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Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, [1909], at

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The Sirens of Classical Mythology

The Sirens (Greek, entanglers) enticed seamen by the sweetness of their song to such a degree that the listeners forgot everything and died of hunger. Their names were, Parthenope, Ligea, and Leucosia.

Parthenope, the ancient name of Neapolis (Naples)

Ulysses and the Sirens. Flaxman's Odyssey.

was derived from one of the sirens, whose tomb was shown in Strabo's time. Poetic legend states that she threw herself into the sea out of love for Ulysses, and was cast up on the Bay of Naples.

The celebrated Parthenon at Athens, the beautiful temple of Pallas Athenæ, so richly adorned with sculptures, likewise derives its name from this source.

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Dante interviews the siren in "Purgatorio," xix. 7–33.

Flaxman, in his designs illustrating the "Odyssey," represents the sirens as beautiful young women seated on the strand and singing.

In the illustration from an ancient Greek vase

Ulysses and the Sirens. From a painting on a Greek vase.

gives a Grecian rendering of the story, and represents the Sirens as birds with heads of maidens.

The Sirens are best known from the story that Odysseus succeeded in passing them with his companions without being seduced by their song. He had the prudence to stop the ears of his companions with wax and to have himself bound to the mast. Only two are mentioned in Homer, but three or four are mentioned in later times and introduced into various legends. Demeter (Ceres)

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is said to have changed their bodies into those of birds, because they refused to go to the help of their companion, Persephone, when she was carried off by Pluto. "They are represented in Greek art like the harpies, as young women with the wings and feet of birds. Sometimes they appear altogether like birds, only with human faces; at other times with the bodies of women, in which case they generally hold instruments of music in their hands. As their songs are death to those subdued by them they are often depicted on tombs as spirits of death."

By the fables of the Sirens is represented the ensnaring nature of vain and deceitful pleasures, which sing and soothe to sleep, and never fail to destroy those who succumb to their beguiling influence.

Spenser, in the "Faerie Queen," describes a place "where many mermaids haunt, making false melodies," by which the knight Guyon makes a somewhat "perilous passage." There were five sisters that had been fair ladies, till too confident in their skill in music they had ventured to contend with the Muses, when they were transformed in their lower extremities to fish:

"But the upper half their hue retained still,
 And their sweet skill in wonted melody;
 Which ever after they abused to ill
 To allure weak travellers, whom gotten they did kill."
                                    Book ii. cant. cxii.

Shakespeare charmingly pictures Oberon in the moonlight, fascinated by the graceful form and the

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melodious strains of the mermaid half reclining on the back of the dolphin:

"  Oberon: . . . Thou rememberest
 Since once I sat upon a promontory,
 And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
 Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
 That the rude sea grew civil at her song
 And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
  To hear the sea-maid's music."

Commentators of Shakespeare find in this passage (and subsequent parts) certain references to Mary Queen of Scots, which they consider beyond dispute. She was frequently referred to in the poetry of the time under this title. She was married to the Dauphin (or Dolphin) of France. The rude sea means the Scotch rebels, and the shooting stars referred to were the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, who, with others of lesser note, forgot their allegiance to Elizabeth out of love to Mary.

"Few eyes," says Sir Thomas Browne, "have escaped the picture of a mermaid with a woman's head above and a fish's extremity below." In those old days when reading and writing were rare accomplishments, pictured signboards served to give "a local habitation and a name" to hostelries and other places of business and resort. Among the most celebrated of the old London taverns bearing this sign, * that in Bread Street stands foremost.

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We find this "Mermayde" mentioned as early as 1464. In 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh established a literary club in this house, and here Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the choice intellectual spirits of the time used to meet, and there took place those wit combats which Beaumont has commemorated and Fuller described. It is frequently alluded to by Beaumont and Fletcher in their comedies, but best known is that quotation from a letter of Beaumont to Ben Jonson:

            "What things have we seen
 Done at the Mermaid? heard words that have been
 So nimble and so full of subtle flame,
 As if that any one from whence they came
 Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
 And had resolved to live a fool the rest
 Of his dull life; then when there had been thrown
 Wit able enough to justify the town
 For three days past; wit that might warrant be
 For the whole city to talk foolishly,
 Till that were cancell’d; and when that was gone,
 We left an air behind us, which alone
 Was able to make the next two companies
 (Right witty, though but downright fools) more wise."


252:* The sign was also used by printers: John Rastall, brother-in-law to Sir Thomas More, "emprynted in the p. 253 Cheapesyde at the Sygne of the Mermayde; next to Powlsgate in 1572." Henry Binnemann, the Queen's printer, dedicated a work to Sir Thomas Gresham, in 1576, at the sign of the Mermaid, Knightrider Street. A representation of the creature was generally prefixed to his books.—"History of Sign-boards," p. 227.

Next: The Dolphin of Legend and of Heraldry