Monday, September 10, 2001

Story of the Day: Odysseus and the Sirens

The mythological Sirens of Greek mythology give us the English word "siren" today, but the sound of a siren as we know it is very different from the legendary song of the Sirens. The Sirens were savage monsters, often shown with the bodies of birds and the faces of women, who lived on an island and lured the sailors with their beautiful singing. The sailors would hear the song and jump from their ships, swimming to the island, where the savage Sirens devoured them. But when Odysseus and his men approach the island of the Sirens, Odysseus invents a way to protect his sailors, but Odysseus wants to hear the Sirens' song for himself. Read today's story to find out just how he does that!

The story comes from Tony Kline's translation of the Odyssey, and you can read more in the Odyssey unit. For more about the Sirens, see Wikipedia. Odysseus is telling the story in first-person:


Passing the Sirens

So I explained everything to my friends, while our well-built vessel, borne on a gentle breeze, quickly neared the island of the Sirens. Suddenly the wind dropped, and a breathless calm followed, as some god lulled the waves. My comrades rose and furled the sail, then stowed it, then sat to their oars and thrashed the water with the blades of polished pine.

I, in the meantime, sliced a large cake of beeswax with my sword-edge, and kneaded the slivers in my strong hands until the pressure and the rays of Lord Helios Hyperion heated it.

Then I plugged the ears of each of my friends, and they tied me hand and foot and stood me upright in the mast housing, and fastened the rope ends round the mast itself.

Then sitting down again, they struck the grey water with their oars.

We drove past swiftly, but when we were within hail of the shore, the Sirens could not fail to see our speeding vessel, and began their clear singing, “Famous Odysseus, great glory of Achaea, draw near, and bring your ship to rest, and listen to our voices. No man rows past this isle in his dark ship without hearing the honeysweet sound from our lips. He delights in it and goes his way a wiser man. We know all the suffering the Argives and the Trojans endured, by the gods’ will, on the wide plains of Troy. We know everything that comes to pass on the fertile Earth.”

This was the haunting song the Sirens sang, and I longed to listen, commanding my crew by my expression to set me free. But they bent to their oars and rowed harder, while Perimedes and Eurylochus rose and tightened my bonds and added more rope.

Not till they had rowed beyond the Sirens, so we no longer heard their voices and song, did my loyal friends clear the wax that plugged their ears, and untie me.

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