Friday, July 26, 2013

The Song of the Sirens

The poet Homer is of course famous for his two epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. The first recounts the events of the Trojan War, and the second tells of the ten year-long voyage home from that war of its hero, the brave Odysseus (Ulysses). But Homer was no simple teller of tales, however stirring to our imagination these tales can be. Beneath the surface of these stories we can discover deeper truths which have resonated over the span of millennia, and which we even can find reflected in the first two books of the Old Testament.

On this deeper level, The Iliad – and Genesis – relates the spirit’s awakening awareness of its primal condition, and its expulsion from that condition into a world of turmoil. The Odyssey – and Exodus – tells of the spirit’s ‘long journey home’, its seeking for a promised land (which really is its former state) after its sojourn on earth. These connections need not surprise us, when we remember that the mythical figure of Homer – and the equally mythical figure of Moses – had their connections to the ancient mystery schools: Homer, naturally enough, to those of Ancient Greece, and Moses to those of Ancient Egypt.

One of the best-known episodes from Homer’s Odyssey is the hero’s encounter with the sirens. Ships whose course brought them close to the sirens’ island suffered a terrible fate, for the singing of the sirens in their meadow was so alluring that those sailors who heard it immediately fell under such a spell that they lost their wits, jumping overboard in their frenzied efforts to reach the sirens, and wanting to hear only their song, which made them forget their intended destination, and even their own identity.

But cunning Odysseus, whose scheming wits had carried him through other hazardous encounters, employed a plan suggested to him by the sorceress Circe in his previous adventure. As his ship neared the sirens, he had his men stop their ears with bees' wax. Then he instructed them to bind him securely to the ship’s mast, with orders that under no circumstances were they to loosen his bonds. The ruse worked. His crew, hearing nothing, rowed safely on as the sirens' singing filled the air around them. Odysseus, under the spell of the sirens’ song, implored his crew to release him even as he struggled to break free. But the ropes held, and Odysseus became the only voyager to hear the song of the sirens and live to tell of its magic.

Almost three thousand years later, this story still has its hold upon our imagination, perhaps because we recognise, and so can relate to, the hazard of the sirens’ singing. The world – and our own lives – has its sirens. They might not take the form of beautiful and seductive women, but they weave a powerful spell all the same. We all have our sirens to resist, whether they come in the form of desirable material possessions, or as stories which (perhaps against our better judgement) we choose to believe are true, or as dreams which we chase after, or even as the distractions of social networking.

Our deeper selves know instinctively that if we are to remember our true destination, our true identity, then these are things which have to be navigated past.  Because the sirens are still singing, and their song can sound like the most alluring sound we have heard, or like a short tweet! 

Painting by Herbert James Draper


  1. Good points to remember. Thanks
    I read the Odyssey when I was a child, and it had a profound effect on me.

  2. Thank you, Jeronimus. The Odyssey still makes an impact on me in my adult life, so I can easily see how it would have had such an impact on you when you were still a boy. My husband tells me the same story. He was so under the spell of the Odyssey in his early teens that he even painted his own illustrated version! Homer is a master storyteller indeed!

  3. I admit that I was also drawn to the Odyssey as a boy. The Odyssey is an outrageous and wild adventure that fired my imagination and held my rapt attention! Here Emma offers her insightful comments on comparing the Sirens' call to our obsessive and sometimes addictive wants and desires that seems to place a spell on us. This spell is something that can imprison us rather than liberate us. We become lost - only wanting to satisfy our hunger, completely identified with the belief that we must heed the Siren's call. Emma offers her wonderful wisdom to us, "Our deeper selves know instinctively that if we are to remember our true destination, our true identity, then these are things which have to be navigated past."

  4. Joseph, how nice to know that you as well were familiar with the Odyssey in your younger days! Yourself, Jeronimus and David (and many others) are testimony to the power of the story - and also to the way in which it can be read as a grand adventure, without the need to go deeper into the underlying significance of the various incidents which take place on the hero's long voyage home. I know that this is true of many writings, of course. So many of the texts which stand the test of time do so because these undercurrents tug at our soul, even as we are taking in the surface adventures.