Sirens

This animation tells the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades and the Sirens' transformation.

 

 

 

The story was developed by pupils from Kendrick School, Reading.

about the animation

This animation follows the tradition in which Persephone’s handmaidens are turned into Sirens as a punishment.  Ears of wheat spring up where Demeter walks to demonstrate her fertility goddess role as the bringer of crops.  The Sirens are swept from the meadows where they walked with Persephone to a distant shore where they wait for passing sailors.

Persephone’s handmaidens were created by making alterations to the two male figures who stand beside the siren on the vase; their robes were expanded and more hair was added.  Persephone was created by alterations to the handmaiden figures.  As she is a goddess associated with youth, she was made to look younger than the attendants, with long hair visible and a sleeveless dress.  Demeter is made to look like an older version of Persephone, so that they look like mother and daughter.  She wears a diadem and other jewellery to signify her high status.

about the myth

The Sirens were mythical creatures with beautiful singing voices.  They were attractive and horrific at the same time, with the faces of girls but the bodies of birds.  They were thought to live on a distant, flowery island and to have special knowledge of the human world.  They used their magical song, with its promise of knowledge, to lure sailors to their island, where the sailors would die, entranced by their music.

© Trustees of the British Museum.

BM 1843.1103.31

The pyxis vase below, made in Corinth, c. 600-675BCE, would have been used to store cosmetics.  It shows a beautiful pair of sirens.

© Trustees of the British Museum.

BM 1851.0507.7

The Sirens make their most famous appearance in the Odyssey, in which Odysseus is warned that 'there is no homecoming for the man draws near them unawares and hears the Sirens’ voices’. (Odyssey, 12.39-54).  When Odysseus has to sail past their island, he stops up his crew’s ears so they can’t hear, and has himself bound to the mast so that he may hear without dooming himself by stopping on their island (Od. 12.158-200).

Developing the Sirens' link with death and forgetfulness as well as music, Euripides has Helen call out to Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, to send sirens to her to share her grief: 'Winged maidens, virgin daughters of Earth, the Sirens, may you come to my mourning with Libyan flute or pipe or lyre, tears to match my plaintive woes; grief for grief and mournful chant for chant, may Persephone send choirs of death in harmony with my lamentation,’ (see Euripides, Helen, 167-178).

Some traditions said that the Sirens had once been Persephone’s handmaidens.  One of the most important ancient Greek myths told how Hades, god of the Underworld, carried off Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, as she picked flowers.  Nothing would grow during Demeter’s grief-stricken search for her daughter, so life on earth was faced with destruction.  Eventually, Persephone came to live on the surface for half the year and in the Underworld for the other.

This offers an explanation of the seasons (with plants flourishing only during Persephone’s time amongst the living), as well as helping to express other aspects of rejuvenation and life cycles.  The Homeric Hymn to Demeter has the outstanding version of this myth.  According to Ovid, a Roman writing in the late 1st century BCE/early 1st CE, Persephone’s handmaidens asked to be turned into birds to help them find her (Metamorphoses, 5.552+).

Another version of the myth, written in the 2nd century CE, says that Demeter turned them into Sirens as a punishment, because they didn’t protect Persephone when Hades struck. (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 141).

The Odyssey gives no lineage for the Sirens, but later works flesh out their story.  Some traditions made them the daughters of Phorcys, who was also father to the Gorgons  (Sophocles, frag.861).  Others said that their father was Achelaüs, the river god famous for wrestling Heracles.  Euripides has Chthon (earth), as their mother, while others cite Terpsichore, one of the Muses (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.892 ff, linked text in Greek).

Even in antiquity, people referred to sirens figuratively.  The orator, Aeschines, complained in court that his rival, Demosthenes, had been comparing him to a siren – implying that he had sweet words that brought his listeners to destruction.  (Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon, 3.228)

storyboard

Kendrick school pupils' storyboard compared frame-by-frame with the animation

vase details

Attic, black figure lekythos depicting a siren and two human onlookers.  High Archaic, c.550-525BCE.

Ure Museum (Accession Number: 38.4.8).

music

The track on this animation is called Akousate~Argos – or 'Listen! People of Argos’.  We felt that it  helped to evoke the haunting sounds of the sea around the Sirens' island.

The track was created by ancient music specialist Professor Conrad Steinmann of Melpomen.  Find out more about ancient music through our blog post on the subject, and in interview with Prof. Steinmann.

further reading

G.K. Gresseth, 'The Homeric Sirens’, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.101, (1970) pp.203-218

Homeric Hymn 2, To Demeter

E. Kunze, in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologique Classicae (LIMC), Vol. 6.1 (1992), 962ff

J. Neils, 'Les femmes fatales: Skylla and the Sirens in Greek Art’ in B. Cohen (ed.), The Distaff Side: Representing the Female on Homer’s 'Odyssey’ (1995, OUP)

© Ure Museum (38.4.8)

follow-up activities

1)  Ask your pupils to storyboard a sailor’s encounter with the Sirens.

2)  As we’ve seen, in some versions of the myth the handmaidens are transformed on request, while in others it is done as a punishment.  Ask them to consider and discuss which version they prefer, and why.

3)  After watching the animation together, read the relevant passages of the Odyssey.  The Sirens tempt Odysseus claiming that they can make him wiser and revealing that they know who he is and all that happened at Troy.  Ask your pupils to pick a figure from public life; ask them to consider what the Sirens would sing to flatter and tempt that person.

Ure Discovery

Ure Discovery was an innovative Arts Council funded project run at the University of Reading’s Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology in 2013.

Steve worked with staff and students at the University of Reading helping local secondary school groups interpret and respond to the Ure Museum collection.

The pupils created stories, storyboards, and other artwork based on a selection of vases and each storyboard was transformed into an animation made from images of the vase which inspired it.  Ancient art, digital artistry, and teenage imagination combine to retell ancient myths and present new stories.  The Ure Discovery and Ure View animations can be seen alongside their vases via a tablet trail that visitors can take around the museum.

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