The sirens from Greek mythology made their most famous appearance in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey”.
The scene in which the sirens sing to Odysseus, who was tied to the mast of his ship, has been a popular motif in arts for many centuries and has shaped the way we think about sirens and mermaids today.
In this article, you will find the parts of the epic in which they appear (quotes from the epic) as well as an analysis of what the sirens stand for in the Odyssey.
Background on the Odyssey
There are a few things about the Odyssey that are vital for understanding what the sirens mean. So let’s have a quick look at the background.
The Odyssey was allegedly composed by the blind poet Homer around 700 B.C. At first it was only told orally, until it was finally writen down by several different writers possibly a few hundret years later.
It is actually the sequel to Homer’s other famous epic, the “Iliad” which tells the story of the Trojan war (this is where the story of the Trojan horse comes from). Odysseus himself only appears briefly in the first epic but we know that he was fighting in the war for 10 years.
In the “Odyssey”, Odysseus then is the main character. After all these years at war, Odysseus longs to go home to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. He is actually the king of Itaca and the longer he is away from home the more suitors stay in his castle trying to marry his wife and take over his kingdom.
So the aim of Odysseus long, complicated journey is to come back home to his family and kingdom.
The distance from the site of the war to his home Ithaca is not extremely long but Odysseus repeatedly angers the gods and runs into difficulties and challenges so that his journey home ends up taking another 10 years.
The epic has three main parts. First, an introduction of Odysseus’ wife’s life after he left for war, then his journey home, and then the story of how he killed all the suitors that were trying to marry his wife once he is back at home.
The epic is divided into 24 books. Of the whole story, the sirens appear during the middle part of book 12. They are one of the obstacles Odysseus has to overcome in order to reach his home.
And if you need a refresher on Homer’s full epic poem, here is a 3 video playlist by Spark Notes on Youtube that nicely summarizes the whole plot.
Summary of the sirens in the Odyssey
Now, here is a short summary of the encounter with the sirens:
After Odysseus and his men spent a year at the sorceress Circe’s island, they decide to continue their journey home to Ithaca. But before they leave Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens, that lure men into the rocky shore of their island with their beautiful voices, so that their ships sink and they die.
Because she knows Odysseus is too curious, she suggests he listen to their voices with certain precautions.
When Odysseus and his crew continue their journey, Odysseus tells them about the sirens and instructs them to bind him onto the mast of the ship so he can listen to them without dying.
He also tells his crew to block their ears with beeswax so that they cannot hear anything and are protected.
When they finally pass the sirens, the crew keeps rowing without hearing anything but Odysseus immediately gets enchanted by the sirens’ song.
They sing to him that they can tell him all the secrets about the Trojan war, that he fought in, if he just comes closer.
Odysseus begs his men to let him go but they only bind him tighter to the mast.
Once they are way past the sirens’ island the crew free Odysseus and they continue their journey together.
Summary of Book 12 of the Odyssey
I’d also recommend you to have a look at this short summary video of Book 12 of the Odyssey to get an overview of all the happenings in this book.
If you want to know the details about the sirens, you can read the full passages about them in the following.
They are actually very short and I will refer back to them in the analysis at the end of this post.
The sirens passage in the Odyssey
The sirens only appear in the first half of Book 12 (line 36-200 of 454) of the whole epic of the Odyssey. For comparison, the whole epic is divided into 24 books and spans over 12.000 lines.
So, it’s surprisingly short for how famous this part is.
Looking at the plot you can loosely divide the text, in which the sirens are mentioned, into three parts, with the actual passage in which Odysseus meets the sirens only being 19 lines long:
|Plot||Lines in Book 12|
|Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens||36-54|
|Odysseus tells his crew about the sirens and they prepare||153-180|
|Odysseus and his crew encounter the sirens and they sing to him||181-200|
Following you can read the three parts from Book 12 in which the sirens are mentioned. I marked them in different colors so it is easier to see which parts they are (see table above):
[The sorceress nymph Circe, at which’s place Odysseus and his men spent a year, accommodates them with food and wine after Odysseus met a ghost who told him which way to take to return home.]
 And I told her all in due order. Then queenly Circe spoke to me and said: “All these things have thus found an end; but do thou hearken as I shall tell thee, and a god shall himself bring it to thy mind. To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who  beguile all men whosoever comes to them.
Whoso in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens’ voice, he nevermore returns, that his wife and little children may stand at his side rejoicing, but the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song,  as they sit in a meadow, and about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling.
But do thou row past them, and anoint the ears of thy comrades with sweet wax, which thou hast kneaded, lest any of the rest may hear. But if thou thyself hast a will to listen,  let them bind thee in the swift ship hand and foot upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself, that with delight thou mayest listen to the voice of the two Sirens. And if thou shalt implore and bid thy comrades to loose thee, then let them bind thee with yet more bonds. 
