Greek Myth: Odysseus and the Sirens

The Sirens were weird creatures, half-bird and half-woman, and their song had an irresistible power. When ships sailed past the island where the Sirens lived, the sound of the Sirens' song would lure the sailors towards the rocky shore. This song was beautiful but deadly. Hypnotized by the music, sailors would lose control of the ship as they approached the rocks. Over the years, the island was surrounded by shipwrecks and its beaches were littered with the bones of dead sailors.

The hero Odysseus was very curious about the Sirens' song and wanted to hear it for himself. He used an ingenious trick in order to be able to listen to the singing of the Sirens and survive. As his ship approached the Sirens' island, he ordered all his men to plug their ears with wax so that they could not hear the singing. Odysseus, however, did not put wax into his ears, but he was afraid that the irresistible power of the song would make him want to jump overboard and swim to the island. To prevent this possibility, he had his men tie him tightly to the mast of the ship. "Men," he said, "no matter what happens, you must not untie me until we have sailed safely past the island!" In this way, Odysseus was the only person ever to have listened to the song of Sirens without losing his life.

We still use the phrase "siren song" in English to refer to some beautiful but dangerous temptation. We also use the word "siren" to refer to the loud warning sound of an alarm. So, the next time you hear the siren of a fire truck or an ambulance, think about the ancient Sirens of Greek mythology; that is where the word "siren" comes from!

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