in Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses. In her loose crepe gown and with her long, flowing hair, Circe presents a figure of potent sexuality, Her outstretched arms, confident gaze and sensuous open mouth invite the viewer to an erotic interlude. But in her hand she holds the instrument of a man’s destruction.
It is easy to see the appeal of a sorceress such as Circe for the Victorian male captivated by the femme fatale. As Christian observes:
[The] combined themes of beauty, evil and magic, together with the wealth of descriptive detail, proved irresistible to a collective imagination centred on the cult of the ‘stunner’ and profoundly influenced by notions of the supernatural. 44 J. Christian, The Pre-Raphaelites (exh. cat.), ed. L. Pan-is, Tate Gallery, London, 1984, p. 290.
Whatever our interpretation of this picture, Waterhouse’s Circe has little in common with the figures of the sirens who encircle, assail and barricade Ulysses and his crew in the Melbourne painting.
In 1892 Waterhouse painted another Circe picture, Circe Invidiosa (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide), which portrays the sorceress in the act of poisoning the sea her intention is to transform Scylla, her rival for the affections of Glaucus, into a repulsive monster (fig. 3). 45 Hobson, Art and Life, no. 94. Here Circe is a semi-clad beauty, concentrating on her potent brew. Waterhouse has avoided representing the monstrous transformed state of Scylla, instead presenting audiences only with a beautiful femme fatale.
Interestingly, Ruskin did not regard Circe as particularly threatening to men. He believed her to be dangerous only if ungoverned and unwatched by men. Otherwise, she was seen by the great Victorian sage as a provider of nourishment: cheese, wine and flour. If a man managed to get poisoned and transformed into a swine’, it was his own fault. By contrast, the ‘deadly’ sirens, Ruskin believed, were ‘in all things opposed to Circean power. They promise pleasure, but never give it. They nourish in no wise but slay by slow death’. 46 J. Ruskin, ‘Munera Pulveris’ (1862–63), in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XVII, pp. 213–14. There was no recovery from their power.
Despite Ruskin’s views, when one looks deeply into the myths associated with Circe she emerges as a decidedly dangerous woman, capable of causing serious harm to men and women alike fully skilled in magic and the black arts, she is the murderer of her own husband. Her potions were as fatal as the sirens’ magical, alluring voices. Yet Waterhouse’s conception of Circe is less harrowing and frightening than his depiction of the bird-women in Ulysses and the Sirens. 47 For Waterhouse’s other paintings of Circe, see Hobson, Art and Life, nos 92, 93, 183.
The Circe Invidiosa, and other paintings that followed the Ulysses, reveal that Waterhouse almost instantly abandoned the motif of the harpy, preferring to present his public with tamer and more acceptable renditions of the femme fatale. Indeed, in a later painting of a woman he described as a siren, he depicted the figure as a beautiful woman, the only indication of the supernatural being the discreetly suggested scales, like those of a mermaid, on her lower legs. 48 ibid., no. 134, fig. 108 Hobson, J W Waterhouse, fig. 56. The artist’s approach in this picture (The Siren, c.1900 (at Sotheby’s, London, in 1989)) is consistent with the way in which his contemporaries were engaging with the same theme. It is also entirely possible, however, that this ‘safer’ approach was a result of the criticism that Waterhouse had received for his portrayal of the sirens in the Ulysses.
Waterhouse’s images of Circe, sirens and sorceresses raise a number of questions. 49 Paintings by Waterhouse on the sorceress theme include The Magic Circle, 1886 (Tate Gallery, London) (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 64, fig. 35) Jason and Medea, 1907 (private collection) (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 158, fig. 121) and The Sorceress, c.1911 (at Peter Nahum, London, in 1989), an inscription on the back of which identifies the figure as Circe (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 182, fig. 132 J W Waterhouse, fig. 78. Was this artist, who depicted temptresses throughout his career, merely following in an established pictorial tradition or was he extending it? Whatever Waterhouse’s intentions, it is clear that Ulysses and the Sirens – with its sinister femmes fatales fluttering menacingly around the figure of Ulysses – encapsulates many of the fears and insecurities of the late Victorian male. What is also clear is that, in painting this intriguing but disturbing picture, Waterhouse may well have stepped across the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in art, unsettling art enthusiasts throughout the Empire. With its sinister vision of beautiful women as hovering birds of prey, Ulysses and the Sirens, a work whispering with symbolist resonance, sits just at the fringes of voyeuristic art, a painting unique in its time and in our own. 50 For further discussion of Ulysses and the Sirens, see A. Inglis & J. Long, Queens & Sirens: Archaeology in 19th Century Art and Design (exh. cat.), Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, Victoria, 1998, cat. no. 9.
