The True Story
of the Sirens
The Sirens are often described as alluring temptresses who took the lives of sailors. That interpretation is a total misunderstanding of the myth's true meaning.
The way the story is told: Sirens seduced sailors with their alluring songs. Sailors heard their songs and became hypnotized.
But what should the sirens have done about this problem?
If the sirens stopped singing about the future and started making lentil soup every time a ship of swooning sailors docked, they wouldn’t be the sirens anymore. The sirens weren’t running a bed and breakfast. One fact about the sirens that often gets ignored is that they were the world's first futurists. They were not lunch ladies. Their job was not to dip their ladles into the soup tureen for yet another sailor while each day, the memory of what they’d once been faded more and more.
Would the sirens still have had their perfect insight into the future if they were forced into the servitude of feeding sailor after sailor? When the unwanted catering gig imposed on the sirens finally, blissfully slowed, would they rip off their hair nets and take their rightful place by the sea, only to get interrupted yet again by the appearance of a ship full of sailors looking to be fed?
Would the sirens have continued their songs even then?
Let's imagine that the sirens fed all of the sailors while singing. Then their islands would have been overpopulated with mesmerized, well fed sailors. Would the sirens have then been expected to build shelter for them? How many sailors could these tiny, rocky islands support, and how many could the sirens feed? Eventually, the sirens would have had to start farming just to produce enough food to keep the sailors alive, and the volcanic terrain wasn’t made for agriculture.
But the sailors didn't have to get mesmerized and shipwrecked. They could have innovated a way around the problem.
When Jason and the Argonauts sailed past the Sirens, they brought Orpheus, who played the lyre and drowned out the singing so they could safely pass. While Jason never heard the song of the future, he spared his own life and the lives of his crew while protecting the sirens, who were doomed to perish if anyone heard them but didn't stop to listen.
Odysseus also innovated a way around the problem. His solution cost the Sirens their lives. During his unexpectedly long stay with Circe on a neighboring island, Odysseus was warned about the obstacles he would encounter on the various islands on the way home. No sailor has ever lived to tell the tale of the Siren Song, Circe tells him. He can be the first, if he follows her instructions.
Even if the sirens had deliberately lured the sailors to the shore, they would have been performing a public service, because the next island past theirs housed Scylla and Charybdis, two monstrous beasts. One needed to devour six sailors on sight, just to satisfy each of her six heads, and the other was a massive whirlpool with the stickiness of a black hole. Odysseus knew this challenge was ahead of him, if he could just make it past the Sirens first.
To keep the song from tempting his crew, Odysseus filled their ears with beeswax, but not until he made sure that each one of them had heard his firm order to tie him to the mast and not let him go. He alone would hear the song of the sirens, while his crew couldn’t, and therefore they would be deaf to the hypnotic songs. He could have put beeswax in his own ears, too, which would have spared the sirens' lives, but instead he followed Circe's murderous plan to the letter. When the ship drew near enough to hear their song, Odysseus begged his crew to release him, but they couldn't hear him.
The sirens are depicted as dangerous temptresses, even though the only song of theirs that survived is focused on sharing knowledge.
They knew about everything that would ever happen.
The only scrap of the Siren Song that the rest of us have comes from Homer's retelling of what Odysseus heard: "Once he hears to his heart's content, sails on, a wiser man."
The sirens, being futurists, knew that the moment of their last song had arrived.
It may be true that had he not been tied to the mast, the bones of Odysseus would have long since turned to dust on the volcanic ash of a tiny island. It is tempting to believe that the sirens got what they deserved, since countless sailors had perished on their island, but all they did was sing. It wasn't their fault that the sailors, who were not prevented in any way from feeding themselves, chose to starve. Odysseus, on the other hand, knew that he was going to kill the sirens. But he didn't care. He wanted knowledge of their song without the risk of becoming too mesmerized to ever leave.
This is the irony of the sirens, and the meaning of the myth. They could tell you about the future, but if you heard it, you'd be too spellbound to do anything about it and it would cost your life. If you heard but didn't get spellbound, they'd lose their lives.
Sometimes when I talk about the sirens, people's eyes widen.
"But the sirens are mythological, right?" people ask. "They weren't real....were they?"
“The myth tells me how to respond to certain crises of disappointment or delight or failure or success,” Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. “The myths tell me where I am.”
The sailors and the sirens both inspired this project. Their fates are forever tied. The amphorae found in the shipwrecks around my ancestral islands, Ventotene and Ischia, symbolize the sailors' journeys and the drive to continue forward. The contents within, made of imagination, symbolize the songs of the future that were first created by the sirens and now get created by all of us in interconnected ways, every minute of every day.
This project has one purpose: To inspire adventurers to depart from the shore.
Sail on, wiser...
Rita J. King