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Secrets of the Sirens
The Original Femme Fatales?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Mysterious and seductive, and maybe just misunderstood… and with a song that would lead you to your death.
The Sirens really are amongst the most famous and enduring images of ancient mythology.
So much so, that they have a whole legacy that most people are unaware of.
We’ve all heard of ‘screen sirens’ before, but there’s much more to the link between the human-animal hybrids of myth and the femme fatales of the silver screen.
Read on to discover the ways that film noir is like folklore, and how the Sirens never left us…
All the best,
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Villainy of Sirens
By Mariami Razmadze
“Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?”
- The Mermaid, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“A mermaid flattens soles and picks a trout,
knife and fork in chainsong at the spine,
weeps white rum undetectable from tears.
She kills more bottles than the ocean sinks,
and serves her winded lovers' bones in brine,
nibbled at recess in the marathon.”
- Mermaid, Robert Lowell
The image of a Siren is universally known: an irresistible seductress with a voice that sends its listeners to their graves. In popular culture, a Siren is almost exclusively half-fish thanks to her lower extremity, but more importantly, a Siren is almost never a good-hearted character with decent intentions. Scholars have proposed different reasons for the roots of Sirens’ wickedness and all of them add up to one, very logical, conclusion. But first, what actually are Sirens, where do they come from, and what exactly is their history?
Due to popular illustrations, Sirens and mermaids are interchangeable in collective consciousness. Yet even though they were always mermaids (half-fish) in French, Spanish, and Italian literature, Greek and Roman art depicted them as half-birds. As Ovid writes in the Metamorphoses:
“O Siren Maids, but wherefore thus have ye the feet and plumes of birds, although remain your virgin features?”
Euripides also describes them as ‘winged maidens’ in Helen, but the most well-known account of Sirens is, of course, the twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey where they are vaguely described, and nothing is revealed about their appearance.
On the other hand, a Siren is frequently a ‘mermaid’ in early English poetry, and the transition from ‘half-birds’ to ‘half-fish’ is also present in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
Many believe that the shift from ‘winged maidens’ to ‘mermaids’ was, in part, a result of northern European influences. This can be further argued by the importance of a Siren’s hair and the act of combing. In the later, visual portrayals of Sirens, an artist almost always directs viewer’s attention to her hair (most famously John William Waterhouse’s A Mermaid or Hylas and the Nymphs.) Indeed, the very ritual of combing, in many cases, is what lures unsuspecting sailors to their traps.
It is also noteworthy that Homeric Sirens appeared in ‘windless calm’ and in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream their ‘harmonious breath’ made ‘rude sea grew civil at her song’. As Odysseus is already warned by Circe about the viciousness of Sirens, the peacefulness of the sea and its surroundings can, arguably, be inferred as another one of their tricks of temptation.
Origins of the Sirens
As for the origins of the Sirens, they lack a genealogy in the Odyssey. Instead, we can turn to the tragedians to provide a fascinating analysis of their ancestral background. According to Sophocles, their father was Phorcys, a sea god, and Euripides claims their mother was Chthon, who was also the mother of Dreams. This link between Sirens and dreams is important. As Gerald K. Gresseth wrote, “Insofar as the intention of the Sirens' singing was hypnotic trance, the two states are much alike.” Furthermore, both dreams and Sirens were both said to have prophetic powers.
Indeed, Homeric Sirens claim to have the same omniscience and power of knowledge as the Muses. This can be supported by the fact that the Sirens do recognize Odysseus and, in fact, know what happened in Troy. Yet as the Sirens are unaware of the fact that none of Odysseus’ companions can hear them, they are not as all-knowing as they claim. As Pietro Pucci writes…
“These omniscient singers fail to see what happens before their eyes, for it escapes them that Odysseus is bound fast to the ship's mast and they do not know that his companions hear neither him nor their song. The Sirens, who claim to know each time everything that has happened on the surface of this world, show a pathetic blindness to what is present and so visible.”
Pucci interprets the Sirens’ intentions as wanting to halt Odysseus’ wanderings, and thereby lose his nostos or homecoming, by singing about his past glorious feats. In other words, their intention consists of making Odysseus a captive of his own magnificent past without ever having a prospect of future:
“The Sirens, with their specific Iliadic diction, appeal both to Odysseus' literary complacency and to his nostalgia for his glorious deeds: that is why the Sirens' song would bring Odysseus out of the Odyssey to rot on their island.” (Pucci)
It is reasonable to say that Sirens’ try to turn their victims’ state of being into something similar to what they themselves experience. Just as they can’t see the present as clearly as the past, the Sirens attempt to have their prey literally trapped in their own past.
W.B Stanford assumes that it was ‘worldwide knowledge’ that tempted Odysseus to come across the Sirens despite Circe’s caution. And from this point on, it is quite noteworthy to keep track of all the attributes of more modern incarnations of Sirens that would go down in cultural history as ‘femme fatale’.
Screen Sirens: the Femme Fatale
Along with being both seductive and destructive for a male protagonist, the femme fatale of the classic noir cinema almost always has greater worldly knowledge than any other character. Moreover, it often helps her to bring about the end of a man. It is their irresistibility, coupled with sophistication, that allures a male protagonist and blinds him to his own destruction. Mythological Sirens’ transformation into modern femme fatale was a gradual process. According to Annegret Fauser:
“As a result of the nineteenth century’s fascination with sexuality, nature, and culture, the Siren became a trope for the alluring threat of female seduction, in particular the femme fatale.”
The stories of Sirens from this time period can further illustrate why they are the way they are.
E.T.A Hoffman’s Undine and Heinrich Heine’s Die Loreley tell the story of characters pushed to the emotional extremes of life’s betrayals. Loreley’s legend that later became the source of so many stories and poems - alongside with Heine’s – is the sad little story of disloyalty and its consequences. Loreley was a young, beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine Rivers because of her unfaithful lover and became a Siren who lured seamen to their deaths. On the other end, the modern one, we have Phyllis Dietrichson’s monologue regarding her husband’s mistreatment of her that pushes her over the edge. In almost every case, the reasons for the Siren's villainy toward a certain man can be traced back to another’s ill treatment of her.
Pauline Nugent also notes that ‘…the Sirens’ song remains unsung. At best we are given a mere summary, a brief description of the content. Some contradictory facts, but never the text itself.”
The actual voicelessness of their songs is also mirrored in the cases of modern screen Sirens. In films like Detour (1945), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), it is shown how powerless the supposed femme fatale characters feel against cultural and gender norms. It is conceivable that their voicelessness/helplessness – disguised as genuine talents or strengths – is what ultimately sends men to their graves.
The final essential component of ‘Siren-ness’ can be, as Linda Phyllis Austern writes, her “very paradoxical nature and hybridity—a unity of the potent symbols of the fish and the virgin.” The virgin part is particularly fascinating because it suggests that all of Siren’s allure and sexual behavior never results in procreation. In the case of classic femmes fatales, it is a very potent argument that the core of their villainy is their rejection of motherhood and domesticity; them being erotic icons without ever becoming child-bearers.
From 1934 to 1968, all films released by major studios had to follow “The Motion Picture Production Code”, commonly known as Hays Code, according to which the immoral characters like femme fatale had to be punished (often through death) or rescued (through proving themselves not to be bad after all) by the end. Besides Sirens, Calypso and Circe also start off as femme fatale characters. Yet as they do not reject traditional ideas of love and domesticity, they are dignified by the ends of their respective chapters. Circe does not even reject the idea of motherhood, and she is the one who alerts Odysseus about the threats of the Sirens – further contradicting herself from them and their original sins. Conversely, in accordance with many versions, Sirens die or commit suicide in case a mortal withstands them.
So, when we break down the most important essentials of ‘Siren-ness’ across the various artistic and literary portrayals, we find that the Siren lives on in our cultural imagination, and still as a villainous, yet alluring figure.
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1) Mustard, Wilfred P. “Siren-Mermaid.” Modern Language Notes 23, no. 1 (1908): 21–24.
2) Ovid, Metamorphoses”, V, 551.
3) Euripides, Helen, line 167.
4) Mustard, “Siren-Mermaid”, 21.
5) Mustard, “Siren-Mermaid”, 28.
6) Gresseth, Gerald K. “The Homeric Sirens.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 101 (1970): 203–18.
7) Pucci, Pietro. “The Song of the Sirens”, in “The Song of the Sirens: Essays on Homer”, ed. Gregory Nagy (ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC), 1-11.
8) Homer, Odyssey, XII.
9) Stanford, William Bedell. The Odyssey of Homer: Books I-XII. ed. New York: Macmillan/St. Martin's Press. - 1963.
10) Fauser, Annegret. “Rheinesirenen: Loreley and Other Rhine Maidens”, in” Music of the Sirens”, ed. Linda Phyllis Austern & Inna Naroditskaya (Indiana University Press), 85 & 251.
11) Allen, Virginia Mae. “Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon”. Whitston Pub Co Inc. 1983.
Mariam’s other essays have appeared in Sense of Cinema, Daily Art Magazine, Taste of Cinema and elsewhere.