The poets represent them as beautiful women inhabiting the rocks on the sea-shore, whither having allured passengers by the sweetness of their voices, they put them to death. Virgil places them on rocks where vessels are in danger of shipwreck; Pliny makes them inhabit the promontory of Minerva, near the island Capreae; others locate them in Sicily, near cape Pelorus.
Claudian says they inhabited harmonious rocks, that they were charming monsters, and that sailors were wrecked on their coasts without regret, and even expired in rapture. This description is doubtless founded on a literal explication of the fable, that the Sirens were women who inhabited the shores of Sicily, and who, by the allurements of pleasure, stopped passengers, and made them forget their course.
Ovid says they accompanied Proserpine when she was carried off, and that the gods granted them wings to go in quest of that goddess. Homer places the Sirens in the midst of a meadow drenched in blood, and tells us that fate had permitted them to reign till some person should over-reach them; that the wise Ulysses accomplished their destiny, having escaped their snares, by stopping the ears of his companions with wax, and causing himself to be fastened to the mast of his ship, which, he adds, plunged them into so deep despair, that they drowned themselves in the sea, where they were transformed into fishes from the waist downwards.
Others, who do not look for so much mystery in this fable, maintain that the Sirens were nothing but certain straits in the sea, where the waves whirling furiously around seized and swallowed up vessels that approached them. Lastly, some hold the Sirens to have been certain shores and promontories, where the winds, by various reverberations and echoes, cause a kind of harmony that surprises and stops passengers. This probably might be the origin of the Sirens' song, and the occasion of giving the name of Sirens to those rocks.
Some interpreters of the ancient fables contend, that the number and names of the three Sirens were taken from the triple pleasure of the senses, wine, love, and music, which are the three most powerful means of seducing mankind; and hence so many exhortations to avoid the Sirens' fatal song; and probably it was hence that the Greeks obtained their etymology of Siren from a Greek word signifying a chain, as if there were no getting free from their enticement.
But if in tracing this fable to its source, we take Servius as our guide, he tells us that it derived its origin from certain princesses who reigned of old upon the coasts of the Tuscan sea, near Pelorus and Caprea, or in three small islands of Sicily which Aristotle calls the isles of the Sirens. These women were very debauched, and by their charms allured strangers, who were ruined in their court, by pleasure and prodigality.
This seems evidently the foundation of all that Homer says of the Sirens, in the twelfth book of the Odyssey; that they bewitched those who unfortunately listened to their songs; that they detained them in capacious meadows, where nothing was to be seen but bones and carcasses withering in the sun; that none who visit them ever again enjoy the embraces and congratulations of their wives and children; and that all who dote upon their charms are doomed to perish. What Solomon says in the ninth chapter of Proverbs, of the miseries to which those are exposed who abandon themselves to sensual pleasures, well justifies the idea given us of the Sirens by the Greek poets, and by Virgil's commentator.