Richard Hunter looks at the abiding influence of the Sirens passage in Homer’s Odyssey

Alexander Bruckman’s 1829 painting ‘Odysseus and the Sirens’

Odysseus’ description of his encounter with the Sirens has some claims to be among the most influential passages of the Odyssey in the whole subsequent tradition of Western literature and criticism:

ἀλλ’ ὅτε τόσσον ἀπῆμεν, ὅσον τε γέγωνε βοήσας,
ῥίμφα διώκοντες, τὰς δ’ οὐ λάθεν ὠκύαλος νηῦς
ἐγγύθεν ὀρνυμένη, λιγυρὴν δ’ ἔντυνον ἀοιδήν·
δεῦρ’ ἄγ’ ἰών, πολύαιν’ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν,
νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωϊτέρην ὄπ’ ἀκούσηις.        185
οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῆιδε παρήλασε νηῒ μελαίνηι,
πρίν γ’ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ’ ἀκοῦσαι,
ἀλλ’ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ’, ὅσ’ ἐνὶ Τροίηι εὐρείηι
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,                 190
ἴδμεν δ’ ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρηι.
ὣς φάσαν ἱεῖσαι ὄπα κάλλιμον·
Homer, Odyssey 12.181-92

When in our rapid course we were as far from them as a shout would carry, they realised that our swift ship was near and began their clear song: ‘Come hither, much-fabled Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans! Halt your ship so that you may listen to our voices. No one has ever passed this way in a dark ship, without hearing the honey-sweet voice of our mouths, and he goes on his way having taken delight and knowing more. For we know all the sufferings which the Greeks and Trojans endured at broad Troy through the will of the gods, and we know everything which happens on the fertile earth’. So they sang in their lovely voices.

Detail from an Attic red-figured stamnos, ca. 480-470 BC from Vulci.

The Sirens’ (apparently deceitful) offer to Odysseus of both pleasure and knowledge (Od. 12.188) inaugurates antiquity’s most persistent and influential mode of discussing the nature and effects of literature of all kinds. ‘Pleasure’ and ‘knowledge’ were standardly repositioned as ‘the pleasant’ and ‘the useful’, τὸ τερπνόν and τὸ χρήσιμον, the dulce and the utile, but an essentially double-headed approach dominated ancient discussions, whether grammatical or philosophical. The dichotomy is perhaps most familiar to us from Horace’s pithy formulations in the Ars Poetica:

aut prodesse uolunt aut delectare poetae
aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere uitae.

omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci,
lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.
Horace, Ars Poetica 333-4, 343-4

Poets want either to be useful or to give delight or simultaneously say both what is pleasant and beneficial for life.

He who mixed the useful with the sweet gained every vote, by equally delighting and giving good advice to the reader.

The song of the Sirens was in fact sometimes read in antiquity as the first didactic and philosophical poem, a direct forerunner of Empedocles’ and Lucretius’ poems ‘On nature’ (περὶ φύσεως, De rerum natura).

At the heart of modern discussion of the Sirens have been the apparent similarities between the Muses and the Sirens. The similarities were exploited in various ways in antiquity, most memorably perhaps by the Pythagorean tradition which associated the Sirens with the ‘music of the spheres’, an idea which Plato exploited in the description of the cosmos in the ‘Myth of Er’, the extraordinary rewriting of Homer with which the Republic concludes (Rep. 10. 617b-c). The claim to knowledge, however, does not just associate the Sirens with Homer’s Muses (cf. Iliad 2.485-6 etc), but specifically picks up Circe’s warning that the Sirens are fatal to anyone who approaches them ‘in ignorance’ (ἀιδρείηι, v.41), a term which might just mean ‘unprepared, without forewarning’, but which also allows a stronger reading, which was to become crucial for many later interpretations of the story, ‘through ignorance, without intellectual or philosophical interests’. Cicero, for example, puts into the mouth of Marcus Piso a Peripatetic discourse in which the Homeric story of the Sirens is turned into one about the innate human desire for knowledge and intellectual advancement (De finibus 5.48-57); what stopped men from leaving the Sirens was, in this telling of the story, the discendi cupiditas, ‘desire for learning’, which is characteristic of higher human ideals. For Cicero this ‘desire for learning’ is not the acquisition of any and every fact or the desire for the omniscience of the busybody, but rather that contemplation of higher matters and the cupiditas scientiae which mark out summi uiri (De finibus 5.49).

          Odysseus was the most important figure of literature to embody the competing claims of the theoretical and the practical life. For Eustathius in the twelfth century a man cannot spend all his time listening to the Sirens, for one has to move on to practical activity in the world. Odysseus knows that learning never stops, but he also knows that he must get away from θεωρία into πρᾶξις, for the ‘complete philosopher’ is put together out of both (1709.23-30). ‘Theory’ has a very proper and necessary place,  but there is more to a full life than that. One very striking (and influential) version of this dichotomy is Alcibiades’ description in Plato’s Symposium of how Socrates’ words make him feel ashamed of his political life and so:

βίαι οὖν ὥσπερ ἀπὸ τῶν Σειρήνων ἐπισχόμενος τὰ ὦτα οἴχομαι φεύγων, ἵνα μὴ αὐτοῦ καθήμενος παρὰ τούτωι καταγηράσω.
Plato, Symposium 216a6-8

I force myself to block my ears and run away as if from the Sirens, so that I should not grow old sitting here beside [Socrates].

‘Growing old beside Socrates’: this is a new vision of fate of the victims of Homer’s Sirens. Alcibiades is torn between the philosophical life to which Socrates beckons and the life of ‘the Athenians’ business’ (216a6) and of popular τιμή (216b5), that is the life of the politician/orator. Socrates’ words contain an irresistible and shaming force of compulsion, urging one to a complete revolution of life, but for some such a change seems paramount to yielding to the Sirens’ deceptive call.

