The Sirens

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The Sirens and Odysseus, red figure Attic hydria, early 5th century, in the British Museum


The ship has its sail furled but the mast has not been lowered. The ship has eyes painted on its bows and the oars pass through holes in the gunwale. It is decked forward and aft, has a high poop, on which a pilot sits, with two huge steering paddles.

Odysseus is bound to the mast by both wrists. Behind him, hanging down from the curved end of the poop floats a piece of cloth something like a flag.

The vessel is passing between two rocks and the pilot, with outstretched hand, is beckoning the rowers to pull their hardest. They are bending to the work, while the man who sets the stroke looks backwards to see the coming danger.

On each of the rocks is perched a Siren, with the body of a bird, but the head of a beautiful woman. They gaze at Odysseus, and sing to him so sweetly that he is straining every nerve to burst his bonds. Just in front of him is a third Siren in m id-air. Her eyes are closed, and she appears to be falling helplessly from the cliff above.

Homer speaks only of two Sirens. Here there are three and they follow the later tradition that when they found that their spell had failed, they committed suicide by throwing themselves from the rocks. (cf the story of Oedipus and the Sphynx)