Arts & Tradition

The Sirens and How We Can Keep on Course

Reaching within: What traditional art offers the heart
BY Eric Bess TIMEJuly 31, 2019 PRINT

Have you ever wanted something you knew was not good for you? I think the answer for most of us is a resounding yes. A taste of the forbidden can seem to spice up an otherwise boring situation, but the forbidden can also lead to devastating consequences. 

Book 12 of Homer’s “Odyssey” might provide some wisdom for dealing with the forbidden. The story is summed up as follows: Circe, a goddess of magic and nature, informs our protagonist, Odysseus (also known as Ulysses), that he and his crew would have to sail past a group of sirens

Sirens are dangerous creatures that use their beautiful singing to lure sailors to their doom: a shipwreck. Circe instructs Odysseus that he must prepare wax to plug his men’s ears, but she encourages Odysseus to listen to the sirens’ songs as long as he is bound and tied to the mast of the ship. 

Odysseus does as he is instructed: He has his crew tie him to the mast, he tells his crew not to release him no matter how much he may beg and plead, and he has his crew plug their ears with wax.

They see the bones and rotten flesh of dead sailors on the shores as they sail past the sirens. The sirens begin to sing to Odysseus. They tell him how great he is and offer to reveal the mysteries of life to him. He begs his crew to untie him but they refuse. They successfully pass the sirens, and Odysseus gets to experience the beauty of the siren song without anyone getting hurt.

John William Waterhouse’s Sirens

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), a Pre-Raphaelite painter, created a beautiful representation of this scene titled “Ulysses and the Sirens.” Waterhouse depicts the crew members with scarves wrapped around their heads to prevent them from hearing the sirens’ songs. He depicts the sirens as having the bodies of birds and the heads of women. 

The sirens swarm over the crew and sing their songs. One is even perched on the ship, attempting to sing to a specific crew member. Odysseus, however, stands out the most. He is tied to the mast of the ship, and the white of his shirt against the dark of the background makes him the focal point of the painting. He leans forward as if in want of the sirens’ songs, but he is tied firmly in place on the mast. 

This painting had a partisan reception. Some believed Waterhouse used the depiction of sirens on a fifth-century Greek vase as a reference for the depiction of his own sirens. Others believed he completely created an image of sirens that was far removed from the description in the “Odyssey.” 

Either way, the 19th- and 20th-century interpretation of the story concerned itself with the dangers that the allure of the feminine could have on its masculine counterpart.  


“The Siren Vase,” fifth century B.C., by the Siren Painter; Vulci, Greece. Earthenware, height: 13 ¾ inches. British Museum, London. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Resisting Temptation

Can we delve deeper into the content for a richer interpretation? How can we interpret this episode in such a way that it may prove beneficial for our modern times? Let’s look to Waterhouse’s painting for help. Odysseus is the most important element in the painting, but why? 

He is bound to the mast—to wood, to earth. Only his head is separated from the mast in its attempt to move toward the sirens’ song. We human beings, at least for our short stay here, are also bound to the earth and what it provides. Our minds, however, can transcend our earthly cares to experience something deeper and purer. 

Our minds are important here. We can even think of Odysseus as the mind of the ship and the crew as its body. The mind must instruct the body to prepare itself for those dangerous things that are seemingly beautiful lest they both face destruction. 

This is not to say that our bodies are not important. What is most interesting here is the mind’s inability to resist the sirens’ songs without the help of the body. The body helps prepare for the resistance of temptation and its resulting dangers. 

Let me explain what I mean: If we are experiencing cravings for what might eventually harm us, that is, cigarettes, alcohol, or playing video games instead of studying, it may be beneficial to exercise, take a walk, or meditate until the cravings subside. The body is a responsive participant and helps the mind in its efforts to resist temptation. 

If the mind and body are not working together, the mind can wish to resist temptation but without success. We instead find ourselves in that familiar moment where our minds repeat, “I will not do this,” but our bodies move toward temptation out of habit; or our bodies are exhausted from giving in to temptation and have had enough, but our minds continue to give in “just one more time.”

So, the mind and body must work together to resist temptation and avoid potential danger. The mind must break through the habits that disconnect the body from the mind, and the body can inform the mind when engaging in specific activities that have a negative effect.

But what influences both mind and body? Circe, a goddess. It is a goddess who instructs Odysseus, who then instructs the crew. The spirit—the soul—informs the mind, and the mind informs the body. The three work together to resist temptation and avoid danger.

Waterhouse, through Homer, is suggesting for us to look within, reflect on the wisdom of our own spirits, consult our hearts and minds, and prepare our bodies to resist the dangers of desires and temptations. Maybe, if we’re diligent, we will experience the intensity of the beautiful mysteries of life without hurting ourselves or others.   

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I will explore in my series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).  

Eric Bess
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).
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