In ordinary usage, the word “siren” is defined by the Oxford English Dictiionary as “a woman who is considered to be alluring or fascinating but also dangerous in some way”. Feminists might object to the term as being sexist. However, not a few women would feel flattered if they were called “siren”. In Greek mytholody, sirens (pictured above) were creatures, half bird and half woman, whose music and singing lured unsuspecting sailors to destruction. They have since become the archetype of the woman who has the ability to bewitch and have control over men.

Homer wrote about the sirens’ seductive power in his epic poem, The Odyssey. Here is the sorceress Circe telling Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology) to beware of the strange creatures:

First you will raise the island of the Sirens,
those creatures who spellbind any man alive,
whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air—
no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him,
no happy children beaming up at their father’s face.
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will trans?x him,
lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses
rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones …

(from The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles)

Pretty but perilous

 

In many works of art, sirens do not have the menacing aspect suggested in Homer’s The Odyssey and rendered in Waterhouse’s painting. They are usually beautiful and graceful. But let not their benign appearance deceive you. Behind the allure lies danger.

Odysseus und die Sirenen (Odysseus and the Sirens)
Alexander Bruckmann (German, 1806 – 1852)
Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Sirens, 1870 – 1910
John Macallan Swan (English, 1846 – 1910)
Image from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A Sea-Spell

by William Browne (English, c. 1590 – c. 1645)

STEER, hither steer your winged pines,
All beaten mariners!
Here lie Love’s undiscover’d mines,
A prey to passengers;
Perfumes far sweeter than the best
Which make the Phoenix’ urn and nest.
Fear not your ships,
Nor any to oppose you save our lips;
But come on shore,
Where no joy dies till Love hath gotten more.

For swelling waves our panting breasts,
Where never storms arise,
Exchange, and be awhile our guests:
For stars gaze on our eyes.
The compass Love shall hourly sing,
And as he goes about the ring,
We will not miss
To tell each point he nameth with a kiss.
–Then come on shore,
Where no joy dies till Love hath gotten more.

A Sea-Spell, between 1875 – 1877
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English, 1828–1882)
Image from the Art Renewal Center via Wikimedia Commons

A Sea-Spell

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,
The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.
But to what sound her listening ear stoops she?
What netherworld gulf-whispers doth she hear,
In answering echoes from what planisphere,
Along the wind, along the estuary?
She sinks into her spell: and when full soon
Her lips move and she soars into her song,
What creatures of the midmost main shall throng
In furrowed self-clouds to the summoning rune,
Till he, the fated mariner, hears her cry,
And up her rock, bare breasted, comes to die?

From sirens to femme fatales

Cleopatra, circa 1887
John William Waterhouse (English, 1849 – 1917)
Image from Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia

Mata Hari in 1906
Photo from National Geographic
via Wikimedia Commons

Not all sirens were mere figments of the imagination. Some were actual historical figures. Like Homer’s sirens, they beguiled men to accomplish their own ends. The most famous example of these femme fatales was Cleopatra, known for her romantic liaisons and military alliances with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. And who could forget the notorious Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer who spied for the Germans during World War I and was executed as a result by a French firing squad? Click here to learn more about Cleopatra and here for Mata Hari.

To earn the title “femme fatale”, one has to be beautiful, mysterious and seductive — qualities that not every woman is born with or can aspire to. But even an ordinary woman can be a siren in her own right. The following poem talks about a woman who dumps a man after he had given her everything. It’s a tale that has been told before and will be told again and again.

The Vampire

by Rudyard Kipling (English, 1865 – 1936)

The verses—as suggested by the painting by Philip Burne-Jones,
first exhibited at the new gallery in London in 1897.

A fool there was and he made his prayer
   (Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair—
   (Even as you or I!)

Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste,
   And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
   And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
   (Even as you or I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
But a fool must follow his natural bent
   (Even as you or I!)

Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
   And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know that she never knew why)
   And did not understand!

The fool was stripped to his foolish hide,
   (Even as you or I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
   (Even as you or I!)

And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
   That stings like a white-hot brand—
It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
   And never could understand!

~ Barista Uno

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