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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Song of the Sirens!

‘Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory—
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!
Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft
until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips,
and once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that Achaeans and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!’
boat, bondage, collage, collage art, contemporary art, greek mythology, island, man, odysseus, sea, ship, shipmast, Song of the Sirens, the odyssey
"Song of the Sirens" Leslie Peterson Sapp 16"x20" Collage painting on panel
So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.


Although this is one of the most well known episodes of The Odyssey, it is surprisingly short. If you want to know the context of the story and some analysis, you can visit cliffnotes.com here.
"Ulysse et les sirènes" Pablo Picasso, 1947
"Ulysse et les sirènes" Pablo Picasso, 1947
The goddess Circe, Odysseus’ sometime seductress, sometime ally warns him of the dangers of passing the Island of the Sirens.

The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him,
lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses,
rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones …
Race straight past that coast!

She gives him a plan to safely pass, knowing that Odysseus himself will not be able to resist his own curiosity:

Soften some beeswax
and stop your shipmates’ ears so none can hear,
none of the crew, but if you are bent on hearing,
have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship,
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast
so you can hear the Sirens’ song to your heart’s content.
But if you plead, commanding your men to set you free,
then they must lash you faster, rope on rope.

In the Victorian era, there was really only one way that a painter could depict nudity or sexual themes, and that was to base the painting on some kind of pre-Christian mythology. So this story of the Sirens was used again and again to show The Sirens as sexual temptresses, bent on snaring innocent seafaring men to their death.
 "La Sirena" Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1893, The Sirens
"La Sirena" Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1893
"The Sirens and Ulysses" William Etty, 1837, The Song of the Sirens, the Odyssey, greek mythology
"The Sirens and Ulysses" William Etty, 1837

"The Sirens and Ulysses" Herbert James Draper, 1909, The Odyssey, TheSirens, greek mythology
"The Sirens and Ulysses" Herbert James Draper, 1909 
The theme of woman as temptress is one that inspired Max Beckmann again and again. (He is one of my favorite painters, but sometimes his obsession with this is something I have to look past!) His painting gave me the idea of placing Odysseus in the foreground. I wished to place more emphasis on Odysseus’ ordeal, rather than the seductive forms of The Sirens.
"Odysseus and the Sirens" Max Beckmann, 1933,The Odyssey, The Sirens, greek mythology
"Odysseus and the Sirens" Max Beckmann, 1933
While I think that this story taps into a universal truth of temptation, I tend to think of it as a temptation of ego, rather than exclusively about sexual temptation. If you hear their words, they are not just seductive women. They flatter Odysseus’ ego, calling him “remarkable” or ‘famous”, “Achaea’s pride and glory” and a “great chief”. Plus they promise knowledge and wisdom, and they lie, claiming he will be able to leave once he gets his fill of information. But, of course, he would never get his fill, and would have simply wasted away, listening to their flattery, unable to let go of their ego. 
The Siren Vase, red-figured stamnos, 480BC-470BC, The Odyssey, greek mythology, the sirens, greek vase painting
The Siren Vase, red-figured stamnos, 480BC-470BC