Sirens, Sex and Death
Mysteries, not facts, are what make history fun. On a trip to Greece some years ago, I came across a puzzle that took me quite a while to figure out.
In 1998, I was meandering through the National Museum in Athens, predictably awed by the richness of the collection, when I happened on several life-size marble statues of bird-women (woman-sized, not bird-sized) in a far corner of the ground floor.
Their upper bodies were human aside from the wings that grew from their shoulders, but their legs and feet were birdlike. Harpies, I thought for a moment, but their faces were lovely: gentle and sad. The captions on the wall said they were sirens who were placed as guards on tombs of the sixth-century B.C. (Figures 1 and 2).
I wondered what their story could be, never having heard of protective sirens in Greek myth. They were beautifully carved; voluptuously sexy in their human parts, with haunting faces.
As I wandered further through the museum, I began to spot other
representations of bird-women. Once I started looking, I realized that
they were among the most common decorative motifs on 6th and 7th century
pottery, often accompanied by lions or gryphons. Usually they stand on
either side of the main action, or in a decorative band above, but
occasionally they take center stage, as in Figure 3:
Frequently too, the bird-woman borrows the hind-quarters of her lion companions to become a sphinx. By my count, sphinxes were a bit less popular as decorations, but more likely to be principal subjects, as in Figure 4.
As I visited museum after museum across Greece, I began to realize just how ubiquitous bird-woman images are in artifacts from the so-called "orientalizing" period (8th to 6th centuries B.C.). Although they become rare from the 5th century onwards, in the earlier period you can find them everywhere.
The ritual bronze cauldrons supported on tripods, for example, in which the ancient Greeks traditionally made offerings to the gods at Delphi and elsewhere, were generally decorated around the edge with small bronze bird-people (Figure 5), mostly female but occasionally male.
The more I saw, the more curious I became about the meaning and origin of these strange creatures. Given how common they were, why hadn't I heard more about them?
I discovered a few answers in Karl Kerényi's The Gods of the Greeks and Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. According to Keryéni, there were several different triads of goddesses known as Sirens, worshipped mainly in what is now southern Italy.
One of these trinities were the bird-women whom Odysseus escaped. Forewarned against them by Circe, Odysseus had his men plug their ears with wax before passing the Sirens' island, but being curious to hear their irresistible enchantments, he tied himself to the mast and left his ears unstopped, as depicted in Figure 6:
Without such precautions, the Sirens would surely have seduced him to his death — not by singing of love or delirious ecstasy, but by offering the delights of knowledge — they told him they knew everything that ever happened on the earth.
This is consonant with the Greek belief that the gift of foresight and wisdom is conferred by being able to understand the language of birds. Teiresias and Melampus are among those said to have acquired this ability, in both cases by being licked in the ear by snakes.
Kerényi relates that the Sirens were associated with Persephone:
It was told that the Sirens were companions of the Queen of the Underworld, that they were daughters of Chthon, the "depths of the earth," and that Persephone sent them into this world. … It was the Sirens' task to bring all approaching travelers before the great Queen, to entice them into her presence by the sweet tones of their music and song. And this they did not only to unlucky seamen, but to all who must enter the realm of the dead. By their art the bitterness of death is alleviated and disguised. [page 58]
Euripides' Helen had this to say of them:
Come, Siren maidens, daughters of Earth,
Young and light of wing,
Come with Libyan flute, with pipe and string,
Bring music for my despair,
Share your tears to suit my sorrow,
Couple note with note, pain with my pain;
And when songs of death,
Solemn chants dear to departed souls,
Ring through the vaulted shades of death,
Hear and accept them, Queen Persephone...
[Helen, Strophe 1]
Music is one of the ways they ease the soul's passing; another is through sex, as shown in Figure 7. Kerényi demurely suggests that "perhaps the male Sirens had the task of making death sweeter for women."
