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Headword: *seirh=nas
Adler number: sigma,280
Translated headword: Sirens
Vetting Status: high
[sc. Sirens were] women with lyric voices who, in bygone Greek myth, dwelled on a small island and so enticed passing sailors with their beautiful voices that crews steered in and perished there. From their chests up they had the form of sparrows,[1] below they were women.
Mythologers[2] say that they were little birds with women's faces who beguiled sailors as they passed by, bewitching with lewd songs the hearing of those harkening to them. And the song of pleasure has no good consequence, only death.[3] But the truth of the matter is this, that there are narrow straits in the sea created by certain mountains in which the compressed rush of water sends up a sort of melodious lilt;[4] when those who sail by hear it, they trust their lives to the rushing water and perish, with crews and ships. The so-called sirens[5] and ass-centaurs[6] in Isaiah are demons prophesied in such forms to occupy a city destroyed by God's wrath.[7] But the Syrians say that they are swans; for they will bathe, then lofting themselves out of the water and through the air,[8] they sing a sweet song. So Job says, "I have become a brother of sirens, a companion of ostriches;"[9] that is, I sing my own misfortunes, as sirens do. He refers to these sirens as "strouthoi" [ostriches], which we call "strouthokamelos" [alternative term for ostrich], a bird with the feet and neck of an ass.[10]
Also in the Epigrams: "and that talking [is] sweeter than that of Sirens."[11]
Names of Sirens: Thelxiepeia, Peisinoe, Ligeia;[12] Anthemousa the island they inhabited.[13]
Greek Original:
*seirh=nas: gunai=ka/s tinas eu)fw/nous gegenh=sqai mu=qos pri\n *(ellhniko/s, ai(/ tines e)n nhsi/w| kaqezo/menai ou(/tws e)/terpon tou\s paraple/ontas dia\ th=s eu)fwni/as, w(/ste kate/xein e)kei= me/xri qana/tou. ei)=xon de\ a)po\ me\n tou= qw/rakos kai\ a)/nw ei)=dos strouqw=n, ta\ de\ ka/tw gunaikw=n. oi( muqolo/goi *seirh=nas fasi\ qhlupro/swpa/ tina o)rni/qia ei)=nai, a)patw=nta tou\s paraple/ontas, a)/|smasi/ tisi pornikoi=s khlou=nta ta\s a)koa\s tw=n a)krowme/nwn. kai\ te/los e)/xei th=s h(donh=s h( w)|dh\ e(/teron me\n ou)de\n xrhsto/n, qa/naton de\ mo/non. o( de\ a)lhqh\s lo/gos tou=to bou/letai, ei)=nai to/pous tina\s qalatti/ous, o)/resi/ tisin e)stenwme/nous, e)n oi(=s qlibo/menon to\ r(ei=qron ligura/n tina fwnh\n a)podi/dwsin: h(=s e)pakou/ontes oi( paraple/ontes e)mpisteu/ousi ta\s e(autw=n yuxa\s tw=| r(eu/mati kai\ au)/tandroi su\n tai=s nausi\n a)po/lluntai. ai( de\ para\ tw=| *)hsai/+a| ei)rhme/nai *seirh=nes kai\ *)onoke/ntauroi dai/mone/s tine/s ei)sin, ou(/tw xrhmatizo/menoi e)p' e)rhmi/a| po/lews, h(/tis xo/lw| qeou= gi/netai. oi( de\ *su/roi tou\s ku/knous fasi\n ei)=nai. kai\ ga\r ou(=toi lousa/menoi kai\ a)napta/ntes e)k tou= u(/datos kai\ tou= a)e/ros h(du/ ti me/los a)/|dousin. o( ou)=n *)iw\b le/gei, a)delfo\s ge/gona *seirh/nwn, e(tai=ros de\ strouqw=n. toute/stin a)/|dw ta\s e)mautou= sumfora/s, w(/sper *seirh=nes. strouqou\s de\ le/gei, o(\n h(mei=s strouqoka/mhlon le/gomen, o)/rneon me\n o)/nta, po/das de\ kai\ tra/xhlon o)/nou kekthme/non. kai\ e)n *)epigra/mmasi: kai\ to\ la/lhma kei=no to\ *seirh/nwn gluku/teron. o)no/mata *seirh/nwn: *qelcie/peia, *peisino/h, *ligei/a: h( de\ nh=sos h(\n katw/|koun *)anqemou=sa.