For their generous assistance with this article at its various stages of preparation and writing, I would like to thank Sonia Dean, Senior Research Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria Dana Rowan, editor and Michael Watson, Librarian, National Gallery of Victoria.
1 A. Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA, 1849–1917, London, 1980, no. 90.
2 For Herkomer’s appointment as the London adviser to the Gallery Trustees, see I. Zdanowicz, ‘Prints of Fortune: Hubert Herkomer’s 1891–92 Etching Purchases for the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 33, 1993, pp. 2–4.
3 W. Smith (ed.), A Smaller Classical Mythology … with Translations from the Ancient Poets and Questions upon the Work, rev. edn, London, 1867, p. 444.
4 M. H. Spielmann, ‘Current Art: The Royal Academy’, Magazine of Art, 1891, p. 220.
7 ‘Fine Arts: The Royal Academy (First Notice)’, Athenaeum, no. 3314, 2 May 1891, p. 577.
11 ‘The Picture Galleries’, Saturday Review, vol. LXXI, no. 1853, 2 May 1891, p. 532.
12 ‘The Royal Academy: Third Notice’, Times, 21 May 1891, p. 4.
13 ibid. The Academy, too, complains that Waterhouse’s sirens are not ‘[s]irens proper according to the Homeric version, luring the unwary to their rock by the magic of their irresistible song’, but rather harpies, ‘strong in attack and prepared to take the offensive’, with ‘the wings and claws of strong birds of prey’ (‘Fine Art: The Royal Academy I’, Academy, vol. XXXIX, no. 992, 9 May 1891, p. 447). The Art Journal similarly complains: ‘These strange birds with human heads are rather Harpies than Sirens, and we feel too much that if the piercing-sweetness of their song should not prevail, they may too easily rend with those cruel eagleclaws of theirs the coveted victims’ (‘The Summer Exhibitions at Home and Abroad II: The Academy and the New Gallery’, Art Journal, June 1891, p. 188).
14 ‘The Royal Academy: Third Notice’.
15 ‘The Summer Exhibitions’, pp. 187–8.
17 See C. Murray Puckle, ‘The New Picture at the National Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 4 August 1891, p. 7 S. Dickinson, ‘Pictures for the National Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 26 September 1891, p. 6.
18 ‘Pictures for the National Gallery of Victoria’, Contributor, 1891, Newspaper Clipping Books, LTM 92, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
19 J. S., ‘The New Pictures in the Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 28 October 1891, p. 6.
21 M. R. Green, ‘Ulysses and the Sirens [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 31 October 1891, p. 5.
23 H. Herkomer, in ‘Selection of Pictures for the National Gallery: Important Statement by Professor Herkomer’, Argus, 23 July 1892, p. 5.
24 J. Ruskin, ‘Sesame and Lilies: Lecture II – Lilies’ (1865), in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XVIII, eds E. T. Cook & A. Wedderburn, London, 1905, p. 127.
26 See, for example, J. Butcher, Instructions in Etiquette, for the Use of All Five Letters on Important Subjects, Exclusively for Ladies and Conversational Hints to Whom Concerned, 3rd edn, London, 1847 T. S. Arthur, Advice to Young Ladies on Their Duties and Conduct in Life, London, 1856 Etiquette for Ladies, Being a Manual of Minor Social Ethics and Customary Observances, London, 1857.
27 See A. C. Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oxford, 1989, p. 200.
28 See V. M. Allen, ‘”One Strangling Golden Hair”: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith‘ , Art Bulletin, vol. LXVI, no. 2, June 1984, pp. 285–94.
29 H. J. Hansen (ed.), Late Nineteenth Century Art: The Art, Architecture and Applied Arts of the ‘Pompous Age’, trans. M. Bullock, New York, 1973, p. 124. For commentaries on femme fatale painting, see B. Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, New York, 1986 J. A. Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny: The Social Discourse of Nineteenth Century British Classical- Subject Painting, Madison, Wisconsin, 1989 E. Prettejohn, ‘Fatal Attraction’, Tate: The Art Magazine, no. 13, Winter 1997, p. 34.
31 Among the many artists to address this theme were Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Bume-Jones, Philip Burne- Jones, John Collier, Herbert Draper and Frederick Sandys. By the mid nineteenth century, temptresses of this kind were also appearing in the works of great poets such as Tennyson and Swinburne. Swinburne made frequent reference to the motif of the alluring female who induces men into a trance, numbing their ‘analytical faculties of the intellect’ to excite erotic sensations (R. Sieburth, ‘Poetry and Obscenity: Baudelaire and Swinburne’, Comparative Literature, vol. 36, no. 4, Fall 1984, p. 351). An example is Dolores, the ‘poisonous queen’ with a ‘cruel / Red mouth like a venomous flower’ (C. Swinburne, ‘Dolores’ (1866), in The Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne: Poems, Philadelphia, 1910, pp. 67, 66).
