It’s been awhile since I have touched this blog (though my original plan for this blog still stands I just need to find a good day for scheduling such things). But the reason I’m coming back today is because of a short conversation I had over on twitter regarding the Odyssey, sirens, and the importance of song/oral poetry in the Odyssey. Below is a longer version of my discussions/analysis on twitter, though if you would like to read those tweets feel free to stop by here.
A small thank you to those of you who wanted to see this posted in a longer format!
We are all aware of the concept of Sirens, be it through video games, movies, tv shows, or even folk-lore and mythology. But one thing that has always bugged me ever since I took a course on different Greek plays and epics, were that Siren’s weren’t how the media depicted them to be. Sirens, as the media portrayed them, were seductresses, luring men with song to their deaths because they themselves were the object of desire, not the song itself.
But what if sirens weren’t like how they’re depicted in popular culture? Or not quite? What if they weren’t seductresses that lured men to early graves because of sexual desire, but knowledge bearers that subverted the songs of men, holding knowledge that all men want to know and would die to hear? It is a type of seduction, there is no denying, but it isn’t a seduction of men wanting to have sex with women after a harrowing, tiring journey. No, the sirens offered something sweeter—tales of home, songs of comfort, news of their fellow men, or even the secrets of “all things that take place on the much-nourishing earth” (Odyssey 12.188-189).
And for men who had come from war, who had experienced the hardships of battle and grief, or even the wearying effects of life at sea, lost and waylaid, hearing word, especially in song, of things they have missed, especially in Odysseus’ case, was something so tantalizing that they would have died to hear of home, if it were not for a warning beforehand that prevented their untimely demise. Odysseus and his party were in the wild, in the realm of Other, but the Siren’s offered songs of what they longed for—home.
Song is a powerful tool used in the Odyssey, and the Siren’s song becomes a subversion of its true power and intention throughout the epic poem. Barry B. Powell notes that “The Odyssey is self-reflective, curiously concerned with the art of the oral verse-making of which it is itself a product” (Introduction pg 32). Bearing this in mind, the Odyssey isn’t just a tale of a man who wants to get home and ends up facing strange people and creatures along the way, it’s a tale of song, and what song can do to a man, or what it can let him achieve or inspire others into achieving. Moreover, it’s a examination of the very thing with which the Odyssey is—an oral poem brought to life through verse, the Siren’s being its main foil in Greek thought.
Oral poetry was something intimate to the Greeks, as it was one of their only sources of entertainment (as is seen in the city Phaeacia from the Odyssey), but it can also become something intimate for us as well, where stories are shared with our community, through a multitude of forms, and where the act of story-telling is changing, and has changed (Introduction pg 33). But Oral poetry for the Greeks wasn’t just entertainment: it was a way of life, and signaled a barbaric community from a civilized one. Stories were shared with the community, to pass down knowledge, wisdom, or even to critique the society in which they lived, or to honor and find humor in the things around them. To understand the significance of the subversion of oral poetry made by the Sirens, it is important to remember that the oral tradition was more than fundamental: it was the very heart of its people where wisdom and history were passed down through ageless stories.
Odysseus’ apology (found through books 9-12) is a famous re-telling of his harrowing ten-year adventures, and is considered a type of aoidoi, or poem spoken by an oral poet, within which the Odyssey itself belongs, where the feats of its hero are often sung, though Odysseus’ is not actually sung nor with the backing of a lyre, as most would be. For aoidoi were songs sung after a banquet, a way to help digest food with good company and good drink, which we see in the Odyssey with King Alkinoös and the aoidos, or oral poet, Demodokos (Odyssey 8.438-542).
But the effect, with or without the music, remains the same—Odysseus’ story is a poem that King Alkinoös begs continue even as the night grows long (Odyssey Bk 8;12). Odysseus’ story holds power, even as Demodokos’ story held sway over Odysseus, causing him to weep and moan at the loss of his friends and home; and as Book 13 suggests of Odysseus’ re-telling of his adventures, "they all fell into silence, held in a spell throughout the shadowy halls” (Odyssey 13.1-2).
So in returning to the Sirens, as Odysseus’ great poem is a reflection of Greek life as it was meant to be, and what was most cherished by them, so the Siren’s song is a perversion of it. Both are spells, captivating the audience to listen, but for the Sirens, it is the call to death through tales, and through knowledge. But even more so, it is the lack of action at work—it is knowledge inert.
Knowledge and wisdom to the Greeks was something they could take with them, challenge others with, and to gain a better understanding of themselves, and others, as a result. It is why many of the great philosophers in Western culture are Greeks, because knowing and imbuing that knowing were one and the same to them. You didn’t just talk—you acted on that knowledge and you shared it for others to learn. As Socrates aptly sums up a mode of Greek thought, ““There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers pg. 68). But, for the Sirens, knowing wasn’t a way to bring action or cure ignorance—it was the power of inaction, the inability to move forward with the power bestowed upon them and others.
As the Bible notes, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 18.36). In the case of Odysseus, what does a man gain by dying for knowledge he will never leave with? The Siren’s sing of things we, as a people, all desire, not just Odysseus’ men. The sirens sing, “For no man yet has passed this island in his black ship before hearing the sweet voice from our lips, but he takes pleasure in it and goes on his way, knowing more” (Odyssey 12.183-186), but this is a lie, as we know from Kirkê (also known as Circe) in a warning she speaks earlier, “For Sirens, sitting in a meadow, enchant all with their clear song. Around them there is a great heap of the bones of rotting men, and the skin shrivels up around those bones” (Odyssey 12.44-48).
Around them lie the bones of those who stayed and listened to the song of the Sirens, believing they had come to hear sweet things they could then carry with them home, as they were wont to do, but instead, those things never left the Siren’s meadow, and what knowledge they gained died with them. Even Odysseus, for all his strength and cunning, tore at his bindings, screaming at his men to let him down to go to them, and listen to their siren song, to sit at their feet and be consumed. No man is safe form the Siren’s song, and for one such as Odysseus, maybe the temptation is even more real, as he is a carrier of stories, and of knowledge, as even the Siren’s sing of the “storied Odysseus” (Odyssey 12. 181). Knowledge without action leads to death; or rather, songs that are not shared lead to their withering, as the bones and skin around the Siren’s withered and decayed with time.
For the Sirens, telling tales is not to bring together a community with the shared power of their tellings, it is to take away that power, and hoard it for oneself until it is no more than bones. For Odysseus, telling tales is what keeps him sane, and is what brings him home, because he understands that stories, if not shared, and if not given in the hopes that they are passed down, leads only to rot. Knowledge, without people to share it with is folly. If the purpose of stories is community and sharing in that revelry (as we see in Phaeacia), then the Sirens suppose the opposite: a lack of community and the seclusion of knowledge from others to the point of death.
Kirkê, in her warning about the Sirens, says something peculiar, if not fascinating, to Odysseus: “Whoever comes close to them in ignorance and hears the Siren’s voice, he will never return to his home" (Odyssey 12.41-42). Ignorance, in this case, is a lack of knowledge of the Siren’s true power. Kirkê has given Odysseus power over the Siren’s song in knowledge, and has done what the Siren’s later promise failed to do—give the hearer more than what they left with to carry and pass down to generations to come. Even knowing what he knows from Kirkê, and the horrors his men will face, Odysseus chooses to tell all his companions as well, stating, “I will tell you all, so that either in full knowledge we may die, or avoiding death and fate we may escape” (Odyssey 12.154-155). And it is this sharing of knowledge that spares many of them from the ignorance of unknowing, and aligns Odysseus with Greek philosophy, and as a proponent of true Greek thought. Just as Odysseus serves as a foil to the Siren’s, so too does Kirkê, and even Demodokos later down the line, as he shares the very story the Siren’s tempt Odysseus to hear. All of these are examples of what Homer’s Odyssey, in part, sets out to accomplish: to give to us a story we can take with us and to share with others around us so that we main gain wisdom, history, and truth as a result.
The Siren’s song, and Odysseus’ apology are similar but far different in their results. Both are like enchantments, enticing us to hear them told over and over and over again; but where death lies with one, hope and power lie with another. Song, story-telling, and oral poetry are important throughout the Odyssey, and especially to its main hero. Odysseus is a man of stories, and it is in his telling of his story that leads him home and brings compassion to those who hear it. Odysseus proves that we are people of stories, and their is power in their telling. But more importantly, stories are meant to be shared not hoarded. They should be enchanting, and bewitching, but not to the affect of leading men astray; instead, stories should make us better people, and cure our ignorance with knowledge, so that we may go out and share that story with others, so that they too can be filled with its power.
The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Harvard College Library, 1937.
Powell, Barry B, translator. Introduction. The Odyssey. By Homer, Oxford University Press, 2014,
Powell, Barry B, translator. The Odyssey. By Homer, Oxford University Press, 2014.