The Odyssey is an ancient Greek tale attributed to the poet Homer. It tells the story of Odysseus (called Ulysses by the Romans) as he returns home after the Trojan War.
On his long voyage he encounters many challenges, including the Sirens – a group of sea nymphs held captive on a rocky island, who lure sailors to their deaths with the beauty of their song.
Ulysses was keen to hear the Sirens’ song, which was thought to bestow wisdom on the listener. So he enlisted the help of the goddess Circe. She told him to fill his sailors’ ears with wax and have them tie him to the ship’s mast. No one was to untie him, no matter how hard he begged.
As they approached the Sirens’ island, the sea was calm and there came the sound of music so entrancing that Ulysses begged to be released. The sailors – obedient to his earlier orders or simply unable to hear him – bound him tighter.
They held their course until the music faded away and the ship was safe. Some versions of the story say that the Sirens, in grief and rage, threw themselves into the water and were drowned.
Homer doesn’t describe the Sirens’ appearance, although in early Greek art they are often shown as birds with scaly feet and lions’ manes. Later they appear as human figures with the legs and wings of birds. In the nineteenth century, the Sirens were shown mainly as Etty has depicted them – beautiful women with bodies as seductive as their voices.
Etty probably used Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer for inspiration:
“Next, where the Sirens dwell, you plough the seas;
their song is death, and makes destruction please
(in verdant meads they sport) and wide around
lie human bones that whiten all the ground.
The ground polluted floats with human gore
and human carnage taints the dreadful shore.
Fly swift the dangerous coast: let every ear
be stopp’d against the song! ’tis death to hear!”
Alexander Pope, 1725