This painting, by the British artist John William Waterhouse (c. 1849–1917), depicts one of the famous obstacles faced by Odysseus (a name Latinized to Ulysses) during his famous journey home after the Trojan War. In the artwork above, Odysseus and his crew face off against the Sirens. Whereas other artists of Waterhouse’s age painted Sirens as mermaids or seductive seaside nymphs, John William Waterhouse instead decided to opt for the traditional bird-woman style of Sirens that can be found on ancient Greek pottery.
In the prelude to the scene above, Odysseus had been warned of the Sirens by the goddess, Circe. Together, the goddess and the Greek hero formulated a plan that would keep the human crew safe, but would also allow Odysseus, himself, the rare chance to hear the legendary singing of the sirens. Their plan was for the crewmen to plug their ears with wax, whereas Odysseus—without any deafening plugs—would have himself tied to the mast, so as to hear the Sirens’ voices without being able to be lured off the ship to his death. Odysseus explained this plan to his crew, saying, “You must bind me very tight, standing me up against the step of the mast and lashed to the mast itself so that I cannot stir from the spot. And if I beg and command you to release me, you must tighten and add to my bonds” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 12, approximately line 160). They put this plan to action, and it worked out flawlessly. As is shown in Waterhouse’s painting, Odysseus and his crew rowed past the Sirens without hindrance. Although Odysseus—hit by the full force of the singing—pleaded and gestured as best as he could to be untied from the mast, his ear-plugged crew only tightened his bonds and kept rowing, eventually leaving the Sirens behind them.
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.