from the Introduction
Creatures of the air, the Sirens have mastery over space and the summits and the faculty of rising in flight to the heavens. The wing challenges the laws of gravity. The lightness of the feather implies the speed of a whiplash--sail, glide, vanish, hover in the ether. Air brings to mind soul, aura, voices rising, hymn. Bathing in the celestial element of light, the Sirens epitomize purity, ascension, enlightenment: the inaccessible, the divine.
Sirens have never been reputed to capture women, which may be explained by the fact that women rarely set off on sea voyages. Had they done so, considerably more balanced accounts of the Sirens would undoubtedly have reached us regarding the essence of feminine wisdom. Instead, it has always been men who told of Sirens, men who dreamed of them, projected onto them, were attracted to and frightened by them. To be consistent with this masculine perspective, only he who has dared to abandon himself and his history, to hurl himself into the deep and sprout wings, emerging into a new life, can hear them.
Homer’s attention is mainly absorbed by the mantic abilities of the Sirens. They know “whate’er beneath the sun’s bright journey lies.” They offer men memory, meaning, knowledge of the world, glory, and fame. And the Greeks considered knowledge the most valuable of worldly achievements: in it every action is reflected and converges. “Blest is the man ordain’d our voice to hear, / The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear,” the Sirens tell Ulysses. They render man happy and fulfilled by making him knowledgeable. They tempt him by promising to gratify his lust, provide him with supreme refreshment, and lead him to the ultimate adventure. In other words, they offer to make him immortal, a god. To do this, he has to be diverted, prevented from returning to the same old beaten paths: to past experiences, nation, family, institutions. Sirens are the opposite of the repose of the warrior, the alternative to the sheltered port.
Sirens are divinities who fulminate with the knowledge of extreme opposites and could thus be considered the female equivalent of the god of inebriation, Dionysus. Indeed, according to the tradition of Argolis, Dionysus arrived from Naxos with Ariadne by sea, accompanied by the Sirens. But Homer does not mention Dionysus and is not expansive in translating the message of the Sirens into his hexameters. For him, supreme pleasure lies in narrating events already the subject of the Iliad and now recounted in the Odyssey, roads familiar to him, his past, his universe.
By nature ambivalent, the Sirens maintain an airy quality while at the same time personifying water, the element that, perhaps more than any other, expresses ambivalence. Water has a dual action. It can be a blessing as it slakes the thirst of man, irrigates the earth, and becomes a source of life and abundance, the primordial soup; it represents purification, regeneration, and perpetuity. However, it can also be destructive, causing inundation, shipwreck, drowning, and annihilation. All the vital processes take place in aqueous substances: amniotic fluid is the medium through which we come into the world, and in Greek mythology four rivers provided passage to the underworld. Sirens embody the combination of all these meanings, consequently they are the dispensers of both death and immortality.
The quality of Becoming is implicit in the element of water, just as the quality of Being is implicit in the element of air. Static, the Sirens attract men, those simple terrestrial creatures, and propel them toward change, the essential passage from one space to another, from one condition to another. Sirens are linked to transit, transitions, transcendence, transfer, long sea voyages, and subsequently to mysteries of initiation--collective in the Argonautica, individual in the Odyssey. The departure might become a passing away. Let us take the words of Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), in a flowing reverie from Water and Dreams:
Death is a journey, and a journey is a death. “To leave is to die a little.” To die is truly to leave, and no one leaves well, courageously, cleanly, except by following the current, the flow of the wide river. All rivers join the River of the Dead. This is the only mythical death, the only departure that is an adventure.
Ulysses and Orpheus have this adventure in common as well. The katabasis, the descent into Hades, is completed by Ulysses just prior to his encounter with the Sirens, and awaits Orpheus long after his triumph over the bird-women. The knowledge of the Sirens belongs to the marine element, and thus is prophetic and secret. “The old men of the sea,” as Homer called the ancient sea gods, knew everything, saw beneath, through, and beyond.
The only problem for those who aspired to obtain a response from them was to succeed in holding them still, because another of their extraordinary capacities was to suddenly assume the most unexpected forms. Transient and relative, they were indeterminate and amorphous. One rash movement, a sudden quickening, sufficed for the unpredictable and elusive animal to appear.
Sirens call to man, urging him to abandon what he is, to become a transgressor; fear of the Sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, of transforming, of being replaced, even in part, by something unpredictable; fear of the unknown, of losing oneself, disappearing or dissolving. Returning to Bachelard’s chain of thought, if the dissolution of the earth ends in dust and fire ends in smoke, the dissolution of water is yet more radical:
Water dies with the dead in its substance. Water is then a substantial nothingness. No one can go further into despair than this. For certain souls, water is the matter of despair.