Siren

Female Merbeing of Southern Europe.

Etymology: From the Greek seiren, uncertain origin.

Variant names: Drac (in medieval Provence), Sirène (French), Syren.

Physical description: In early Greek art, portrayed as a composite creature with the head and bust of a woman and the body and claws of a bird. Homer's Odyssey (ninth century? B.C.) doesn't mention the Siren's form. Beginning in the Age of Alexander (300 B.C.), it began to lose its bird shape, and by the Middle Ages, it was described as having a fish's tail. By the end of the twelfth century, the Siren was considered synonymous with the MERMAID.

Behavior: Magical voice. Seductive. Lures sailors to death by its sweet singing. Presages a storm.

Distribution: Greece and southern Italy, especially Sicily and Capri.

Possible explanation: The sixteenth-century Italian naturalist Ulisse Androvandi thought that Homer's Siren was the Nightingale (Lusce-nia megarhynchos), widely considered in antiquity to have the most melodious song of any European bird; the song consists of liquid and vibrating trills, a rapid sequence of "chook" notes, a slow "piu piu," and a final crescendo. Perhaps some sailors hearing the melody ventured too close to the rocky shore and perished.

Sources: Homer, The Odyssey, trans. E. V. Rieu, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 180, 183-185 (xii. 39-52, 158-198); Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, trans. R. C. Seaton (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912), iv. 885-921; Paul Sébillot, Contes des marins (Paris: G. Charpentier, 1882); T. H. White, The Bestiary: A Book ofBeasts (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1960), pp. 134-135; Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh, Sea Enchantress (London: Hutchinson, 1961), pp. 41-48, 53-54, 189-194; Claude Gaignebet and Jean-Dominique Lajoux, Art profane et religion populaire au Moyen Age (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1985), pp. 137-151; Meri Lao, Sirens: Symbols of Seduction (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1999).

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