Deeply embedded in my DNA is not only a desire, but a primal need to be near water. I am fortunate that I live so close to the Humber River and Lake Ontario. From May until November, I squeeze every opportunity I can for a paddle in my kayak. I am from New Brunswick and although I have lived in Ontario longer than Saint John, I along with thousands of other transplanted East Coasters will be hearing the Siren’s call. In a few weeks with kayak firmly strapped to the roof of my car, I’ll be zooming down the 401 counting the hours when I can smell the salt air. My basic need, got me thinking about Sirens and their place in myth and music.
Sirens are the ultimate femme fatale. These were creatures of legendary seductiveness. Their song of irresistible beauty reduced rugged sailors to helplessness. These enchantress are hybrid creatures of air and sea. They have wings and talons for hands. Their long tresses frame a face that rivals any Helen of Troy or Angelina Jolie. Their expression is one of hunger and their voices are sweet and yet ravishing, inspiring a pleasure to satisfy all longing. Who could resist their call? A contemporary telling of this tale is portrayed in the film, ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’
Go to sleep you little baby – from the film ‘Brother Where Art Thou?’ sung by Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch & Alison Krauss
Few men ever survived the Siren’s song. Homer in 800 B.C. in his ancient sea epic Odyssey writes of one who did. Ulysses’ crew filled their ears with wax and Ulysses tied himself to the ship’s mast. The ship sailed over the waves into the sunlight as the sirens beckoned. They fly. They sing. Oh how he wants to join them. He pleads with his men to untie him, to let him go so he can revel in bliss. They go on rowing through Ulysses’ sweet anguish.
Homer: “While yet I speak with winged galley flies. And lo! The Siren shores like mist arise. Sunk were at once the winds, the air above and waves below, at once forgot to move. Some demon calmed the air and smooth’d the deep. While to the shore the rapid vessel flies. Our swift approach the Siren choir decries. Celestial music warbles from their tongue.…My soul takes wing to meet the heavenly strain; Till dying off, the distant sounds decay. The scudding swiftly from the dangerous ground, the deafen’d ear unlocked, the chains unbound.”
Ulysses and his men escape the high price of hearing the Sirens’ song…by not joining the heap of unburied human remains on the rocky shores. The song the sirens sing is all about the promise of knowledge – knowledge of the past, the present and the future. Homer: “Approach! And learn new wisdom from the wise…”.
Sirènes by Claude Debussy performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra
Cicero (106-43 BC) argued that like the serpent in the Garden of Eden – it was the passion for learning that kept the sailors rooted to the sirens’ shores. To learn you had to abandon yourself, to lose yourself in the Sirens’ cry. The early Christian take on the Sirens had little to do with the quest for knowledge and more to do with lust. Sirens trapped men through the promise of sex, and that meant eternal death. The Cambridge Bestiary (a Latin text written in the 12th Century, warns that the Sirens sing to seduce men only so they can tear their bodies to pieces. “Those who spend their lives in the pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh and the delights of wealth, dissolute and corrupt and lulled by the music of feats and spectacles, inevitably losing lucidity and mental vigour and falling prey to their enemies, must inevitably die.”
Wagner in his opera ‘Tannhauser’ gives voice to these sexual Sirens – Venus is surrounded by her court of nymphs and fauns. The sirens are reclining on the banks of a lake. They sing, “Come to these bowers, radiant with flowers. Here love shall bless you. Here endeth longing. Soft arms shall press you amid blessings thronging.”
Richard Wagner: “Bacchanale” from “Tannhäuser” performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Beecham Choral Society with conductor Jascha Horenstein
There are many myths on how the Sirens came to be. In some stories, the Muses are considered the mothers of the Sirens. Others believe them to be the step-sisters of the Muses – ‘Their father – a water god – their mother – a goddess with attributes of music, memory, and secret wisdom. (The song of the Siren).
One story goes that the nymphs were gathering flowers with Persephone. When Hades abducted the fair Persephone and dragged her to hell in his chariot, they did not notice, or worse still – did nothing. Demeter, Persephone’s mother changed the nymphs into bird-women, or sirens.
The other story is a little more charitable. When Persephone was abducted they prayed for wings so that they could fly, rescue her and spread the news of their grief. When the Sirens failed to prevent her from being dragged to the underground they merged with the waters in desperation – being creatures who linked air, water and the underworld. Many paintings show sirens as the transport to that final journey – death. They carried mortals to the underworld. Their song gave sailors the promise of all knowledge. But the bitter irony was that nothing could be done about it. Those men who succumbed to their song, yes discovered the secrets of the universe – but they were dead.
Reinhold Glière – The Sirens: Symphonic Poem in F minor, Op. 33 Conductor: Vladimir Esipov Moscow Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra
Being a choral conductor what is most fascinating to me is the power of the Sirens’ song. It is beauty carrying with it the promise of knowledge. Its seduction is universal and timeless. For Pythagoras (571-497 BC) music was knowledge – the sister of astronomy – the harmony of the spheres – the answer to the riddles of the universe. Through time , the song of the Sirens containing the beauty and knowledge of the universe has come to symbolize danger and death for us mere mortals. “Ignorance is bliss.”
- The Song of the Sirens – The ultimate femme fatales with music by Alison Krauss, Debussy, Wagner, Gliere & Parry (kellygalbraithblog.com)
- Tannhäuser. (sashacastel.wordpress.com)
- Alison Krauss Celebrates 20th Anniversary At Opry (nashville.com)
- The 365 Sirens of the modern world (365sirens.com)