Highlighted Works of Art - Autumn

The Sirens’ Singing

17 September 2013 - 1 December 2013

For János György Szilágyi, who taught me to hear the mermaids singing

The Sirens in their inhumanity encapsulate the ambiguity of Greek thought on nature and the godhead, which is at once divine and monstrous in its difference from, and indifference to, what is human.  In mythology, Sirens are carriers of an important and ambiguous meaning which finds expression in the very ambivalence of their shape, at once manlike and birdlike. Their song represents the perfection of divine beauty and the enchantment of music, but they themselves, in both the poetic and the iconographic traditions, are at the same time harbingers of death.  As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an Italian novelist with a deep and sympathetic understanding of the Greek and pagan past of his Sicilian homeland, describes it in his short story The Siren, the miraculous meeting of man and ancient Greek Siren confronts human mortality in all its frailty with a power that is both eternal and coaeval with the forces of impassive nature.  The four siren-images in the exhibition all represent important aspects of this ambiguity.

Homer’s Odyssey is the product of a great age of oral poetry, a time in which ‘poetry’ and ‘song’ were one and the same. The meeting of Odysseus and the Sirens in book 12 defined the image of these creatures for the whole of Antiquity, and indeed our knowledge of them today.  In the epic, the Sirens are sea beings who seduce sailors to their mysterious island with their song. That song, like the song of the Muses or the Homeric singer of tales, promises two things: enchanting pleasure and divine knowledge. But the Sirens are anti-Muses who turn epic song, with its promise of undying fame, on its head, for it brings death rather than glory if a man gives himself over to the magical seduction of their song. Odysseus ties himself to the mast of his ship so that he can satisfy his curiosity and desire for knowledge by listening to the Sirens’ song of cosmic power, whose magic is able to calm the winds and waves of the sea, while avoiding death.

The poet of the Odyssey does not describe the Sirens: to him, only their song and voice mattered. Their well-known shape in ancient art (a woman’s head on the winged body of a bird) which expresses the uncanny ambiguity of their nature, emerged not from the native Greek tradition, but rather from the art of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the Orientalising period (the 7th century BC) this iconographic scheme became a commonplace pictorial motif, particularly in the ornamental animal and bird friezes of Corinthian vase-painting. Modern art historians call these figures ‘Sirens’, although their identification with Odysseus’ singers is hardly certain and cannot be proven, since they appear not in narrative scenes but rather in ornamental compositions. It seems likely that the Siren figures on these early vases could mean different things to different people.

Bearded male sirens are also common in the Orientalising and early Archaic periods of Greek art. Their meaning is no less enigmatic.  The Boeotian terracotta figurine, which was made towards the end of the 6th century BC, exemplifies the type. The birdlike body of the hand-made, solid clay statuette grows smoothly out of its round base.  The beard and nose stand out in sharp profile from the plane of the face, and further details – his eyes, closed shut, and his pointed headgear – are added in matt paint.  With his wings extended and his eyes shut, the male Siren seems about to throw himself wildly into the air.  It seems likely that this piece, like most of the Boeotian terracotta statues of known provenance from the period, came from a grave: perhaps he escorted the deceased on his journey to the afterlife.

From the second half of the 6th century we find images on Greek vases which represent or even illustrate the Sirens episode from the Odyssey; and there are vase-inscriptions as well that show the Oriental Siren-type was now securely identified with Homer’s mythological singers.  To this period belongs the long-stemmed wine cup or kylix with its black-figure decoration. Made about 550-540 BC, it is a superb example of the Laconian (Spartan) tradition of black figure vase painting.  It was probably intended as a votive dedication or for deposition in a grave. In the tondo, we see a nude, unarmed youth on horseback, leading a second horse.  Several such images of riders are known from Laconian vase-painters.  On the horse’s back, just behind the rider and invisible to him, sits a small winged Siren, whose shape recalls the more common female sirens of the Orientalising period. The interpretation of the picture is again difficult, for it gives us no clear elements of narrative with which to work.   The rider’s nudity perhaps expresses an idealised male beauty (or the heroic nudity of the deceased?); the second horse he leads may belong to a warrior who has dismounted to do battle, or to a conquered enemy, but could equally just be a horse on a lead.  Perhaps the Siren points to the closeness of death – one thinks of Horace’s lyric image of ‘black care’ perching behind the rider – but may express a more diffuse and propitious divine presence.  If we identify her with the Sirens of myth, then we can probably see her as a chthonic being who represents the seductions of the afterlife.

The Attic white ground lekythos, which dates to the first decades of the 5th century BC, belongs within the same complex of beliefs. Lekythoi were used for libations of oil at the graveside, and were often deposited in burials. In this case, then, we can be certain of the function of the vase.  It is decorated with a figural scene: we see a Siren perched on her rock in the sea, singing to a half-naked young man who is seated on a chair.  She accompanies her song on the lyre, stopping the strings with one hand and holding the plectrum in the other – a visual representation of the sound of music. The youth turns his head to look at the Siren.  In his left hand he holds the walking-stick of the free Athenian male citizen;  his right hand either holds another lekythos of the same type, or is raised in greeting. The image thus brings the mythical world of the Siren, as a singer of Death, into contact with a scene of everyday life: this is no single, unified pictorial space. The vase-painting can perhaps be interpreted as follows: the young man (perhaps identified with the deceased) confronts or greets the Siren and her enchanting voice, which brings him peace. Death here is not something distant or terrifying, but rather very near and kindly.  It is a kind of love-scene in which the youth recognises and accepts encroaching death.


In 5th- and 4th-century Athens, and in other parts of the Greek world, Sirens often appeared on grave-monuments.  Siren figures of almost human size stood on several graves in the Athenian Kerameikos, and grave stelai often show musical or mourning Sirens.  Later in the 4th and 3rd centuries, as the conquests of Alexander the Great unified the eastern Mediterranean world into a single diverse cultural zone across which the Greek language and artistic ideas spread widely, these figures began to appear in many parts of the Hellenistic world. The fourth piece in the exhibition, the terracotta statue of a mourning Siren, was probably made in the first half of the 2nd century BC in a workshop in Alexandria, in Egypt.  The Siren is a young and beautiful woman, her body is very human, but with the legs and clawed feet and large extended wings of a bird. She makes the gestures of grief traditional in Greek culture: with her left hand  she holds her head or tears her long hair, which is allowed to hang over her shoulders (the gesture is obscured by clumsiness of the sculptor), and beats her breast with her right palm. She has close 4th-century parallels in one type of marble grave-statue which  shows a Siren weighed down by grief, bent back with pain, her face contorted with weeping.  This Siren too is hardly terrifying: she expresses the grief of the relatives of the deceased and the female mourners who played a role in funerary ritual (the Greek tradition, the ritual lament was also a kind of song). Here nature and the divine world that pre-existed us and will exist when we are gone looks with kindness and pity on the ephemeral state of human life, in the shape of a death that is both eternally beautiful and forever young, but also unavoidable. “Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh!” – Come, sweet Death; come blessed peace...

Péter Agócs

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