32 The Graphic described them as ‘birds of prey with huge claws’ (‘The Royal Academy’, Graphic, vol. XLIII, no. 1120, 16 May 1891, p. 547). The Art Journal similarly described them as ‘beautiful women’, but with ‘bodies of strong birds of prey’ and ‘cruel eagle-claws’ (‘The Summer Exhibitions’, pp. 187–8). See also note 13 above.
33 In Melbourne, Molesworth R. Green referred to Waterhouse’s sirens as ‘monstrous fowl’ (Green, p. 4), and a correspondent writing to the Argus considered them ‘winged monsters’ (‘Ulysses and the Sirens’ [letter to the editor], Argus, 5 November 1891, p. 7).
34 Like many artists painting femme fatale pictures in the late nineteenth century, Waterhouse portrayed his female figures with the faces of sweet English maids. Jenkyns claims that Waterhouse derived this concept of the sweet, shy temptress from Edward Burne-Jones (R. Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance, London, 1991, p. 284). A number of reviewers speculated that the faces of Waterhouse’s sirens had been modelled on the face of one fair English model. The critic for the Graphic, for example, expressed this view and described the faces as being ‘of a thoroughly English type’ (‘The Royal Academy’). The reviewer for the Art Journal complained that the artist had ‘too uniformly given the beautiful type of English womanhood’ to the sirens (‘The Summer Exhibitions’, p. 187).
35 Woman as both angel and demon is an important theme in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), a key influence for the French symbolists. In ‘Hymne à la Beauté’, for example, Baudelaire speaks of Beauty/Woman as a monster (‘monstre’) and, seeking to determine whether she is inherently good or evil, poses a question that aligns the figure of the siren quite explicitly with the forces of darkness: ‘De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène / Qu’importe’ (Whether from Satan or from God, what does it matter? Angel or Siren / What does it matter’) (C. Baudelaire, ‘Hymne à la Beauté’ (1860), in Les Fleurs du mal, Paris, 1961, p. 28). I would like to thank Dana Rowan for this material.
36 The Pictorial: Academy and Salon Pictures of 1891, c.1891, Newspaper Clipping Books, LTM 92, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
38 A. L. Baldry, ‘J. W. Waterhouse and His Work’, Studio, vol. V, 1894, p. 111.
39 Hobson, Art and Life, no. 91, fig. 50.
40 See A. Hobson, J W Waterhouse, London, 1989, p. 49. For a photograph by Ralph W. Robinson of the artist (c.1891), see J. Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984, p. 132.
41 See B. Taylor, ‘Female Savants and the Erotics of Knowledge in Pre-Raphaelite Art’, in Collecting the PrerRaphaelites: The Anglo-American Enchantment, ed. M. F. Watson, Brookfield, Vermont, 1997, pp. 121–31.
42 S. P. Casteras, ‘Malleus Maleficarum or the Witches’ Hammer: Victorian Visions of Female Sages and Sorceresses’, in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, ed. T. E. Morgan, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1990, p. 142.
44 J. Christian, The Pre-Raphaelites (exh. cat.), ed. L. Pan-is, Tate Gallery, London, 1984, p. 290.
45 Hobson, Art and Life, no. 94.
46 J. Ruskin, ‘Munera Pulveris’ (1862–63), in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XVII, pp. 213–14.
47 For Waterhouse’s other paintings of Circe, see Hobson, Art and Life, nos 92, 93, 183.
48 ibid., no. 134, fig. 108 Hobson, J W Waterhouse, fig. 56.
49 Paintings by Waterhouse on the sorceress theme include The Magic Circle, 1886 (Tate Gallery, London) (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 64, fig. 35) Jason and Medea, 1907 (private collection) (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 158, fig. 121) and The Sorceress, c.1911 (at Peter Nahum, London, in 1989), an inscription on the back of which identifies the figure as Circe (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 182, fig. 132 J W Waterhouse, fig. 78).
50 For further discussion of Ulysses and the Sirens, see A. Inglis & J. Long, Queens & Sirens: Archaeology in 19th Century Art and Design (exh. cat.), Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, Victoria, 1998, cat. no. 9.
