In the wine-dark expanse of the Aegean Sea, far from the halls of civilization, there was once a small island—or so Homer, the famed poet of Ancient Greece, wrote in his epic The Odyssey. No buildings occupied its flowery meadows; no fisherman worked its shores. Those who passed in their black ships heard only voices, twining over the windless waves, singing a song that promised knowledge of all things. Once they heard it, they were enchanted; they had no choice but to land and seek out the singers. Those who did never left the island; their bodies remained, rotting amid the flowers, for none who heard the Sirens' song could escape it.
The story of the Sirens has inspired writers, poets, and artists for millennia. But somewhere along the way their form was confused. Today, Sirens are almost always represented as voluptuous mermaids, whose beauty and sexuality lure men to their deaths. But the Classical Greeks understood the Sirens differently: as bird-women, creatures that Mediterranean cultures traditionally associated with hidden knowledge.
This forgotten mythology was unearthed by Emily Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania classicist, whose historic new English translation of Homer’s Odyssey has won her accolades for its modern language and style. The story of Greek warrior-king Odysseus’s far-flung, 10-year journey home from the war in Troy was first translated into English in 1615; notably, Wilson is the first woman to publish a full English translation. In a recent Twitter thread, she dug into the linguistic origins of Homer's verses on the Sirens. Many translators, she concluded, have let modern culture influence their translations, ultimately warping our image of these mythological creatures and the nature of their seductive power.
The linguistic or mythic precursors to the Sirens are somewhat mysterious, Wilson told Audubon. Sirens first appear in the literary record with the Odyssey (written around 750 BCE) in a segment that’s much briefer than you’d think considering the cultural impact of these mystical, singing creatures. It goes like this: Odysseus, warned by the enchantress Circe of the danger posed by the Sirens’ song, orders his crew to stuff their ears with wax. But, curious to a fault, he has himself bound to the ship’s mast so he can listen without flinging himself into the sea. The Sirens promise him tales of all that had occurred during the war at Troy, and everywhere else besides; enchanted, he begs his crew to release him. He rants, raves, and threatens, but to no avail. His crew sails on until the song fades in the distance, and so saves his life.
Homer doesn’t describe the Sirens’ physical appearance in his epic poem, Wilson says. But in ceramic paintings and tomb sculptures from the time of writing, and centuries after, Sirens were usually depicted with taloned feet, feathered wings, and a beautiful human face. (Early Sirens were occasionally depicted with beards, but this trope didn’t stick.) The bird-body of the Siren is significant to Wilson: In the eyes of traditional peoples all across Europe, birds were often graced with an otherworldliness associated with gods, spirits, and omens.
“They inhabit the water, the air, and the earth,” she said. “They’re also associated with song; they have voices that are not human voices, and kinds of movement that are not the same as human kinds of movement.”
The Sirens’ role in tomb art is particularly telling. In ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures—as far back as 7,000 years ago—birds were often depicted carrying spirits to the underworld. An Anatolian vulture goddess sweeping away the dead with broom-like wings, suggested by some to be a precursor to the Siren, is pictured on the walls of a 6,500 BCE Turkish settlement. Jump ahead a few millennia to 1,550 BCE, by which time Ba-birds, depictions of departing souls as human-faced birds, began appearing in Egypt. That connection between birds and dead souls seems to have then hopped over to Greece: Writing in the 5th century BCE, the playwright Euripides described the Sirens as at the beck and call of Persephone, one of the rulers of the underworld, while other writers identified the Sirens as rivals and dark echoes of the Muses, those goddesses of creativity.
These are the Sirens the Ancient Greeks would have recognized: bird creatures of the underworld, bridging the human world and what lies beyond. The Sirens—and their fateful songs—then offered a glimpse behind the veil, a chance to hear how earthly glories would echo in eternity. “The question of what song the Sirens sing, what is this forbidden knowledge, what's wrong with it, what's the temptation—the text leaves a lot of open space there,” Wilson said. Therein lies the seduction.
Yet today, mermaids or beautiful sea nymphs replace the dark, winged Sirens of ancient times. Wilson suggests that later writers might have conflated Sirens with water nymphs like the Lorelei, a 19th-century poetic creation whose seductive songs lured men to their deaths along the Rhine River. The Sirens likely got consumed, too, by the explosion of seductive mermaid iconography during the same period.
However it happened, the identification of Sirens with mermaids seems to have affected later translations of the Odyssey, and ultimately common knowledge of Sirens. Over the phone, Wilson detailed how translators in the 19th and 20th centuries cast the Sirens in a sexualized light. In one prose translation, the Sirens speak of “the sweet voice from our lips,” despite the word στομάτων directly translating to the less sensual “mouths.” Another adds flowery descriptors of “each purling note/like honey twining/from our lips.” But unlike the Odyssey’s other island temptresses, Circe and Calypso, the Sirens get no admiring description of their faces or hair. Only their voice is described, and their field of bones and flowers.
That’s a pretty strong indicator that the Sirens are not meant to be read as offering a sexual temptation, Wilson says. You can kiss lips; mouths devour. (Wilson’s translation, for the record, goes like this: “Now stop your ship and listen to our voices. All those who pass this way hear honeyed song/poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy/and they go on their way with greater knowledge.")
Folklore and mythology move on, given enough time. Today, the Siren is just another word for mermaid, and is likely to remain so. But there’s something richly thematic about the Sirens of Classical Greece that deserves to be remembered: in-between creatures on a lonely island, floating between the boundaries of life and death, and offering an irresistible song of both. Water-temptresses are a dime a dozen; the Sirens offer wisdom.