In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, the cunning king of Ithaca, is advised by the enchantress Circe about how best to avoid shipwreck. The concern is not the skill of his crew. The danger comes from the voices of the Sirens. These mythical creatures were said to possess voices so sweet that sailors would be compelled to turn the ship in the direction of the music, and the ship would crash on the rocky shore. Following Circe’s recommendation, Odysseus stuffs his sailors’ ears with wax, ties himself to the mast of his ship, hears the mellifluous tones of the Sirens, and lives to tell the tale with his ship intact. He does not, however, see these creatures.
A lack of reliable eye-witness accounts from Siren encounters like Odysseus’ doubtless contributed to the inconsistent representation of the precise biological composition of these hybrid monsters in textual sources. Classical and late antique sources describe the Siren as being half-woman and half-bird. Manuscript painters working from this tradition, like the artist of this Bestiary housed in the Getty Museum, depict the top half of the Siren as an especially beautiful, always naked, woman, and the bottom half as something resembling a leggy chicken (image below).
By the tenth century, however, the Siren is more often depicted as a beautiful woman from the waste up, but as a fish, rather than a chicken, from the waist down—much like the mermaid, a species for which Sirens are often confused and occasionally conflated. Sometimes, but not always, Sirens are depicted with two tails, such as the Siren in this woodcut from the late fifteenth-century encyclopedic text, Hortus Sanitatis (image below). The double-tailed Siren may look quite familiar. Those of us addicted to coffee might understand why a well-known coffee chain would choose the Siren as its logo. For several of us, resisting the seductive aroma of a freshly brewed cup might require being tied to a mast.
Regardless of how many fish tails were included, medieval images of sirens retained the classical association of seduction, and in addition, they adopted a further association with vanity. This later symbolic connotation is why an unknown miniaturist, working in Northern France, skillfully painted a Siren at the bottom of the calendar page for January in this illuminated Book of Hours (below). Like the half-bird Siren from the Getty Bestiary (above), the half-fish Siren in the Book of Hours from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division is holding a mirror.
Mirrors can be symbols of holy contemplation, which would be a positive association for this historical period; however, in this composition, the rhetorical purpose of the symbol is closer to the mirrored, self-consumed gaze of Narcissus, whose life became consumed by his own reflection. Using the mirror, the Siren in this beautifully illuminated Book of Hours provides the viewer with a classical reminder about the seductive but ultimately vacuous power of self-referential thoughts and actions. Should anyone still be looking for inspiration for a New Years’ resolution this year, the staff in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division recommend consulting the inhabited borders of illuminated manuscripts.
Dorofeeva, Anna. ‘The siren: a medieval identity crisis’, Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Forschung und Rezeptionsgeschichte, 16 May 2014, http://mittelalter.hypotheses.org/3612.
Mustard, Wilfred P. 1908. “Siren-Mermaid.” Modern Language Notes 23 (1): 21–24.
“Siren.” The Medieval Bestiary. Updated November 2, 2023, https://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast246.htm
Tandjung, Beverly. “The Enchantress of the Medieval Bestiary” Iris Blog. Getty Museum. May 11, 2018, https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-enchantress-of-the-medieval-bestiary/.
Van Duzer, Chet. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. London: British Library. 2013.
Waugh, Arthur. “The Folklore of the Merfolk.” Folklore 71 (2): 73–84. 1960.
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