The philosophical and later Christian tradition was in fact always very ambivalent about the Sirens. Plutarch’s essay, How the Young Man Should Study Poetry, is devoted to ways in which, with the proper guidance, a young man may be safely exposed to poetry without suffering moral damage, for the alternative, a kind of literary and educational ‘prohibition’, is utterly counter-productive:

Shall we plug up our young men’s ears, like the Ithacans’, with some hard and indissoluble wax, and so force them to hoist the Epicurean sail and flee from poetry and get safe past her? Or shall we rather, by standing their judgment up against right reason and binding it firm, steer and protect it from being swept away by pleasure into what will do it harm?
Plutarch, How the young man should study poetry 15d

In the fourth century St Basil, discussing how Christians should use pagan Greek literature, warned that, although the pagan poets should be read and cherished when they recounted ‘the deeds or words of good men’, one should flee away, ‘blocking the ears, just as the pagan poets say that Odysseus fled the songs of the Sirens’, when they imitate wicked men, ‘lest, without noticing it, we take something bad [into our souls] because of the pleasure (ἡδονή) of the words, just like those who place honey on their baits’ (Greek Lit. IV.5-15 Wilson).

Some century and a half before Basil, Clement of Alexandria had similarly defended his own openness to Greek culture against the narrow-mindedness of many Christians:

It seems to me that most [of those who claim to be Christians] pursue our doctrine (λόγος) in a manner lacking culture (ἀγροίκως). It is not the Sirens they pass by, but the rhythm and song [of pagan Greece]; they block up their ears with uncultured ignorance (ἀμαθία), since they know that, once they have offered their ears to Greek learning, they will not subsequently be able to achieve their return home (νόστος). He, however, who wishes to pluck what is beneficial for helping those who are being instructed [in Christianity], and particularly when they are Greek … should not hold aloof from the pursuit of culture (φιλομαθία) like irrational beasts. … We must not, however, dally too long [with pagan culture], but concern ourselves only with what is useful (χρήσιμον) in it, so that we may take this for ourselves and then be able to return home to the true philosophy.
Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.89

Almost no Homeric scene appealed in fact to the Church Fathers as much as did Odysseus and the Sirens. The scene offered not just a potent image of how men should avoid the temptations of earthly and corrupting pleasures, but also, in Odysseus, a model of one man who did just that on his way to his ‘real home’. For Christians, Odysseus could prefigure the search through the voyage of life of the Christian soul for its heavenly home, just as the ship in which he sailed could also represent Christ’s church steered by Christ himself. The dangers posed by the Sirens are well exemplified by Clement in rather passionate mood:

Let us flee from the old ways (ἡ συνήθεια), let us flee as though it were a dangerous headland or the threats of Charybdis or the Sirens of myth! … Let us flee, my fellow sailors, let us flee this wave where fire belches forth. It is an island of wickedness heaped up with bones and corpses; on it sings a beautiful harlot, pleasure, who delights herself with vulgar music: ‘Come hither, much-fabled Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans! Halt your ship so that you may listen to our divine voices’. She flatters you, sailor, and calls you ‘much famed’ (πολυύμνητος) and the harlot grasps at the glory of the Greeks. Leave her among the corpses, a breeze from heaven comes to your aid. Pass by pleasure, it is a deceit!
Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 12.1-3

It was, however, the scene of Odysseus and the Sirens which could also show the Christian how these dangers might indeed be avoided. An exhortation of Ambrose may serve to represent a very rich body of such protreptic:

Our ears should not be closed, but opened so that Christ’s voice may be heard. Whoever hears that voice will not fear shipwreck; he is not to be tied, like Ulysses, to the mast (arbor) with physical bonds, but his spirit should be bound to the wood of the cross with spiritual bonds, lest he be moved by the temptations of lust and cause the course of his life to detour towards the perils of pleasure.
St Ambrose, Treatise on St Luke’s Gospel 4.2

The analogy which Ambrose evokes between the mast to which Odysseus was tied and Christ’s cross is one which frequently recurs when Christian preachers reach for the image of the Sirens. In a well known sermon of Maximus of Turin, perhaps a student or follower of Ambrose, that analogy is set out with impassioned clarity:

If, then, the story says of Ulysses that having been bound to the mast saved him from danger, how much more ought there to be preached what really happened – namely, that today the tree of the cross has snatched the whole human race from the danger of death! For, because Christ the Lord has been bound to the cross, we pass through the world’s tempting hazards as if our ears were stopped; we are neither detained by the world’s destructive sound nor deflected from the course of a better life onto the rocks of pleasure. For the tree of the cross not only hastens the person who is bound to it back to his homeland but also protects those gathered about it by the shadow of its power…. A ship’s mast is like the cross of the Church which alone, in the midst of the seductive and dangerous shipwrecks of the whole world, is safe to cling to. On this ship, then, whoever binds himself to the tree of the cross or stops his ears with the divine Scriptures will not fear the sweet storm of wantonness.
Maximus of Turin, Sermon 37.2 (trans. B. Ramsey, adapted)

We seem to have come a long way from Homer’s Odyssey, but the Sirens had at least another millennium and a half of exploitation ahead of them, and their journey, like Odysseus’, shows no sign of ending.

John William Waterhouse’s 1981 painting Ulysses and the Sirens

Richard Hunter is Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College; he is a Fellow of the British Academy. This essay is drawn from The Measure of Homer (Cambridge 2018) in which he considers aspects of the reception of the Homeric poems at all levels of literate culture in antiquity.

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