[Circe continues to warn Odysseus about the other two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis which he will encounter after the sirens.]
 “Then verily I spoke among my comrades, grieved at heart: ‘Friends, since it is not right that one or two alone should know  the oracles that Circe, the beautiful goddess, told me, therefore will I tell them, in order that knowing them we may either die or, shunning death and fate, escape.
First she bade us avoid the voice of the wondrous Sirens, and their flowery meadow.  Me alone she bade to listen to their voice; but do ye bind me with grievous bonds, that I may abide fast where I am, upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself; and if I implore and bid you to loose me, then do ye tie me fast with yet more bonds.’  “Thus I rehearsed all these things and told them to my comrades.
Meanwhile the well-built ship speedily came to the isle of the two Sirens, for a fair and gentle wind bore her on. Then presently the wind ceased and there was a windless calm, and a god lulled the waves to sleep.  But my comrades rose up and furled the sail and stowed it in the hollow ship, and thereafter sat at the oars and made the water white with their polished oars of fir.
But I with my sharp sword cut into small bits a great round cake of wax, and kneaded it with my strong hands,  and soon the wax grew warm, forced by the strong pressure and the rays of the lord Helios Hyperion. Then I anointed with this the ears of all my comrades in turn; and they bound me in the ship hand and foot, upright in the step of the mast, and made the ropes fast at the ends to the mast itself;  and themselves sitting down smote the grey sea with their oars. 
 But when we were as far distant as a man can make himself heard when he shouts, driving swiftly on our way, the Sirens failed not to note the swift ship as it drew near, and they raised their clear-toned song:
“‘Come hither, as thou farest, renowned Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans;  stay thy ship that thou mayest listen to the voice of us two. For never yet has any man rowed past this isle in his black ship until he has heard the sweet voice from our lips. Nay, he has joy of it, and goes his way a wiser man. For we know all the toils that in wide Troy  the Argives and Trojans endured through the will of the gods, and we know all things that come to pass upon the fruitful earth.’ “
So they spoke, sending forth their beautiful voice, and my heart was fain to listen, and I bade my comrades loose me, nodding to them with my brows; but they fell to their oars and rowed on.  And presently Perimedes and Eurylochus arose and bound me with yet more bonds and drew them tighter.
But when they had rowed past the Sirens, and we could no more hear their voice or their song, then straightway my trusty comrades took away the  wax with which I had anointed their ears and loosed me from my bonds. 
[They sail on avoiding Charybdis but passing the six-headed Scylla where six of Odysseus’ men die. Afterward, they strand on the sun god Helios’s island. When they run out of food, Odysseus’s men anger Helios by eating some of his cattle. When Odysseus and his men continue their journey Helios makes Poseidon sink their ships out of revenge. All his men die but Odysseus survives and continues his journey to his home Ithaca.]
(Text Source: Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. From the website of the Perseus Digital Library (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), only parts were copied, no changes were made)
Analysis of the sirens theme in the Odyssey
There are three main points that can be highlighted when analyzing the parts about the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey:
The horror of the sirens
In the most famous story in which sirens appeared, the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus gets warned about the sirens with the following words:
“First, you will raise the island of the Sirens, those creatures who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air — no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face. The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.”Homer
That sounds pretty scary. Some writers later on even suggested that the sirens might have been cannibals, because of how the last sentence describes that the dead corpses lied around them. However, it does not seem that the sirens actually ate their victims because the fact that it is described that the flesh was rotting, would suggest that it was simply decaying naturally.
The way the sirens killed people was by luring them close to the rocky island they lived on so that the ships crashed into the rocks and sunk in front of their eyes.
They are not that bad after all, they just sing beautifully causes they are stuck on the island.
The Sirens as the keepers of forbidden knowledge
The songs that the sirens sang were not only a beautiful melody, but they actually made promises to tell give their victims secret knowledge or tell them something about themselves which made their songs even more enticing. Some scholars even described them as mantic creatures that knew both the past and the future (Harrison).
You can understand why if you have a look at what they say to Odysseus in the Odyssey:
“Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.Homer
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”
They offer him to tell him something that will bring him enlightenment, make him a wiser man.
However, this is a false promise, as they might not tell him this secret knowledge after all and instead kill him.
-> The idea that the sirens offer a way back to his warrior glory in the Ilias.
Odysseus wants to hear the song of the sirens no matter what. Circe knows that his curiosity is strong and thus advises him to actually listen to them with the right precautions.
Main Picture: Herbert James Draper, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons