This week we're looking at the seductive Sirens from Greek mythology! What links these creatures of the shoreline to the abduction of the Spring goddess Persephone? How did they change from half-birds, half women to half-fish, half women? Find out on today's episode!Support the show
Hello and welcome to Myth Monsters, my name is Erin and I’ll be your host for these little snack bite size podcasts on folklore and mythical monsters from around the world.
These podcasts focus on the actual cryptids, folklore and mythic monsters from global mythology, rather than focusing on full stories of heroes and their big adventures.
I’ll also be dropping in some references that they have to recent culture and where you can see these represented in modern day content so you can learn more, and get as obsessed as I am about these absolute legends of the mythological world.
Now I have an announcement, I said last week that my lovely friend Bethany would be joining us but unfortunately due to some poor scheduling and prep on my part, we’ve delayed this til later in the year! Sorry for anyone that was excited for that - we’ll get her on soon, and for now you can just put up with me on my lonesome for another week - which you should be used to already.
This week we’re looking at Sirens from Greek mythology - and I’m not talking about the nee naw, I’m talking about the scary water based ladies.
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were considered dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. It is also said that they can even charm the winds.
If you heard their song whilst on your ship or even on shore, you would become entranced, almost hypnotised or completely charmed, then you would throw yourself into the water to go to them, and they would drown and eat you - how nice.
Now they are described as a couple of things, firstly and most commonly they are described as a combination of women and birds. They were shown as birds with large women's heads, bird feathers and scaly feet, then later on down the line they were portrayed as ladies with the legs of birds, with wings who play instruments, especially harps and lyres - very Ancient greek of them.
However, by the Middle Ages, the description of Sirens completely changed and became the more popular version that they are now, which is an almost mermaid figure - but with an evil streak. Sirens, out of the three main European merfolk monsters are definitely the most vicious - with Selkies being the loving and homemaking ones, and Mermaids kind of being in between the two.
Now linking to this, they are heavily related to mermaids and selkies, the french word for mermaid is actually Sirene and Italian is Sirena - which is a pretty cool fact! Before we carry on, I need to STRESS that mermaids and sirens are NOT the same thing. Because of what I said a minute ago about their aggression and generally vicious nature - whilst mermaids are not generally aggressive, they’re more mischievous and troublesome, but they can sometimes be helpful too! Think of Sirens as this horrible aggressive drowner, who will actively try and murder you, whilst mermaids like the line in Peter Pan - ‘we were only trying to drown her ah ha’
Sirens can be both male and female but to be honest, male Sirens literally disappeared from all art and content in the fifth century BC - so they’re now permanently seen as female.
The etymology of the word Siren is linked to rope or cord and the greek word eírō which means to tie, join or fasten, which also links us to binder and entangler. The English word "siren", means very literally the nee naw noise.
We can link this to Sirens as they do bind or entangle through magic songs. This could be related to the famous scene with Odysseus, but I’ll talk about that in a minute.
Now origin wise within mythology - they’re usually listed as daughters of the river god Achelous, and either by the Muse Terpsichore the muse of dance, Melpomene the muse of tragedy or Calliope, the muse of poetry. Fun fact is that Calliope was also the mother of the famous musician Orpheus, who’s dad was Apollo, god of light, but we’ll talk about him later.
There are a couple of reasons as to why they’re this evil sea monster, in one telling by Ovid, the Sirens were the handmaidens of Persephone, the goddess of Spring and later, Queen of the Underworld. When Persephone was abducted by Hades to become said Queen, Demeter, her mother and the Olympian goddess of the seasons, gave the Sirens wings to search for her. If you know the myth, which is one of my absolute favourite stories - you’ll know that they were unsuccessful and therefore, stayed like this forever.
However in other tellings, it has Demeter cursing the Sirens for not stopping Hades from taking Persephone. Then Sirens were fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs were able to pass by them, which as you can imagine is quite tricky - but someone did do it.
Now why did they change from birds to mermaids I hear you ask?
One legend says that Hera, who is Queen of the gods, made the Sirens enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses obviously obliterated them as they are literally the Muses - and their prize was to pluck out all of the Sirens' feathers, then they made crowns out of them - which you can see in some pottery and art of the Muses.
The Sirens took their loss pretty badly, they turned sheet white and threw themselves into the sea - now there are two tellings of this part, one is that they turned into the Island Leukai which means ‘the white ones’ and is in Crete. Another version, and the more fun one is that they grew tails and became aquatic monsters rather than flying ones. Not sure which one I prefer or would rather bump into, but nonetheless - they still had the curse that they would perish if someone survived after hearing their song, note that down.
Sirens made their most prolific appearances in two of our journeying heroes stories from Greek myth - Jason and the Argonauts and the Odysseus’ Odyssey - which I still find quite a funny bunch of words together and you should have seen the amount of saliva that flew out whilst I said that oh my goodness.
