This painting, created by the American artist Thomas Moran (1837–1926), depicts one of the famous obstacles faced by Odysseus (a name Latinized to Ulysses) during his famous journey home after the Trojan War. It is Odysseus’ ship that is depicted on the left side of the painting, seen floating on the horizon. At the opposite end of the painting, standing in a deceptively pleasant meadow, are the Sirens—formidable monsters who were known to use beautiful singing to lure sailors to their deaths. Traditionally, sirens were depicted as bird-women in ancient Greece, but by the time Thomas Moran painted his scene, it was common for Sirens to be depicted in art as mermaids or simply as humanoid figures lounging on the shore. Moran, as is evident from the image above, chose the latter option, and placed his Sirens on dry ground, with no bird or mermaid attributes to be seen.
Homer, the great Greek poet who flourished around 700 BCE, described the danger of the Sirens in a speech that he wrote for the character, Circe. She told Odysseus:
“There is no homecoming for the man who draws near them unawares and hears the Sirens’ voices; no welcome from his wife, no little children brightening at their father’s return. For with their high clear song the Sirens bewitch him, as they sit there in a meadow piled high with the mouldering skeletons of men, whose withered skin still hangs upon their bones” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 12, approximately lines 40-50).
Due to Circe’s forewarning and advice, Odysseus and his crew were able to survive the Sirens. Plugging their ears with wax, the sailors successfully counteracted the tempting beckons of the Sirens. Odysseus, however, wanted to hear the deadly song, and he succeeded in his gamble by having himself tied to the ship’s mast as they sailed past the Sirens’ lair.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.