Identity Crises of the Sirens: Wise Women, Murderesses or Singing Prostitutes?

Identity Crises of the Sirens: Wise Women, Murderesses or Singing Prostitutes?

Ancient cultures around the world saw the sea as a dangerous place, filled with beings who preyed upon people - especially men. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History would serve as scientific gospel for centuries to follow, wrote that the nereids were sea nymphs, recognizable as half-human and half-fish. The legatus of Gaul once wrote to Emperor Augustus claiming that he found a considerable number of nereids dead upon the sea-shore. He further added that: “I have, too, some distinguished informants of equestrian rank, who state that they themselves once saw, in the Ocean of Gades, a sea-man, which bore in every part of his body, a perfect resemblance to a human being, and that during the night he would climb up into ships; upon which the side of the vessel, where he seated himself, would instantly sink downward, and, if he remained there any considerable time, even go under water.”

The Sirens by Wilhelm Kray (1828-1889) (Public Domain)

The Sirens by Wilhelm Kray (1828-1889) (Public Domain)

Such maliciousness of the sea-creatures is echoed in the sirens of Greek mythology, who are known for seducing sailors with their sweet voices and lure them to their deaths. Surprisingly, Pliny who was quite ready to believe in the existence of nereids and sea-men, discounted sirens as pure fable. However, he still stated that: "although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces." 


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