The Sirens were not the only group of three goddesses who took a bird-woman form. There were also the Harpies, the Furies or Erinyes, and to a lesser extent the Graeae, the Hesperides, the Moirai or Fates, and perhaps others as well. Greek goddesses, like Celtic ones, often came in groups of three, and these trinities had a tendency to blend into one another.
The Harpies were little sisters of the rainbow-messenger goddess Iris, who was known as an angelos (as was Hecate). They were "snatchers," forces of vengeance and destruction, and like the Sirens were commonly held responsible for deaths at sea.
The Erinyes, daughters of Night, were described as resembling the Harpies in form. Their skins were said to be black, suggesting a possible African connection, and they were considered more ancient than the gods of Olympus. Also known as the Eumenides or Furies, they lived in the underworld like the Harpies, whence they emerged as agents of vengeance, particularly on behalf of women wronged.
Graves notes that the man-eating birds whom Hercules scared off as his sixth labor, were actually bird-women.
According to some accounts, the so-called Stymphalian Birds were women: daughters of Stymphalus and Ornis…. At Stymphalus, in the ancient temple of Stymphalian Artemis, images of these birds are hung from the roof, and behind the building stand statues of maidens with birds' legs. [section 128.d]
Given all these bird-woman goddesses, and how frequently bird-women appear in artifacts of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., you would think there would be at least two or three monographs on the subject. Instead, the only book I could find devoted to them is Sirens, Symbols of Seduction, a popular work by Meri Lao which lumps them together with mermaids and is largely concerned with mermaid imagery in modern culture.
I kept asking myself what I was missing. Why had no one felt it worthwhile to write more about these mysterious goddesses, who were clearly so important in the day-to-day life of the ancient Greeks?
I found the key in reading Martin Bernal's Black Athena. This multi-volume work aims to strip away intellectual residues of racism and nationalism that have clouded classical scholarship for several centuries.
The first volume of Black Athena, published in 1987, is primarily a survey of classical historiography from ancient times to the present. It documents in fascinating detail how 18th- and 19th-century doctrines of white supremacy produced bizarre theories designed to show that "black" Egypt could never have influenced "Aryan" Greece in any way. Given the undeniable achievements of Egyptian culture, it was even thought necessary to make the Egyptians white too.
These theories require that the testimony of the ancient Greeks themselves be discarded as ignorant and misguided, and that Aryan invasions and settlements be conveniently postulated as needed. On the face of it, this kind of theory seem absurd. And yet, as Bernal painstakingly demonstrates, residues of such thinking survive, unrecognized and unquestioned, throughout classical studies today.
Bernal argues that the ancient Greeks were actually correct, not mistaken, in naming Egypt as the origin of their religion and much of their culture (including the pursuit of philosophy). His second volume, published in 1991, reviews the archaeological and documentary evidence supporting this view. Not only is he convincing, he also provides a wonderful overview of classical prehistory along the way.
His third volume, when it appears, is supposed to deal with mythology, and his fourth with religion. Needless to say, these should be exciting to a good many pagans as well as to classicists. I hope to anticipate a few of the things he will undoubtedly reveal in these volumes, particularly as relates to the sirens of ancient Greece.
As soon as I looked to Egypt, I easily found a precursor of the Greek Sirens in the so-called ba-bird.
Egyptian religion, which was largely concerned with death and rebirth, postulated several soul-forms that survive the death of the body. One of these, the ba, was generally represented as a bird with a human head, shoulders, and sometimes arms.
Various scholars have written about the ba, among them Louis Zabkar, Elske Wolf-Brinkmann, Hans Goedicke, and Jan Assmann. Goedicke translated a famous papyrus in Berlin about a man yearning for death who disputes with his ba.
Assmann, in Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom, analyzes the theological subtleties of the ba concept and discovers in it connotations both of hiddenness and of universality. Arguing that the ba incorporates an idea of concealed underlying unity, he relates it to Isis, "the one who is all" (pages 142-155).
