SIRENS (Gr. 'Sfiprjves), in Greek mythology, the daughters of Phorcys the sea-god, or, in later legend, of the river-god Acheloiis and one of the nymphs. In Homer they are two in number (in later writers generally three); their home is an island in the western sea between Aeaea, the island of Circe, and the rock of Scylla. They are nymphs of the sea, who, like the Lorelei of German legend, lured mariners to destruction by their sweet song. Odysseus, warned by Circe, escaped the danger by stopping the ears of his crew with wax and binding himself to the mast until he was out of hearing (Odyssey xii.). When the Argonauts were passing by them, Orpheus sang so beautifully that no one had ears for the Sirens, who, since they were to live only until some one heard their song unmoved, flung themselves into the sea and were changed into sunken rocks (Apollodorus i. 9; Hyginus, Fab. 141). They were said to have been the playmates of Persephone, and, after her rape by Pluto, to have sought for her in vain over the whole earth (Ovid, Metam. v. 552). When the adventures of Odysseus were localized on the Italian and Sicilian coasts, the Sirens were transferred to the neighbourhood of Neapolis and Surrentum, the promontory of Pelorum at the entrance to the Straits of Messina, or elsewhere. The tomb of one of them, Parthenope, was shown in Strabo's (v. p. 246) time at Neapolis, where a gymnastic contest with a torch-race was held in her honour.
Various explanations are given of the Sirens. As sea-nymphs, they represent the treacherous calm of ocean, which conceals destruction beneath its smiling surface; or they signify the enervating influence of the hot wind (compare the name Sirius), which shrivels up the fresh young life of vegetation. Or, they symbolize the magic power of beauty, eloquence and song; hence their images are placed over the graves of beautiful women and maidens, of poets and orators (Sophocles, Isocrates).
Another conception of them is that of singers of the lament for the dead, for which reason they are often used in the adornment of tombs, and represented beating their breasts and tearing their hair or playing the flute or lyre. In early art, they were represented as birds with the heads of women; later, as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings.
See H. Schrader, Die Sirenen (1868); Preller- Robert, Griechische Mythologie (1894), pp. 614-616; G. Weicker, De Sirenibus quaestiones selectae (Leipzig, 1895), in which the writer endeavours to show that the Sirens, like the Harpies, were originally the souls of the dead, their employment on tombstones expressing the desire to find a permanent abode for the souls; and Der Seelenvogel in der alien Literatur und Kunst (1902), with bibliography; J. E. Harrison, Myths of the Odyssey (1882), Mythology and Monuments of Athens (1890) and Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1908); J. P. Postgate, in Journal of Philology, ix. (1880), who considers the Sirens to have been birds; W. E. Axon, R. Morris, D. Fitzgerald in the Academy, Nos. 484, 486, 487 (1881); A. Baumeister, Denkmaler des klassischen Altertums, iii. (1888).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)