Pages

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Sirens in ancient mythology and beyond

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured nearby sailors to their deaths by enchanting them with music and singing voices which resulted in their shipwreck on the rocky coast of the sirens' island. Roman poets placed them on some small islands called Sirenum scopuli. Later, their "flowery" island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa, was considered to be  Cape Pelorum or the Sirenuse, near Paestum.  Plato said there were three kinds of Sirens: the celestial, creatures of Zeus,  the generative of Poseidon, and the cathartic of Hades. Originally, Sirens were shown to be male or female, but the male Siren disappeared from art around the fifth century BCE.

In addition to their role in menacing seamen, sirens were also thought to accompany souls on the journey to the afterlife, hence their portrayal on funerary art.  Sirens were first believed to look like a combination of women and birds in various  forms in ancient Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art. With their legendary male attraction, sirens were a popular motif for perfume vessels where they were often depicted as birds with large women's heads, wings, feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps and lyres. By the Middle Ages, however, they began to take on the attributes of mermaids.

Some of my favorite portrayals of sirens are on display at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.  Dating to 350-300 BCE, these almost life-sized sculptures  were found in a funerary context in Tarentum in southern Italy along with a musician thought to be Orpheus. In another funerary context, sirens are portrayed on a relief that once adorned a Lycian sepulchral tower now in the collections of the British Museum.  Of course I find the smaller perfume vessels and other objects depicting sirens endearing as well.

Images: Some of the images I have taken of sirens at the Getty Villa, British Museum, and the Walters Art Museum as well as other images from the British Museum, National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perfume bottle in the form of a siren Greek mid-4th century BCE photographed at the British Museum

Terracotta flask in the form of a siren, Greek, made in Kythera, Crete 600 BCE photographed at the British Museum

Funerary sculpture of a siren from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE photographed at the Getty Villa

Funerary sculpture of a siren from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE photographed at the Getty Villa

Funerary sculpture group of two sirens and a musician thought to be Orpheus from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE courtesy of the Getty Villa

Funerary sculpture of a siren's feet from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE photographed at the Getty Villa
Attic Black figure plate with Gorgon's head and bands of animals and sirens ceramic 600 BCE photographed at the Walters Art Museum

Ceramic Vase in the form of a siren Greek 540 BCE photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Etruscan bronze weight in the form of a siren with loop 475BC-425BCE courtesy of the British Museum

Marble Siren found in the Necropolis of Ceramics in Athens beside the stele of Athenian warrior Dexileo who fell in combat in 394 or 393 BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Gold earring in the form of a siren, Greek, mid-4th century BCE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harpy tomb originally part of a Lycian sepulchral tower 480-470 BCE courtesy of the British Museum

Oil Jar (Askos) in the shape of a Siren Greek from South Italy 480-450 BCE Bronze photographed at the Getty Villa

The Siren of Canosa, south Italy, Greek, 4th century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Luis Garcia.

Water Jar Handle (Kalpis) with a Siren Greek 450-425 BCE Bronze photographed at the Getty Villa


No comments: