What is a Siren in Greek Mythology? - Definition & Story

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Greek mythology has a clear message when it comes to the sea: it's dangerous. In this lesson, we'll explore the myth of the Sirens and see how these creatures were responsible for the death of many hapless sailors.

The Siren's Call

There are a few differences between the modern world and ancient Greece. In our world, if you hear a siren it's best to pull over. If you heard a siren in ancient Greece, however, you'd better keep moving (if you could).

In Greek mythology, Sirens were unique creatures who were generally depicted as part woman and part bird. Being part bird, they had unbelievably beautiful voices, which it was said that no person could resist. Merciless, the Sirens used their songs to lure sailors to the rocky shores of their home, where the sailors were drowned and eaten by the monsters. The Siren's call is one best left unanswered.

A Siren depicted in Greek pottery
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Origins and Appearance

Stories of the Sirens come from both Greek and Roman mythology, and it's important for us to talk about both of them. In the Greek world, the legends of the Sirens were used to explain the disappearances of sailors at sea. The Greeks knew the sea was a treacherous place, and many of their mythological monsters reflect this.

The Greek Siren was depicted as a fierce bird with sharp claws but the head of a woman. The woman was sometimes very frightening in appearance, occasionally sporting a beard. It's worth noting that historians believe this figure of the half-woman/half-bird figure has its origins in the ancient Middle East, working its way into Greece through trade routes. The Greeks claimed that the Sirens not only had beautiful voices, but were very talented musicians overall. Homer claims that they lived on an island somewhere between Sicily and Italy. The Romans named this place as Sirenum scopuli.

Sirens in a Roman mosaic
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Beyond that, the actual descriptions of Sirens are somewhat vague. Don't forget, everyone who heard them ended up dead, so there weren't a lot of eyewitness accounts. A lot of what we know about the Sirens actually comes from Roman interpretations of Greek mythology, and specifically the works of Ovid. It's not clear if Ovid was working with oral sources from the Greek world, or if he just expanded the myths to fit Roman beliefs. Ovid claims that the Sirens were originally friends of the goddess Persephone, who failed to protect her from being abducted by Hades. As punishment, they were turned into monsters. Other sources also claim that the Sirens may have had one of the Muses, goddesses of art, as a mother.

Roman Sirens tended to have very beautiful faces, and this appearance was part of the charm that attracted sailors to their doom. Sometimes, Roman Sirens had the upper body of a woman as well, but with the wings and claws of a bird. This is consistent with Roman treatments of other monsters like the Gorgons, who were also hideous in many Greek myths but beautiful in Roman ones. It was this Roman version which has survived into popular culture, influencing depictions of Sirens (and quite possibly the closely related mermaids) for centuries.

Sirens in Mythology

So, if nobody ever survived an encounter with the Sirens, how did the Greeks know about them? The Sirens appear in two very important Greek myths, where a hero must find a way to pass them by.

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