The headword is accusative plural, evidently quoted from somewhere. The first paragraph of the lengthy gloss is also in the Synagoge (sigma41) and Photius' Lexicon (sigma117 Theodoridis); similarly in Hesychius sigma348.
The Sirens (OCD(4) s.v.; RE 5A, 288-308) are best known to us from the two who sing to Odysseus, bound to his mast to avoid their seduction, in Homer's Odyssey (12.158-200, cf. 39-54, web address 1, web address 2), and from those overpowered by Orpheus in Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica (4.891-919). Their treatment interests scholars today for what it says about attitudes to women in antiquity (see Cohen, Doherty). They are a very common type in ancient art from the 8th. Century B.C. onwards (see LIMC vols. 8 and, with Odysseus, 6; Neils, Leclercq-Marx, Coquin), usually with a bird's body (see note 1) and woman's head and chest, the reverse of this entry. No physical description of them is given in Homer. Euripides describes them as winged (Helen 167, web address 3); this becomes generalized in the iconography (e.g. web address 4). He also describes their songs as mournful (cf. note 9).
The myth was variously explained in antiquity, either from natural phenomena, as here (cf. Eustathius, see bibliography), or as an allegory (see Coquin, Buffière, Wedner, Rahner, Buschor). There are four general classes of allegory that provide explication:
(i) The Sirens are female monsters who seduce the soul from its purpose by songs promising either knowledge and fame (alpha 4402, cf. Segal ch.5) or pleasure beyond the normal. They were perhaps originally the souls of the dead menacing those still alive (Weicker, Germain 382ff., Buffière 475).
(ii) They represent all dangers posed to men by the sexuality and love songs of loose women (see the excellent treatment and references, esp. to the Byzantine tradition, in Courcelle), cf. the proverb here, "The song of pleasure leads to no good, only death."
(iii) As companions to Persephone (Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 4.896-98), they are angels of death (cf. Proclus, in Cratylum, 239.7-12) who, either after death (Plutarch, Quaestiones conviviales 745D-E) or before, summon the soul of the wise man to leave behind the corporeal world for its spiritual home (Buffière 473-81). They also are responsible for the music of the spheres (sigma 281).
(iv) They represent the attraction, in a positive sense, of superior knowledge (Cicero, de Finibus 5.48ff.; Eustathius 1708.50; Coquin 70-74).
The concept of Siren continued to evolve in Judeo-Christian hermeneutics (See notes 5, 7, and 9 below; cf. Courcelle, Leclercq, Rahner, Coquin) and in literature. J.B. Bossuet in his Maxims and Reflexions on Comedy described the stars of his day as, "These sirens, who make their homes in the temples of pleasure, whose regard is deadly, and who receive from every side, through the applause they are given, the very poison that they spread by their singing." The "Siren song" (sigma 282) was not always regarded as a danger; it gradually became a term for any beautiful song sung to instrumental accompaniment by a female musician (cf. the citation here from Paulus the Silentarius). The phrase proved a challenge to modern composers and popular novelists.
The Greek term for Siren is not to be confused with the homonymic accusative seirh/n (seirh/ or "cord") in (e.g.) sigma 278 and chi 564 -- (a) golden cord: Plato says that the sun is described by Homer in this way (Plato, Theaetetus 153C-D, referring to Homer, Iliad 8.19).
[1] The word strouqo/s, traditionally translated "sparrow", is used for a pet bird of antiquity associated with Aphrodite. The word may be generic for any bird representing Aphrodite. It was later used for the ostrich, otherwise strouqoka/mhlos (lambda 497), the bird used by the Hebrew prophets to evoke the prophesied desolation of Babylon and Edom (see notes 5 and 7 below).
[2] The word muqo/logos here means 'interpreter of myth' rather than 'writer of myth'.
[3] Literally, "And the song of pleasure has as its outcome, besides nothing good, only death." See also Prefatory Comments.
[4] For this sense of ligura/, see LSJ as applied to the Sirens and to birds. See Homer, Odyssey 12, for commensurate descriptions of the Sirens' song (e.g., crying beauty, sweet airs, lovely voices, haunting song).
[5] Isaiah 13.21, 34.13, 43.20 (see KJV, RSV and the Vulgate of these passages). The Hebrew word for a female ostrich is יַעֲנָה ya'anâh, probably derived from its reputation for voracity (Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 419: y'n et seq.). The Septuagint's substitution of siren for ostrich is attributable to both figures being associated with death and desolation, as in the Isaiah verses cited above and Homer, Odyssey 12.39ff. As we are told by Origen (Fragm. in Lamentationes 96) and Basil (Enarratio in Isaiam 13.275.29ff.), respectively, Symmachus and Aquila of Pontus used the correct translation "ostriches" in their Greek versions, collated by Origen in his Hexapla (omega 182 note 33; R.E. Brown et al., The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 1990, 1094.83-86; epsilon 542). For these, see also Hatch and Redpath, 1297; but also 1262 for variants.