Sue D'Auria et al provide a more mundane definition of ba in Mummies & Magic: the Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt:
In essence, the ba is the sum total of all the non-physical things that make each human being unique — a concept not too dissimilar from our own terms "personality" or "character." Even inanimate things, such as doors and villages, have bas — unique "personalities" that set them apart from others of the same kind. [page 43]
The Egyptians believed that in addition to a ba, every living thing possesses a ka that lives on after death as well. Mummies & Magic defines the ka as follows:
The ka is an individual's life-force — what makes the difference between a living person and a dead one. Like the ba, it is not a physical element, although it too has a physical connection. … Life-force (ka) is not individual, but common to all living people and the gods. [page 44]
After death, the ka departs from the body, and the ba must then also leave the body and go seek it out. Re-united, they return to the body and eventually revivify it.
For our purposes here, the important thing is that the ba took the form of a bird or bird-person. The hieroglyph for ba is a jabiru bird, a form of crane, or alternatively a bird-man (Figure 8). It's worth noting how fond the Egyptians were of hieroglyphs representing birds, a few of which are illustrated in Figure 9. The hieroglyph for the ka, by contrast, was two raised arms, forming a U shape (Figure 10). Tom Hare points out in ReMembering Osiris that ka had a cognate meaning of "bull," and I would suggest in passing that the ancient Cretan horns of consecration are directly related to it. A ba-bird was sometimes represented with arms in the ka configuration (Figure 11), perhaps indicating that ba and ka had reunited.
It was common practice to place ba-bird figures such as the one shown in Figure 12 in tombs and on caskets, much as the Greeks later placed Sirens.
In the spectacular Book of the Dead papyrus written for the scribe Ani around 1200 B.C., now residing in the British Museum, Ani and his wife are shown with their bas, preparatory to traveling to the underworld (Figure 13):
When the ba has reunited with the ka and returns to the body, resurrection may occur. Figure 14 shows a ba delivering the breath of life to a corpse, whom Anubis has prepared for resuscitation. Similarly, Figure 15 shows Ani's ba hovering above his body.
What is intriguing about these images, particularly given Jan Assmann's association of the ba with Isis, is how closely this iconography resembles depictions of Isis reviving Osiris. In such depictions, Isis takes the form of a hawk hovering over the mummified corpse of her brother and impaling herself on his erect penis. Not only did their sex revive the dead Osiris, it also conceived the hawk-headed Horus. The association of Isis' magick of revivification with the ba's return to the body is hardly accidental.
Herodotus remarked many centuries later:
...not all Egyptians worship the same gods — the only two to be universally worshipped are Isis and Osiris, who, they say, is Dionysus.
I believe the answer to my puzzle is that the Egyptians brought with them to Greece their fascination with birds, including crows, owls, and vultures, as well as the worship of Isis and Osiris, whose magick offered a way to overcome death.
While the Greeks never fully adopted the idea of physical resurrection, they continued to worship the gentle goddesses who ease the passage of souls to the underworld, and who comfort the dead with music and love. On Greek soil, the ba-bird merged with Isis' image to become the Sirens and other death-serving bird-women of Greek mythology.
Of course, a puzzle laid to rest never lies long in the tomb. It is satisfying to discover the origin and significance of the bird-woman goddesses, but what part did they have in the Dionysos cults and chthonic mysteries? From Eleussis to Cabeiri in Samothrace, what secret roles, if any, did these bird-women play?
I will leave you with a final image to fire your imagination: a siren on a so-called "eye" cup. These drinking cups, decorated with large protective eyes, seem to have had connotations of good luck and protection from harm. In this instance, the eye is circumscribed within a siren's body (Figure 17).
The eye is now reminiscent to me of the Eye of Ra shown below (the right eye) or the Eye of Horus (left eye), both important Egyptian religious symbols (Figure 16):
This Greek cup from the middle of the 6th century combines the two themes beautifully. Meanwhile, on its other side (Figure 18), two portly satyrs of Dionysos' are stretched out, masturbating luxuriously — so here we have sex, death and resurrection all brought together in one place!
(originally published in 1999 in Widdershins volume 5, issue 5).