In ancient Greek mythology, a Siren is a hybrid creature with the body of a bird and the head of a human. Sirens are traditionally understood to be female, but similar figures with beards can be labeled either as Sirens or as daemons. Sirens are dangerous creatures who live on rocky islands and lure sailors to their doom with their sweet song. In Book 12 of Homer's Odyssey, the hero Odysseus escaped the Sirens' call with the help of the sorceress Circe, who advised him to fill his crew's ears with wax so that they could not hear the Sirens; Odysseus, however, wanted to hear the Sirens' song and so ordered the crew to tie him to the mast so that he could hear their song but not succumb to its powers. This scene was depicted on the so-called Siren Vase, an early 5th century B.C.E. Attic red-figure stamnos at the British Museum.
Sirens entered Greek art as a part of the decoration on Orientalizing tripod cauldrons, which were introduced to Greece in the so-called Orientalizing period (mid-8th to mid-7th centuries B.C.E.), when many hybrid monsters like spinxes, Sirens, and griffins entered Greek art (1). These attachments and the Orientalizing cauldrons they adorned are thought to have had their origins in the Near East, specifically North Syria (2) or Urartu (3). Cauldrons found on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus provide a crucial link to these Near Eastern origins (4).
Siren attachments are essentially an elaborate way of affixing handles to a cauldron (5). A good example of their arrangement and orientation can be seen on a Near Eastern tripod cauldron in the Glencairn Museum in Pennsylvania. Two to four Sirens were attached to the rim of the cauldron, usually facing inwards toward the bowl. Siren figures can appear alongside protomes shaped like griffins, hybrid creatures with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion combined with the head, wings, and talons of an eagle. Griffin protomes, such as the fine examples in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are thought to be a Near Eastern-inspired Greek creation (6).
A large proportion of Siren attachments and the cauldrons to which they were attached were manufactured in the Near East and then imported into Greece. Some Siren attachments, however, were created by Greek artisans who were inspired by those imported from the Near East (7). Although they are similar, Near Eastern and Greek sirens differ in many ways. Near Eastern sirens, for example, exhibit a number of variations, such as helmet-wearing and Janus-headed figures (8). Greek Sirens, on the other hand, are fairly uniform (9). The style of the faces differ, as well: Near Eastern sirens have faces that are more static, while the faces of Greek Sirens are softer, wearing an archaic smile, and sometimes done in the Daedalic style. Finally, Near Eastern Sirens are typically depicted as humans with wings: they have the heads, bodies, and limbs of a human, with the arms laying flat against the wings. On some pieces there is even a small, sculpted strap around the wrists, implying that the wings are worn rather than a natural part of the figure, as in the example from the Glencairn Museum (above). In some Greek examples, however, the arms disappear and the human head is joined seamlessly with a bird body (10).
The figure of the Siren may have inspired freestanding figurines like one of a Harpy in the CU Art Museum's collection. Harpies are similar in appearance to Sirens but they function differently in mythology. In their earliest appearance in Greek literature, Hesiod's Theogony (265-267), the Harpies appear as winged maidens with beautiful hair who fly faster than birds and the wind. By the early 5th century B.C.E., however, the playwright Aeschylus describes them as disgustingly ugly monsters (Aeschylus, Eumenides 46-54).
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- Athanasia Yalouris, Olympia the Museum and the Sanctuary (Athens: Ekdotike Athenon, 1993): 57.
- Oscar White Muscarella, "Near Eastern Bronzes in the West: The Question of Origin," in ed. Suzannah F. Doeringer, David Gordon Mitten, and Arthur Richard Steinberg, Art and Technology: A Symposium on Classical Bronzes (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1970): 110.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art of the Aegean Islands (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979): 171.
- Vassos Karageorghis, The Ancient Civilization of Cyprus (New York: Cowles Education Corporation, 1969): 155.
- Bernard Goldman, "An Oriental Solar Motif and Its Western Extension," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 61.4 (Oct. 1961): 239.
- Oscar White Muscarella, "The Oriental Origin of Siren Cauldron Attachments," Hesperia 62.4 (Oct.-Dec. 1962): 317-320.
- Goldman, "An Oriental Solar Motif and Its Western Extension," 239.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art of the Aegean Islands: 173.
- Muscarella, "The Oriental Origin of Siren Cauldron Attachments," 318.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art of the Aegean Islands: 170-175.