[6] The term is a neologism of the Septuagint (Lust, II.333). These creatures occur in Septuagintal Isaiah in the same contexts as sirens (13.22, 34.11, 34.14; cf. note 5) and at Hesychius omicron905. According to Aelian (NA 17.9) they (in the feminine) were tailless apes.
[7] In the first two passages cited above, Isaiah prophesies that ostriches (in the Hebrew, or sirens in the Greek) will inhabit Babylon or Edom after their desolation. In the third, they are inhabitants of desolate Babylon who will honor God during Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. The literal sense of the participial phrase is: "in this manner are they prophesied in connection with a city's desolation brought about by God's wrath." For this sense of xrhmatizo/menoi, see Lust, II.519; Danker, 1089.1b; this is a Judeo-Christian application--an expansion on the citations at web address 5).
[8] The phrase implies that they flew up through the lower a)h/r into the aether, the "ethereal" region of the upper atmosphere immediately below the heavens, through which, in ancient belief, gods moved to visit men and, in the Christian belief, human souls attained the kingdom of God. Compare Dante's image of lower air "mists" (so, a)h/r; LSJ) in the Purgatorio, Canto 2 with that of "luminous air" (so, ai)qh/r; LSJ) when nearing Heaven in the Purgatorio, Canto 29. The myth of the "swan song" was widespread, usually of a song accompanying their death, as is implied but not expressed here. The Sirens were associated with swans in Greek art.
[9] See note 1. Job 30.29 is accurately rendered from the Hebrew by Crenshaw (NRSV, 782), "I am a brother of jackals, and a companion of ostriches." Brenton (687) translates the LXX, "I am become a brother of monsters (footnoting, "sirens"), and a companion of ostriches (strouqw=n)." The KJV mistranslates, "I am a brother to dragons, and companion to owls" (for "ostriches"). For additional LXX references to sirens in the context of lamentation. The Siren's song as one of lamentation is found in a Sophoclean fragment (OCD) and in Euripides' Helen (167-73, web address 4), and is reinforced in Christian allegory.
[10] See note 1.
[11] Greek Anthology 5.241.6-7 (Paulus the Silentiarius).
[12] Respectively, "enchanting singer, mind controller, sweet sounding." Eustathius says that they were two, as in Homer and most art, named Thelxiepeia and Aglaopheme ("splendid, prophetic voice from heaven"), but later Lycophron and others made them three, Parthenope ("maiden face", of whom there was a statue in Naples, nu 115), Ligeia and Leucosia ("bright, clear voice"). Aristotle apparently, in a passage cited perhaps inexactly by John the Lydian (On Months/De mensibus fr. incert. 4.7; cf. OCD(4) 873), named the three as Thelxiepeia, Aglaopheme and Pasinoe ("omniscient", see OCD for this attribute).
[13] According to the scholia on Homer, Odyssey 12.39, they were banished by Aphrodite, after they took a vow of eternal virginity, to an island of this name in the Tyrrhenian Sea west of Italy (cf. Eustathius). The three islets Parthenope, Leukosia and Ligeia that made up the "Siren islands" *seirh/nousai (Strabo 1.12.2ff.; Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnica 559) are today identified with Li Galli, SW of Positano. This would fit with the traditional geography of Odysseus' wanderings. Anthemousa 'flowery' (cf. Homer's 'flowery meadow' at Odyssey 12.159) was also the ancient name for the island of Samos.
Brown, F., Driver, S.R., and Briggs, C.A. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University, 1951
Danker, F.W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000
Hatch, E. and Redpath, H.A. A Concordance to the Septuagint and Other Greek Versions of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998
LIMC = Lexicon Iconographum Mythologiae Classicae 6.1 (1992) 962-64, Odysseus and the Sirens, #150-89), 6.2. 632-37; 8.1 (1997) 1093-1104, 8.2. 734-44
Lust, J., Eynikel, E., and Hauspie, K. A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, Part II. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1996
Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon 4.601-39 (by G. Weicker)
Brenton, L.C.L. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999 (reprint of 1851 ed.)
