Let's begin by telling who the Sirens were, mythological creatures universally recognized as symbols of beauty and seduction but also of misfortune. Their name may derive from a Sanskrit root meaning "splendor" and therefore "attraction", or from a Semitic base meaning "to sing", probably more plausible given that the Sirens were famous for their seductive singing.
The myth of the Siren Molpe.
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were originally bird-women, not fish-women as they are often depicted. In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, during their journey back after obtaining the Golden Fleece, Jason and his companions encountered the Sirens, Molpe and Aglaophonos. These creatures immediately began to sing to lure the sailors of the ship, but Orpheus managed to distract them with the sound of his lyre, enough to make them stop and listen.
Only one sailor, Bute, couldn't resist their song and threw himself into the sea to reach them, but the goddess Aphrodite, sworn enemy of the Sirens, saved him and allowed the journey to continue. The two Sirens, disappointed and bitter from their failed attempt, died by killing themselves one after the other. The legend of the Sirens remains a symbol of seduction, beauty, and danger, and continues to fascinate and inspire culture and art.
Read also the myth of Palinuro, the helmsman of Aeneas who lost his life in the Cilento sea >
Are sirens in mythology birds or fish?
According to Greek tradition, the Sirens were hybrid creatures, half-woman and half-bird, as demonstrated by numerous archaeological finds. This representation fits well with their ability to attract victims with their singing, as birds are famous for their singing which helps them to draw attention. The Sirens have often been compared to Harpies, other hybrid bird-women creatures known for their menacing appearance and possessive nature, similar to that of a bird of prey. Additionally, the Sirens bear several similarities to other mythological creatures like the Sphinx, Gorgon, and Medusa, which are often associated with the death of those who desire them.
A concrete example of their presence in culture is represented by the Siren found on the Gate of Paestum, which serves as a warning and guardian genius. This shows us how, unlike how we have imagined them over the centuries, the Sirens were complex and ambiguous creatures of Greek mythology, capable of both inspiring fear and fascination.
When did the tradition change from bird-women to fish-women?
The figure of the Sirens has undergone many transformations over the centuries. According to some scholars, such as Edmond Faral, the Liber monstrorum de diversis generibus, written in Anglo-Saxon society in the 8th century, is the first text in which the Sirens are explicitly described as fish-women. The author writes that the Sirens are marine creatures that seduce sailors with the beauty of their bodies and the sweetness of their songs. From the head to the navel, they have the appearance of maidens, entirely similar to human creatures, but they have scaly fish tails that always remain underwater.
From this point on, tradition has imagined and depicted the Sirens as beautiful maidens with fish tails instead of legs. This figure symbolizes the attraction of women as the ultimate allure, but also the non-human nature of the Sirens and the impossibility of obtaining from them the continuation of life, and therefore, disappointment and death.
This image of an attractive yet deadly being has been used to create symbolic depictions that defend cities, tombs, or secret routes solely through their presence and serve to intimidate, scare or distract humans from certain actions. In other words, the image of the Sirens has been used as a symbol that represents the basic experience of "attraction-death," where the attractive and seductive figure of a woman is associated with death and extinction.