The siren is a mythical creature who has taken many forms throughout history, but how has that image changed? How did we go from the sirens of old to the mermaid-like creatures we see portrayed today? And — most importantly — where did they come from?
Originally, and according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sirens were the human companions of the chthonic goddess Persephone — or, at this point, just the daughter of Demeter. However, when Hades comes to take her away, the sirens are blamed for her kidnapping, and Demeter punishes them by turning them into winged women. In some versions of the myth, the sirens pray for wings in order to search for their lost charge and the gods grant their prayers. However, one thing is for certain: they were winged creatures, NOT mermaids.
Sirens were originally an amalgamation of birds and women, starting — in early Greek art — as simply birds with the heads of women. Later, they became more like the centaurs with their human torsos (of a woman), though with the legs of a bird and giant wings. Sirens were known to have singing voices that were so beautiful, so alluring, that sailors were known to jump overboard their vessels and drown — which is how we get the story of Odysseus in the Odyssey, telling his crew to stopper their ears with wax while he himself was tied to the mast of the ship to listen to their voices. Not only were these winged women gifted singers, but they were also said to be adept with the lyre, even going so far as to challenge the Muses to a competition. Which, of course, the sirens lost.
So how did we go from winged women to the mermaids we see today? As the siren myth travelled through Europe, and their name was translated through multiple languages, they began to be viewed exclusively as water creatures — though still remaining quite hostile, capable of wreaking havoc wherever they turned up. However, the truth might lie in, what Emily Wilson — a classicist from the University of Pennsylvania who became known for her new English translation of Homer’s Odyssey — concludes is, faulty translations. She believes that many translators have allowed themselves to be influenced by modern culture, which has led them to depict the siren as being a water-dwelling creature rather than the winged women they were.
As well as being possibly mistranslated, the word “Sirenia” in Latin today is a term used to describe the order of fully aquatic and herbivorous mammals such as the manatee, which has been mistaken in the past as being a mermaid itself.
Whether the siren be winged creatures or mermaids, there seems to be the common thread that they are considered fierce, destructive creatures who are musically gifted. And though their image has shifted, their place in myth will forever be solidified.
The siren in popular culture: We of course have seen sirens in movies and television shows, from the show Siren all the way to the movie Sinbad (though we mostly just see their mermaid counterpart). However, in literature, we have seen a wide variety of sirens from Amanda Hocking’s Wake series in which the sirens can shift from mermaids to winged women to humans, to Jes Dory’s take on sirens in Isle in which they are connected to the Lamia, all the way to The Siren in which Kiera Cass has combined both myths of sirens and mermaids together in this Little Mermaid retelling.
For more information about Sirens and their mythology (sources):