November 1, 2012

Sirens the Muses of the Underworld

On the ceiling of an early temple for Apollo in Delphi (were the Muses once lived) were the Keledones, the “soothing Goddesses.” They were three living, singing statues of women or wryneck birds or a mix of both who welcomed worshipers with their music.
They had the same skill with song as the Sirens.

Entwining Voices
The Sirens tangled people up with their words and music. They had the wings of birds. Or the legs of birds. Or the bodies of birds. But they always have lovely faces and entrancing voices. They dart about on the edges of reality like fragments of old stories that have escaped their meanings. They were born from the earth. They are sea nymphs. They charm the wind.
They are surrounded by flowers. They turn white as bone. They died when Orpheus helped the Argonauts pass them safely. They died when Odysseus took Circe’s advice to pass them tied to a mast. They sing like the Muses who wear their feathers. Hera introduced them to the Muses. They nest in Hera’s hands. They follow Artemis’s lead. Aphrodite gave them wings. Demeter took their wings. Demeter gave them wings. They serve Persephone. Their music causes obsession. Their music erases fear.
Like the Muses, the Sirens are singing bird women linked to water with changeable names, numbers, instruments and homes. They put secrets and unbreakable charms into song and they gathered flowers with Persephone. Three different Muses are called the Sirens’ mother: Terpsichore the dancing Muse, Melpomene the tragic Muse and Kalliope the epic Muse. The name of another Muse, Achelois, becomes the group title of the Sirens, the Acheloides, when they are daughters of the river God Achelous. One Siren and one Muse even have the same name, Thelxinoe “the enchantress” or “heart’s delight.”

Earth, Water and Air
The Sirens have roots in the sky, the sea and the earth. In older genealogies, they are children of a river and the earth or another river and a sky woman. The story goes that Heracles and Achelous, a shape-shifting river God, once fought each other for days. They were fighting over who would marry Deianeira or for possession of the cornucopia, the horn of plenty that Amaltheia used to feed baby Zeus. Hercules tore off one of Achelous’s horns and the blood of the fish-tailed God fell onto the earth, Gaia. The Sirens sprang up from the blood-soaked ground, mirroring the birth of Aphrodite and the Furies. But others say their father is the Acheron river and their mother is Sterope, a name also used by one of the Pleiades and a daughter of the sun.
Later, they became daughters of the sea God Phorcus/Phorcys, “the hidden dangers of the deep.” They sit on islands named for flowers with rocky shores and rapid waters that rush musically, singing and calling. Sailors say if anyone hears them and survives, the Sirens will turn to stone or die, raising the question of how the sailors knew the Sirens existed in the first place. Others say when the Sirens lost their contest with the Muses, they fell into the sea and became islands of white rock covered in wild flowers.
The Sirens have two more sets of parents. In the sky are Zeus and
Hera, the God of thunder and the Queen of heaven whose mane of hair stretches across the storm clouds. Closer to the ground are Dionysus and Coronis. Dionysus is a hidden earthly version of Zeus. Coronis is a nymph who may disguise Hera when mentioning the old Goddess by name would reveal far too many buried secrets. Hera once coaxed the Sirens into a song contest with the Muses. When the Sirens lost, they turned white, once again mirroring the Furies. The Muses took the Sirens’ wing feathers to weave into crowns; for inspiration perhaps. Yet after all this, Hera still appears holding the Sirens in her hands, honoring her inspiring little song birds.

Names, Names, Names
Single Sirens are unnamed aulos or lyre players. Their solos echo calls to initiation mysteries.
As pairs, the Sirens create harmonies with the aulos and the lyre. Their various names refer to glory or splendor and enchantment; Aglaopheme of the “splendid voice,” Aglaophonos the “glorious sounding,” Thelxiope who is “persuasive,” Thelxiepeia of the “enchanting words” and Thelchtereia the “soothing watcher or enchantress.”
Siren trios play aulos and lyre and sing in a mixed consort of traditions. They are the daughters of the Muse Melpomene and the horned river God Achelous, but there are two different versions of these three. One set of triplets have names that Aphrodite would approve: Peisinoe the “seductive”, Aglaope the “glorious voice” and Thelxinoe the “enchanting voice.” The other three sisters have names that Artemis might claim: Ligeia the “bright voice,” Leucosia the “white Goddess/substance,” and Parthenope the “virginal/maiden voice.”  It cannot be a coincidence that Aphrodite gave the Sirens wings when they said they wanted to be virgins, like Artemis, forever. Parthenope in particular seems to cross the boundary between these two differing Goddesses. At her tomb, torch races were held in her honor every year, a tradition of Artemis and Hecate. And she was a bird Goddess in her own right, sharing Aphrodite’s doves and swans.
The Sirens also gather in flocks, promising to tell all the stories in the world, if you will just stop your life for a moment or two. Some borrow the earlier names and others add yet more names to the list. Peisthoe the “seductive”, Pisinoe who “affects the mind,” Teles who is “perfection,” Raidne who “improves" or "sprinkles water,” Himerope whose “voice creates desire” and Molpe and her “song and dance” all spin round each other like feathers in a breeze.
And Plato tells us that there are eight Sirens, named for the scale tones, who each sing one note in perfect harmony with the spheres of the sky. The star loving Centaurs forgot to eat and starved when they heard these Sirens turning the secrets of the universe into music.

Soothing Sirens
Persephone, the Muses and the Sirens grew up together. When Persephone was carried off by Hades, the Sirens asked Demeter for wings so they could search the world for their friend. But when the Sirens wouldn’t or couldn’t tell Demeter where her daughter had gone, she bound them to the earth Persephone had vanished into.
Yet after all this, the Sirens settled into places of honor in front of Persephone’s throne. They used their music to ease the fear and pain of death and guide underworld travelers through the maze of their own souls. Persephone even sent the Sirens flying back out into the world, their wings fuller than ever, carrying her blessings. And whispers began that their true mother was Chthonia, “the depths of the earth,” bringing us back round to the story of the Sirens springing out of Gaia, the earth itself.

The Sirens are the Muses who inspire Muses. The ones who make the music of the earth, sky and sea. They are the overwhelming, uncontrollable side of inspiration that awes and terrifies us. They created the steps of the scale and accidentals. They are the sweetest possible antidote to loss, sorrow and fear of the unknown.
Nest and Red Buds
see The Muse Contest for more on the Muses.

Ovid's Metamorphoses
Hesiod's Theogony
Women of Classical Mythology by Robert E. Bell
The Gods of the Greeks by Kerenyi