One of the many fascinating adventures of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey is his encounter with the Sirens. The Sirens have the appearance of beautiful women, but are half bird. They sing, and their song is so compelling that men are irresistibly drawn toward them. In the Odyssey they are situated on rocks in the ocean. Men coming towards them on boats would have their boats smashed on the rocks and drown. The Sirens were counterparts to the Muses. While the Muses inspired greatness in music and poetry, the Sirens’ songs led to death.
Odysseus came up with a clever scheme to get his ship past the Sirens while getting to hear their song. He sealed the ears of his sailors with wax so that they would be unable to hear the Sirens. He had his sailors tie him firmly to his ship’s mast so that he would be unable to move.
On the surface, this story seems to be a cautionary tale about the influence beautiful women can have over men. This, however, is not what the story is about. Cicero tells us the true meaning of the story in De Finibus V.18:
…it was not the sweetness of their voices or the novelty and diversity of their songs, but their professions of knowledge that used to attract the passing voyageurs; it was the passion for learning that kept men rooted to the Sirens’ rocky shores. Homer was aware that his story would not sound plausible if the magic that held his hero immeshed was merely an idle song! It is knowledge that the Sirens offer, and it was no marvel if a lover of wisdom held this dearer than his home.
The allure of the Sirens was not how beautiful they were and how lovely was their singing. The lyrics to their songs contained claims that they knew everything that had happened to the Greeks and Trojans during and since the war. They promised those who would come to them that they could learn of all things that had come to pass on earth.
Another encounter with the Sirens occurs in the Argonotica in which Jason and the argonauts must also get their ship safely past the Sirens. Their trick for sailing past the Sirens is that they have brought Orpheus along with them. Orpheus is the greatest musician to have ever lived. When the argonauts start to hear the Sirens, Orpheus takes up his lyre and sings even more loudly…