Aren’t they just Mermaids? What’s the difference between Mermaids and Sirens – aren’t Sirens just an evil kind of mermaid?
I love learning about all different kinds of mythology, and Greek mythology is one of my favourites. In the original stories, you might be surprised to know, Sirens weren’t just a special kind of Mermaid.
Way back in the original Greek myths, Sirens were usually depicted as part women, part bird (!) sometimes they were very beautiful, other times quite ugly. But they always had beautiful, alluring voices. They lived on a collection of rocky islands and sailors would hear their enchanting voices as they passed – the stories tell us that no sailor could resist the allure of their beautiful Siren song.
The Sirens would sing for the sailors who passed by and, captivated by the spell of their voices, the sailors would then usually drown or die on the rocks, trying desperately to reach the Siren who sang for them. Sometimes, if a sailor did manage to reach the island, it was said the Sirens would tear them apart or – eat them! So we’re definitely leaning towards the evil categorisation there.
So how did Sirens become so confused with mermaids? They didn’t actually live in the sea (if you want to be picky, we could say they didn’t actually live, as we’re talking mythological creatures here – but let’s not spoil the fun by being picky). It’s the beautiful singing and the connection to sailors, I believe, that has caused this sort of fusing of Sirens and Mermaids in newer mythology. By which I mean, myths are like any other stories which have been passed down through word of mouth – no story is exactly the same. Every person telling it adds their own flavour, their own unique twist. That’s how the stories stay alive in our minds and hearts (it’s also one of the reasons I personally love mythology). So now, you could say, yes, Sirens are kind of like an evil Mermaid. Because that is how they have come to be depicted by many people over the years.
However, for me, I really became fascinated with Sirens when I learned that, in most of the stories, the worst thing they actually did was – sing. In the vast majority of the stories it was said that they were dangerous, that they would tear sailors apart or even eat them if they ever got close enough – but actually what happened in nearly all of the stories is any sailor stupid enough to try and reach them would just drown. In my opinion, we can’t really hold the Sirens accountable for that.
Ancient Greece had some… interesting attitudes towards women. Being a woman, when I learned about the Sirens I felt quite annoyed on their behalf like – hey, all they were doing is living their best life on their remote island, combing their beautiful hair (another thing they usually have in common with Mermaids) and singing with their beautiful voices. Is it really the Siren’s fault if sailors become so infatuated with their singing they would then kill themselves in an attempt to reach these isolated creatures? I feel like that’s a bit of a harsh judgement, if you ask me (I might be biased on this!).
Anyway, as I mentioned some stories absolutely do talk about the Sirens killing or even eating men who managed to reach their shores. But the vast majority mainly focus on their voices luring the sailors in. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus was apparently so desperate to hear the Siren’s song, he ordered his sailors to stuff wax in their ears and tie him to the mast of the ship without anything to impede his hearing, so that he could be the one to hear them and not throw himself into the ocean in a desperate attempt to reach these temptresses. Pretty cunning, if only more sailors had thought to do something similar! In that particular story, I believe the Sirens threw themselves into the ocean and died when they weren’t able to lure Odysseus or any of his sailors to them. But again, I wonder how much of that is just the male perspective that, women obviously calculate and revolve everything they do around men. (If I knew how to add an eyeroll emoji, there would be one right here).
Another interesting thing about Sirens is that where they actually came from is not very clear. Sometimes they are described as the daughters of either the sea god Phorcys or of the river god Achelous and one of the muses. Then other myths say that they were originally nymphs who kept the goddess Persephone company. When Persephone was kidnapped by Hades/disappeared into the underworld (another myth with some interesting variations, and a personal favourite of mine) Persephone’s mother, the goddess Demeter, was so heartbroken and angry at the nymphs for failing to keep her daughter safe, that she either gave them wings to help search for Persephone, or just cursed them to become Sirens because she was so irate. As the Persephone myth is one I love, I tend to favour that one personally – but again, its the beauty of mythology – there really isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer here.
As you can see, and as is typical for any kind of myth, there are lots of different tellings and things which get changed over time when it comes to the Sirens. But the main points that always stay the same is that they are usually half women, half some other creature – originally birds, but now often instead depicted as half fish. They had voices so beautiful that anyone who heard them could not resist their allure – that one point basically never changes. So to me, the Sirens were really a reminder of the dangers of the oceans and of sailing, as well as a general warning about the risks of giving in to temptation. Sure, their voices might be alluring, they may make you think that all you need to do is reach them and then everything would be perfect – but actually what will probably happen is you’re going to die a nasty death on the rocks around their island. If you’re lucky then you might survive the treacherous swim – in which case, they would probably kill and/or eat you. Giving in t temptation = bad times, in Greek mythology.
So, are Sirens evil? Well, if you believe the way the ancient Greeks told it, absolutely. I prefer to take a more ambiguous perspective though – like I said before, all they mostly did was chill out on their rocky island and do a lot of singing. Were they intentionally trying to lure sailors to the rocks so they would die? Maybe. Or maybe they were just bored, and a bit lonely.
What do you think?
If you love mythology and mythological creatures, look out for my book, Call of the Siren – coming soon 😉 (you can read the first chapter for free here)
Further reading: The Audubon Society has a very cool post about this here, if you’re interested.
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