In Jason’s adventure, they were on their way to get the Golden Fleece - and Jason had been warned by Chiron, the legendary Centaur that we talked about a few weeks ago, that Orpheus, who we talked about earlier, would be necessary in his journey. Jason was like, meh with Orpheus as his only skill was playing music, but when Orpheus heard the Sirens voices, he got out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they sang, and he actually drowned out their voices, saving the crew from their deadly song. One of the crew however, the hero Butes, managed to hear the Sirens and he jumped into the water, but positives here that he was caught up and carried safely away by the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
Now with Odysseus, he was on his wonderful Odyssey - the word so named after himself, was really curious as to what Sirens sounded like - like an idiot basically. So he spoke to the goddess of magic, Circe, who advised him to pop beeswax in his ears and tie himself to the mast of the ship. When the Sirens started singing - he begged the sailors to untie him so he could join the ladies - but they actually bound him even tighter. They made it past them, and after they did, they watched the Sirens throw themselves into the sea to their deaths - because they made it past without being tempted in.
Now firstly, I would like to say that this segment was actually quite tricky this week because Sirens and Mermaids are very often put in the same bucket. Now as we said earlier, they are 100% not the same thing, but it seems producers and writers of crappy articles on the internet cannot seem to get that out of their heads.
Art wise there are a few really famous and lovely paintings - probably the most famous is The Siren, by John William Waterhouse, painted in 1900. There’s also The Siren by Edward Armitage, painted in 1888, Then there’s some cool hero specific paintings with Odysseus and the Sirens, painted by Léon Belly in 1867 or Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper painted in 1909. They’re all very classic paintings, but they’re gorgeous - so I really recommend giving them a look.
For movies, you have the Pirates of the Caribbean movies - specifically the fourth one which had mermaids and sirens in, The Lighthouse from 2019 which was a psychological horror that starred William Dafoe and Robert Pattinson - and was actually black and white and universally debated whether it was any good. There’s also a Siren horror film which came out in 2016, it’s got 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe worth the watch!
For TV, you’ve got the actual Siren series, which I remember specifically saying was not great. They were also in an episode of Doctor Who, in the old Aquaman series and in the Australian series Tidelands.
For video games, it’s a little sparse - again with mermaids who are friendly rather than Sirens. A good mention is Cala Maria from Cuphead and you go to Island of Sirens in Immortals Fenyx Rising, which is an awesome game if you’ve not played it and are into Greek myth - unfortunately that’s all I could find on Sirens, if you know any games that you’ve played and I’ve missed out here, let me know!
My book recommendation for the week is actually a book called Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli, hear me out - it’s a kids novel, BUT it’s all about a siren who falls in love with a sailor, but isn’t sure if he loves her or her song back. For more tales on the Odyssey or the Argo, have a read of Stephen Fry’s Heroes book for a great retelling.
DO I THINK THEY EXISTED?
Now it’s time for, do we think they existed?
It’s tricky as always with water based monsters, because as I said during the Kraken episode, we’ve only discovered about 5% of the world's oceans - meaning nothing is really impossible to imagine. Mermaids and Sirens’ existence have actually been debated throughout history, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if either species existed at this rate.
It would be cool to have half naked ladies on rocks singing at us as we went past, it would certainly make my boat journeys a little more pleasant - even if I did end up jumping in after them and getting eaten, there are worse ways to go than being eaten by a scantily clad sea monster, ya know.
I certainly don’t like the idea of half bird, hald ladies swooping down at me, the images of Sirens are horrible before they evolved into half fish. But birds are kind of scary, especially one with the face of a very angry, cursed lady.
I guess again, it’s a link to the ocean being dangerous, but worth the risk in these ancient times. And I guess the story of them becoming the Sirens by not looking after their ward is an interesting cautionary tale for being a good babysitter, I dunno. When I was babysitting devil spawn once as a teenager, I locked one of them in the conservatory because he was being vile and then he told his mum when she got home and she sacked me, so I’m not one to judge to be honest.
I think Sirens are a pretty cool myth monster if I’m honest, and again I love the Greek monsters - they are just my fave. And as always I do love a sea monster, but I’ve done so many recently - I’ll back off them for a bit.
Next week we’re sticking around in Europe for the last time for a little while to look at the fearsome Basilisk - yes, the big snake from Harry Potter. Slither into the podcast to find out more about these horrific beasts next Thursday!
For now thank you so much for listening, it’s been an absolute pleasure. If you enjoyed this podcast, please give it a rating on the service you’re listening on - I’ve got the twitter for any questions, or suggestions on what monsters to cover next and I’d love to hear from you.
The twitter is @mythmonsterspod or the instagram is @mythmonsterspodcast. Or you can email me, old fashioned-style on firstname.lastname@example.org. I also have the Tiktok like a cool modern lady, and it’s mythmonsterspodcast - I do a quick myth on Mondays, monster of the week reveals on Tuesdays, monster of the week facts on Wednesday and a cool monster guessing game on Thursday! So come join the fun and share this with your pals, they might love me as much as you do.
But for now, stay spooky and I’ll see you later babes.