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
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
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.