Margaret Atwood noted in her poem on the subject that no living person had heard the sirens’ song, since all who listened were lured to their deaths. This no doubt made the hearing of it all the more enticing to Odysseus when he sailed past their island redoubt on his way home from the Trojan War. Having been warned by the sorceress Circe of the sirens’ fatal allure, Odysseus had himself lashed to the mast of his ship, while his crew plugged their ears with beeswax. According to the account in Homer’s Odyssey, he begged to be loosed from his bonds when he heard the sirens’ “honeyed song,” but the crew kept a tight grip on him until their ship was well out of earshot.
The sirens are often portrayed as seductive maidens, but they were actually birdlike creatures with women’s faces; in short, they were not likely to quicken the pulse of sailors who had spent long stretches at sea without female companionship. The sirens’ allure was entirely auditory.
It remains unclear why the sirens’ song should prove fatal to its listeners. Did they throw themselves into the sea and drown? Were they shipwrecked on the shore? One theory is that sirens were like predatory birds that devoured their prey. Others theorize their victims starved to death because the sirens were divine and did not think to provide food for their guests. The sorceress Circe had warned Odysseus, “If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.” It may be hard to picture being warbled to death, but the aftermath is not: “There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.”
Since Odysseus was the only survivor of one of their performances, we must rely on his account of the sirens’ singing. The passage in the Odyssey is brief and leaves much to the imagination. The sirens addressed him by name and flattered him over his exploits at Troy. They urged him to drop by for a little songfest, promising he would depart rejoicing with greater understanding
For we know everything, whatsoever in far-reaching Troy
The Argives and Trojans suffered by the will of the gods,
And we know whatsoever happened on the all-nourishing earth.”
With this as the overture, Odysseus was desperate to hear more, but his sailors, their ears plugged with beeswax, ignored his pleas and rowed on.
Since we can’t hear the music, we have only the words to help us understand why Odysseus found the sirens’ song so enticing. Was it simply an appeal to his vanity, the implicit promise that his exploits in Troy would be immortalized? Unlikely, since he had already turned his back on the promise of actual immortality when he had earlier washed up on the island of the nymph Calypso. No, I suspect the attraction for Odysseus was the promise of omniscience. “We know everything,” the sirens sang – not just everything about the Trojan War but “whatsoever happened on the all-nourishing earth.” It was forbidden knowledge, knowledge that was the province of the gods alone and not of mortals, to know everything about everything. It was the forbidden fruit of the biblical creation story -- the knowledge of good and evil -- that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from paradise. It was the secret of fire that Prometheus stole from the gods, for which he was chained to a rock for eternity. It was this kind of knowledge that lured so many sailors to their doom in the sirens’ realm and that might have been the death of Odysseus as well, had he not been lashed to the mast.
Homer’s epic is perhaps best understood as a spiritual quest, with the hero enduring many trials and temptations in pursuit of self-realization. In mythological terms, Odysseus’ wayward journey is the story of the hero’s return. You might think Odysseus had already secured his reputation as a great warrior, but this was the mere starting point of his quest. His was now the story of a homecoming and reintegration into his former life as King of Ithaca, as a husband to Penelope and as father to Telemachus. He had been to hell and back, not just in surviving death and destruction during the ten-year Trojan War but also in his later descent into Hades to seek counsel from the blind seer Tiresias. Not to put too fine a point on it, he had started out as a glory-seeking brute who offended the gods by denying them proper credit for their role in his victory at Troy. His task now was to undergo a “return from darkness and death to light and life,” as the ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus characterized it.
Having gained the world, Odysseus was in danger of losing his soul. With the gods mostly arrayed against him, the journey back home was both lengthy and dangerous. Ithaca on the western shore of Greece was only 565 nautical miles from Troy in Asia Minor, yet it took him as many years to wend his way back home as it did to fight the Trojans. His bravery and his skills as a warrior served him well on his journey, but they were not enough. Yes, he blinded the Cyclops with a sharpened stick, but he symbolically surrendered his identity to survive, telling the monster he was “Nobody” when asked his name. Yes, he turned down Calypso’s offer of eternal life because he loved his wife. But he might have lingered forever on her island of sensual delights had he not been rescued by the goddess Athena. And yes, he survived his encounter with the sirens, foregoing their offer of forbidden knowledge, but it was only because his sailors lashed him to the mast of his ship.
We think of a hero as someone who goes from strength to strength, but for Odysseus to find himself, his true self, he had to go from strength to weakness. He had to become a nobody, to know nothing, to be forced to resort to trickery to survive. He had to be tossed about and washed up on strange shores. In reaching for the heights, he found himself in the depths, even in the depths of hell. We may start out, as Odysseus did, seeking greater glory, however we may define it, but we will never reach our true destination until we have found ourselves safely back home.
Margaret Atwood, “Siren Song”