Odysseus & the Sirens - History
One of the earliest and most well known source about sirens, Homers great epic The Odyssey details the account of Odysseus and his brief encounter with these mythical sea creatures. This epic poem is the basis of many Greek myths and is a source of many different types of sea creatures and other beings, and is an important source of “monsters”. It is interesting to note that the sirens mentioned in Book 12 do not actually reference death, except when Odysseus first mentions to his men that they will face two creatures “so that whether [they] live or die [they] may do so with [their] eyes open” (p. 6). In fact that is the only moment in this source that death and sirens are connected, as Odysseus claims that Circe told him these sirens should be avoided due to their power. According to Circe they “sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers”, and it is seen that they live on a specific island (p. 6). Their song that is obviously enchanting, as seen by Odysseus’s attempts to free himself in order to hear more, is never actually described in any concrete way other than the words sung were magical. The words sung to Odysseus tell that “No one ever sailed past [them] without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of [their] song…and [the song] can tell everything that is going to happen over the whole world” (p. 7). This source tells more about the sirens than meets the eye from this short section the powers of the sirens is clear. Their song is enchanting and magical, and clearly has some control over all if it makes them want to hear more. It also offers a fascinating idea that they are somewhat omniscient, as proven by them saying it will make the listener “wiser, for [the sirens] know all” (p. 6). However, it is what is left out that is the most important. Despite The Odyssey being the most famous source on these creatures, there is not actual description of the sirens or their voice. Other accounts offer up facts about what they look like, but most fail to mention the actual quality of their voice that is enchanting. Sirens are a mystery that is no more solved in this source than others.
Many secondary scholarly articles attempts to explain sirens and what these mythical creatures are. The form and significance of sirens are still a mystery, even after Homers telling of these creatures. There are two main tracks about what sirens are the scholar Weicker believes sirens to be soul-birds, meaning they are basically representations of the souls of the dead. The scholar Buscher believes they are other world enchantresses and that sirens are related to Muses. Buscher believes that Homers sirens are anthropomorphic and different from other kinds of sirens in folk tales, while Weicker offers up the idea that they live in the grave and the underworld. The main question that both attempt to address is simple what is a siren? To answer this, many scholars believe you must start with Homer. As mentioned before, Homer does not offer a clear picture of the sirens or the danger they may or may not possess, but instead leaves an ominous but indefinite aura in the scene. The major theme of the encounter, as author Gresseth argues, is the presence of this Magic Song. This magic song attracts Odysseus, but other than the fact that it was sung sweetly what is so enchanting about it? There seems to be no definite answer to this, but there are two possible effects of it on the victims. One that they waste away after hearing the song, and two that the sirens consume them after they listen to them sing. These two possibilities lead into the common motifs of the legend of sirens. There is the common idea that the sirens are enchantresses that lure men in with their voices and looks. Then there is the pattern of Greek myths like the sirens it follows that these creatures live in a distant location, near the Ocean, at a meadow or plain, and are either dead or supernatural. This follows directly with how Homer describes the sirens. The last motif is the magical wind calm that occurs right before the sirens sing. All three motifs connect both the myths of sirens with other Greek myths and offer up this idea that the sirens are described as such by Homer because of tradition.
Appearance of Homeric Sirens
The two ways of thinking about Sirens are important in identifying the sirens, but are not supported by Homer in his epic poem, Truly, Homer gives no description of genus of the sirens. The first notice of what sirens look like or where they come from come from the ancient Dramatists’. Sophocles says that the father of the sirens was Phorcys, while Euripides states their mother was Chton. The relationship to their mother is supported by other myths and stories, like when Helen asks Persephone to send the Sirens to her, which means they are coming from the same place as dreams. Coincidentally, Chton was the mother of dreams, thus linking together sirens and their possibly mother. Sirens are seen as related to sphinxes and dreams, all of which have wings, which is why sirens are drawn with wings. The ancients were known to follow literary tradition, and this explains why sirens are drawn as birds. It is also supported that sirens are bicorporal, meaning they are two in number, which goes along with other drawings of sirens and Homers poem, which states that there are two sirens on the island. Though not much is known through Homer about their appearance, secondary articles like Gresseths are able to piece together the legend and appearance of these mythical creatures.
The Sirens appear in Greek’s oldest works of literature. Homer, Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Ovid, Seneca, and Hesiod all describe these bewitching singers. By the end of the Greek period, Grecian scholars had concluded that the women were no more than fable—yet their legend lived on for centuries after the Greek civilization crumbled away.
Writers as far back as William Shakespeare began to merge Sirens with mermaids, combining the sweet, vibrant appearance of the fish-maidens with the dreamy voice of the Sirens. Over time, the link between these two creatures has grown tighten. Today, it’s hard to find a feathered Siren in popular culture.
Although the original Sirens have gone out of fashion, Siren-mermaid hybrids are still incredibly popular. They can be found in all sorts of works of fantasy, from fairytales written by Hans Christian Anderson and CS Lewis to blockbuster movies like Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean.