#FolkloreThursday, Cracked Flash Fiction Competition, Encyclopaedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology, Faerie, Faeries, folklore, folklore creatures, Folklore of Sirens, Greek Folklore, Greek mythology, Mermaid, mermaids, Origin of the Fae, preview of work, Ronel Janse van Vuuren, Siren, The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies, writing
I love the research I’ve been doing the past week: I’ve found mermaid-type creatures alive and well in the folklore of every continent (and all islands) of the world. I decided to stick with Sirens this week (and look at the others one-by-one in future posts).
First, let’s look at the definition of a mermaid.
“Mermaid. Half-woman, half-fish, the mermaid is a familiar figure in the folklore of cultures around the world. Usually described as having the upper body of a beautiful woman, with long flowing locks, and a shiny fish’s tail from the waist down, she is most often depicted sitting on a rock combing her tresses. Her name derives from mere, Old English meaning “sea”, and maid, “a girl or woman”.
Sometimes the mermaid is portrayed as a gentle, romantic figure with the ability to grant wishes, heal, and foretell the future, warning sailors and fishermen of imminent danger. At other times she appears as a dangerous, lustful temptress, luring ships to crash onto the rocks or using her charms to entice men to a watery death. She is an ambiguous creature, by turns inspiring pity, love, lust, and fear. Different aspects of her character are emphasized in different cultures and tales.”
– The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
Somewhere along the way, the folklore of mermaids and sirens merged to create one creature: a half-woman, half-fish being known for her beauty and enthralling singing voice. But as we’ll see, Sirens are the singers and they’re half-woman, half-bird creatures…
Sirens in Folklore, Mythology and Legend
(Also Sireen, Sirene, Syrene.)
Beautiful yet deadly nymphs of Greek mythology. Depicted as part-woman, part-bird, the sirens lured mariners to their doom with their irresistibly sweet singing. In this respect they were similar to mermaids.”
“Nymphs: nature spirits of Greek mythology, usually depicted as beautiful young women and typically associated with a specific natural feature of the landscape such as a lake, stream, tree, mountain, meadow, or spring.”
– The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
In classical Greek mythology the sirens (“bewitching ones”) were a type of malicious nymph born the offspring of the ancient sea god, Phorcys or from the drops of blood that hit the earth from the broken horn of Acheloos, ancient sources conflict. Half bird and half woman, she and her sisters would perch on the rocky Sicilian coastline and lure in sailors with the melodious song; once caught, their prey were eaten alive. Although they hunted the coastline, they lived inland in a meadow.
Homer, the greatest ancient Greek epic poet and author of The Iliad and Odyssey named only two sirens, but on vases they were usually depicted as three.
Over time, ancient writers evolved the sirens into mermaid-like beings who would sit on the rocky shoreline using their beautiful singing voice to lure sailors into the jetty where their ships would wreck. In these late myths the only way to kill a siren was to resist their song; if this was accomplished, the being would kill itself.”
– Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane.
Can also be found in Encyclopedia of Giants and Humanoids in Myth, Legend and Folklore by Theresa Bane.
Obviously we now have to look at the different origin stories of the Sirens.
According to Ovid (43 BC–17 AD), the Sirens were the companions of young Persephone. They were given wings by Demeter to search for Persephone when she was abducted. However, the Fabulae of Hyginus (64 BC–17 AD) has Demeter cursing the Sirens for failing to intervene in the abduction of Persephone. According to Hyginus, sirens were fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs were able to pass by them.
It is also said that Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded the Sirens to enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won the competition and then plucked out all of the Sirens’ feathers and made crowns out of them. Out of their anguish from losing the competition, writes Stephanus of Byzantium, the Sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera (“featherless”), where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Leukai (“the white ones”, modern Souda).
In the Argonautica (third century BC), Jason had been warned by Chiron that Orpheus would be necessary in his journey. When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their voices. One of the crew, however, the sharp-eared hero Butes, heard the song and leapt into the sea, but he was caught up and carried safely away by the goddess Aphrodite.
Odysseus was curious as to what the Sirens sang to him, and so, on the advice of Circe, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he would beg. When he heard their beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they bound him tighter. When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus demonstrated with his frowns to be released. Some post-Homeric authors state that the Sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them, and that after Odysseus passed by they therefore flung themselves into the water and perished.
Siren, in Greek mythology, a creature half bird and half woman who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of her song. According to Homer there were two Sirens on an island in the western sea between Aeaea and the rocks of Scylla. Later the number was usually increased to three, and they were located on the west coast of Italy, near Naples. They were variously said to be the daughters of the sea god Phorcys or of the river god Achelous by one of the Muses.
Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book V) wrote that the Sirens were human companions of Persephone. After she was carried off by Hades, they sought her everywhere and finally prayed for wings to fly across the sea. The gods granted their prayer. In some versions Demeter turned them into birds to punish them for not guarding Persephone. In art the Sirens appeared first as birds with the heads of women and later as women, sometimes winged, with bird legs.
The Sirens seem to have evolved from an ancient tale of the perils of early exploration combined with an Asian image of a bird-woman. Anthropologists explain the Asian image as a soul-bird—i.e., a winged ghost that stole the living to share its fate. In that respect the Sirens had affinities with the Harpies.
In Greek mythology, sirens are sea nymphs who possess the bodies of birds and the heads of women, and are the daughters of the sea god Phorcys. Sirens had such sweet voices that it is said that mariners who heard their songs were lured into grounding their boats on the rocks on which the beautiful nymphs sang.
The song of the Sirens call men to abandon themselves, to hurl into the deep, to sprout wings, to transform, to die to self and emerge into a new form with new knowledge and understanding. It is significant that Sirens are creatures of water for water has powerful symbolic value. Water is also a duality, it can sustain life, give comfort and it is a source of life and abundance. Water is the symbol we use for baptism and spiritual rebirth and renewal. It is the primordial soup, it represents purification and regeneration and it is the source from which each of us was born. Water however can also be destructive, causing inundation, drowning, annihilation and death. Sirens and mermaids embody all of these qualities and meanings and are thus symbols of both death and immortality. They call men to the unknown, to change and transformation the essential passage from one space to another, form one condition to another. They serve as escorts during times of transit, danger, transformation, uncertainty, sea voyages and missions of war. Sirens call man, urging him to abandon what he is, to become something new. Fear of Sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, fear of the unknown, fear of transformation, fear of learning, fear of losing oneself, fear of being out of control and fear of descending into the deep (the unconscious).
Sirens are one of the most dangerous creatures to come across within Greek Mythology and are most infamous for luring sailors to their deaths. The siren can come in a variety of forms as many have said; some have seen them with bird like wings, others have seen them with tails and others have depicted them as just women. However all of these have one thing in common; A beauty so alluring and a voice that could hypnotise any man to crash onto their sharp rocky island and die there.
The Sirens were called the Muses of the lower world, classical scholar Walter Copland Perry (1814–1911) observed: “Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.” Their song is continually calling on Persephone. The term “siren song” refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad conclusion. Later writers have implied that the Sirens were cannibals, based on Circe‘s description of them “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.”
Sirens in Modern Culture
They’ve even been added to the Warriors of Myth Wikia.
The Siren is one of a race with origins in Greek mythology, legend and folklore. Specifically, accounts of their existence first arose in The Odyssey (a work written by Homer) and Catalogues of Women (a work by Hesiod).
Most claim that the father of the original Sirens was the river-god Achelous, though others say their father was actually Phorcys (a sea deity who was also the father of the original Gorgons, and numerous other monsters).
Their mother is most commonly said to be one of the Muses (either Terpsichore or Melpomene), though others claim they were born of the nymph Sterope (one of the Pleiades) or even the goddess Mother Earth herself (Gaia).
In addition, some believe in the existence of only two original Sirens; others believed that there were three, while others thought that five existed. Though, most believe that there were as many as thirteen, and ascribe to them the names Aglaope/Aglaopheme/Aglaophone/Aglaophonos, Himerope, Leucosia, Ligeia, Molpe, Pisinoe/Peisinoë, Peisithoe, Parthenope, Raidne, Teles, Thelchtereia and Thelxiepeia/Thelxiope and Thelxinoe.
Many attribute the difference of the original Sirens’ names to the sounds of the winds and the waves making their names difficult to hear. And the discrepancy in the number of the original Sirens is often attributed to their simply being present or absent at different times (some might only see Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia, while others only see Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia, and others only Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia, etc).
Regardless, one thing is known for absolutely certain about the original Sirens. Since going to live on their island home, they have spent nearly every day of their lives luring unwitting listeners to untimely death with their song.
Due to their divine heritage, Sirens are supernaturally beautiful. Though, their heritage manifests in numerous different ways.
A siren is always a charming and seductive being to encounter. They will never be caught with a “bad hair day” and don’t require all the tedious upkeep of the average woman. They are dainty and demure without trying, while alluring and sexually attractive all at the same time.
They are masters at the art of persuasion and enticement, knowing exactly what to do or say to get a man all hot and bothered. What’s more, despite their demure feminine beauty, they are not above also showing off the beauty of their naked bodies, if it lures potential victims that much closer…
and witty charm that a mortal would describe as nothing less than hypnotic. They are naturally gifted with a knack for temptation and arousing desire.
However, they are most famous for their “Siren’s Song” (in Greek, Seireneion Melos), a beguiling melody which they use to lure sailors to their deaths, on the rocks of the Sirens’ home shores. The intriguing melody itself, combined with a Siren’s all-too-tempting lyrics makes the song a ready snare, but for some reason or another, it works only on men (while women won’t even hear it at all).
In fact, the song of the original Sirens was said to be so powerfully compelling, it could make a mortal being forget his bodily needs; to this end, a myth exists about Centaurs listening to the first Sirens from the cliff of an island a short distance away, and perishing, having forgotten to eat.
Still, while that same insidious level and range of power is not to be expected of the Sirens’ descendants, their song is better left unheard by any and all potential victims, who wish to bypass them and remain unaffected.
They’ve also made an appearance in The Vampire Diaries.
Sirens were a supernatural species who were originally psychic, and given immortality that depended on the feeding of human flesh to remain young and beautiful. They were the servants of Arcadius who were tasked with harvesting the souls of the wicked. They were one of the oldest supernatural races and there were only two known in existence.
Sirens, seemingly from their previous psychic heritage, can enter into the minds of another person to read their thoughts and access their memories. This was initially done using their voice as a guide but has since been refined into singing. They can strengthen this with physical contact, allowing them to search the entire mind of their victims and even alter their memories.
Sirens are able to manipulate their voice to lure their victims as fabled.
Derived for their mind control, Sirens can create minor illusions, forcing their victims to see what they want.
Sirens are able to induce extreme amount of pain through their telepathic powers.
Sirens possess sharp claws and is capable of causing fatal wounds on humans, the claws have only manifested when severely deprived of food or when their power had been siphoned.
Sirens feed on the flesh of humans which they require in order to maintain their youth and strength.
I even use Sirens in my own writing.
Sirens [The Origin of the Fae Page]
Young Sirens can choose a mortal life – live among humans, age like humans and even have magic like human sorceresses. Only their magic can work on Sirens. But if, at any point, her nails start to glitter silver, she has to return to her own kind (this usually happens if she’d used too much magic).
Sirens only feed on human men. They lure them into the water – either with their seductive appearances or by enthralling them with song – then they drown them, escort their souls to the Otherworld and then return to feast on the flesh before taking the bones to the roots of the tree that gives life to their kind.
Before drowning their victims, they are beauty incarnate dressed in glittering gold or silver. During the drowning, they turn into dark creatures dressed in black with a multi-coloured coiffure. After the drowning, they turn into a barely recognised female form of skinless red oozing around stray feathers and claws. After feasting on the flesh of their victims and placing the bones beneath the tree, they return to their perfect forms.
They sing from the moment they start drowning their victims, through the meal, until they’ve returned to their perfect forms.
The curse upon them is to be half-bird, half woman creatures unless they use enough magic to conceal their true nature. It takes a lot of sacrifice (the men drowned and eaten) to keep their magic strong. The bones at the roots of their tree feeds their magic.
They live in a beautiful ocean with an underwater waterfall. They have a meadow above ground that they sometimes call home. No matter where they live, they always look the same – it’s only during the feeding ceremony that they go to extremes. Most Sirens stay in their perfect form, though some like to stay in the dark creature transformation, multi-colour hair and all, to conserve magic.
Young Sirens of age have to go through a rite of passage: drowning their first victim. They have to perform perfectly or be punished by the older Sirens.
Sirens promise truth and knowledge only to deliver death. But if someone can come away enlightened instead of enthralled by the song of the Siren, the human will go free and the Siren will dissolve into the water she stands in, becoming one with the magic of the world. It is thought that if a Siren died like this during initiation, she’d live in the cool waters that the rest could only dream of.
Sirens really do know all – the past, present and future. They have the gift of telepathy and can read the thoughts of humans. It is this knowledge that got them cursed in the first place…
There is no known way to kill a Siren.
I made a Pinterest board dedicated to Sirens if you want to check out more of their folklore.
They were the inspiration behind two flash fiction pieces I wrote last week.
The first one was published on Cracked Flash Fiction Competition – the judge enjoyed the story a lot. “Beautiful descriptions of the mature and emerging sirens. Unexpected twist at the end– I always love those.”
“Shadows moved in the moonlight. She could see the glittering dress of a siren.
Sending all her magic towards the creature, she banished it back to the watery depths of the lake.”
– Siren Call, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
The second one – based in the same world – I wrote for #FlashFicHive.
“They were forever provocative and disturbing. Richelle looked away from the other Sirens dressing in glittering outfits, their hair already perfectly coiffed. She was shivering like she had the day of her own initiation.”
– The Good, the Bad and the Fugly, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
What do you think of Sirens? Are they alive and well in your corner of the world? Any stories about Sirens you’d like to share?