Buffière, F. Les Mythes d'Homère et la pensée grecque (1956)
Buschor, E. Die Musen des Jenseits (1944)
Cohen = The Distaff Side: representing the female in Homer's Odyssey, ed. B. Cohen (1995, see Doherty, Neils, bibliography and index under "seduction" and "Sirens")
Crenshaw, J.L. "Job" in The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 1993
Coquin M.-J. Le mythe des Sirènes chez Homère: réception et interprétations dans le monde grec (Master's thesis, Paris IV, 2000)
Courcelle, P. "L'interprétation evhémériste des Sirènes-courtisanes jusqu'au XIIe siècle" in Gesellschaft Kultur Literatur, L. Wallach gewidmet, ed. K. Bos (1975) 33-48
Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Translated by L.G. White. New York: Pantheon, 1948
de Rachewiltz, S., De Sirenibus: an inquiry into sirens from Homer to Shakespeare (1983)
Doherty, L.E. Siren Songs : gender, audiences, and narrators in the Odyssey (1995), cf. Cohen 81-92
Eustathius, Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam, ed. G. Stallbaum (Leipzig, 1826, reprinted 1970) 1706.30-1711 (translated into French, with commentary, in Coquin 111-23)
Germain, G. Essai sur les origines de certains themes odysséens et sur la genèse de l'Odyssée (1954)
Gresseth, G.K. "The Homeric sirens," in TAPhA 101 (1970) 203-18
Hofstetter, E., Sirenen im archaischen und klassischen Griechenland (1990)
Leclercq, J. La Sirène dans la pensée et dans l'art chrétiens (2e - 12e siècles): antécédents culturels et réalités nouvelles (2 vols., Université libre de Bruxelles, 1987)
Leclercq-Marx, J. La Sirène dans la pensée et dans l'art de l'Antiquité et du Moyen Age: du mythe paien au symbole chrétien (1997)
Neils, J. "Les Femmes Fatales: Skylla and the Sirens in Greek art," in Cohen 175-84
Pollard, J.R.T. Seers, Shrines and Sirens: the Greek religious revolution in the sixth century B.C. (1965) 137-45
Pucci, P. The Song of the Sirens: essays on Homer (1997)
Rahner, H. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (1963, cf. next) 328-86
Rahner, H. Griechische Mythen in christlicher Deutung (3rd. ed., 1966) 281-328
Segal, C. Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey (1994), ch. 5 "Kleos and its ironies"
Vernant, J.-P. "La mort à visage de femme" in La Mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes, ed. G. Gnoli and Vernant (1982) 133-42
Wedner, S. Tradition und Wandel im allegorischen Verstandnis des Sirenenmythos (c.1994)
Weicker, G. Der Seelenvogel in der alten Litteratur und Kunst (1902)
Associated internet addresses:
Web address 1,
Web address 2,
Web address 3,
Web address 4,
Web address 5
Keywords: art history; Christianity; definition; dialects, grammar, and etymology; epic; gender and sexuality; geography; meter and music; mythology; poetry; proverbs; religion; tragedy; women; zoology
Translated by: Robert Dyer on 13 June 2002@16:57:29.
Vetted by:
Craig Miller (Under editorial review as of this date.) on 4 August 2002@02:45:13.
Craig Miller (Modified translation and notes; additional bibliography, keyword; changed status. Cosmetics pending by editor.) on 11 August 2002@10:29:04.
Craig Miller (Cosmetics.) on 11 August 2002@17:57:06.
Craig Miller on 11 August 2002@18:12:41.
Raphael Finkel (Added Hebrew) on 3 December 2004@13:18:31.
Catharine Roth (betacode cosmetics) on 3 December 2004@16:57:19.
David Whitehead (more keywords; tweaks and cosmetics) on 4 May 2011@04:47:40.
Catharine Roth (tweaked note 9) on 20 December 2013@00:17:27.
Catharine Roth (more coding) on 20 December 2013@19:44:29.
Catharine Roth (cosmetics) on 22 December 2013@12:09:30.
David Whitehead (tweaks and cosmetics; raised status) on 23 December 2013@07:10:31.
David Whitehead (updated 2 refs) on 2 August 2014@11:09:18.
Catharine Roth (tweak) on 13 December 2014@18:42:23.
Catharine Roth (removed defunct links) on 15 December 2014@23:57:41.
Catharine Roth (tweak) on 21 March 2015@20:24:36.
David Whitehead (codings) on 25 May 2016@10:16:48.
Catharine Roth (typos) on 9 February 2022@23:00:54.
Catharine Roth on 9 February 2022@23:09:46.


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