Mermaid Myths: The Sirens of Ancient Greece

Sirens are one of the oldest and most popularly known types of mermaids; appearing in stories not only from their native Greece (where they are originally depicted as bird-like) but also all over the world. Sirens are most well known for their parts in drowning sailors and eating them; as most mermaid-like creatures are. But what makes Sirens different than your run of the mill mermaid?

Xandria Wilcox

4/9/20243 min read


The mythical Siren first appears in Ancient Greek storytelling and literature, but may have pre-Greek origins. There are several theories as to the origin of their name, but one popular one is that the word comes from the term seirá meaning cord or rope, and literally means “entangler”. Sirens first appear in literature with Homer’s Odyssey, but he does not describe them, leaving their appearance to be detailed in the third century B.C. by Apollonius of Rhodes in his book, Argonautica, as half woman, half bird.

This version of sirens was likely heavily influenced by the Egyptian Ba Bird, and by the seventh century, sirens were popularly depicted as birds with the head of a woman. This would eventually evolve into depictions of women with the lower body of a bird, with or without wings, sometimes playing instruments like the lyre.

Sirens as mermaids are just as old as their bird-like counterparts, with depictions of “Tritoness” Sirens appearing on Athenian cookware as early as the third century; but they were far less popular, as far as we know. The first literary reference to the mermaid-like Siren comes from the Anglo-Roman Liber Monstrorum, which portrays them as women with fish tails, and this version from the Old English text would become the popular way to imagine sirens for the people of the Medieval Era.

The Siren's Song

According to Homer, sirens live on an island in the Western Sea “between Aeaea and the rocks of Scylla.” The Sirens are the daughters of one of the Greek Muses, but their father varies between the sea god Phorcys or the river god Achelous. In the Odyssey, the titular character Odysseus blocks his crew's ears with wax to avoid being enthralled by their song, as advised by the sorceress Circe. Odysseus wanted to hear their song for himself so he had his crew tie him to the mast of the ship so he couldn’t throw himself into the water.

Later, Appolonius of Rhodes is commissioned by a Roman Emperor to write a continuation of the Odyssey, Argonautica, detailing the journey of Jason and the Argonauts. In the fourth book of Argonautica, all but one of the Argonauts are saved from the Sirens thrall by the singing of their crewmate, Orpheus, who was also the child of a muse. The one remaining Argonaut was compelled to jump into the water, but he was saved by the goddess Aphrodite.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book five, he writes that the Sirens were actually human companions of Persephone. When she was carried off by Hades, with permission from Zeus, her father, the Sirens looked for her everywhere. After a lot of searching, they eventually prayed to the gods for wings to fly across the sea and search elsewhere, and their request was granted. In some versions of the story, their wings are a punishment from Demeter for not guarding Persephone more closely.

How To Prevent Being The Siren's Snack

Sirens are depicted as the children of gods and godesses; and thus have fewer weaknesses than you might imagine. Mythologically speaking, the only true weakness of the Siren is that, if you can't hear them, they can't enthrall you. Wax, cotton, good old fashion ear plugs; anything that can block you hearing can keep you (mostly) safe from their ravenous claws.

Sirens are also capable of flight, in most myths; so keep that in mind when hiding from them. And if you hear anyone singing while you're out on the ocean... no you didn't.

The Modern Mer’s Siren Origin

Sirens as we know them today are far from the half-bird women we knew in the Odyssey, but are no less alluring for those differences.

Origin Sirens are often solitary, having many friendly acquaintances but rarely more than one or two close friends. They travel where the wind takes them, feeling the urge to pick up and move after only a small while in one place. Their friends are important to them, just as important as their freedom. For more information on the MerMapp Origins, and to find out if you’re a Siren Origin, take our quiz here and share your results with us on social media!