These are the dangerous ladies who lure men to their deaths with their voices. Odysseus becomes the first mortal to live to tell the tale, because he has his men tie him to the mast while they plug their ears and sail on by. This is what they say:
Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did; for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods' despite. Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens. (12.184-196)
What's cool is that people usually think of the Sirens as being super sexy and luring men by their feminine charms—but here, it sounds like they're actually promising Odysseus knowledge.
“‘O friends, oh ever partners of my woes,
Attend while I what Heaven foredooms disclose.
Hear all! Fate hangs o’er all; on you it lies
To live or perish! to be safe, be wise!
“‘In flowery meads the sportive Sirens play,
Touch the soft lyre, and tine the vocal lay;
Me, me alone, with fetters firmly bound,
The gods allow to hear the dangerous sound.
Hear and obey; if freedom I demand,
Be every fetter strain’d, be added band to band.’Q1
“While yet I speak the winged galley flies,
And lo! the Siren shores like mists arise.
Sunk were at once the winds; the air above,
And waves below, at once forgot to move;
Some demon calm’d the air and smooth’d the deep,
Hush’d the loud winds, and charm’d the waves to sleep.
Now every sail we furl, each oar we ply;
Lash’d by the stroke, the frothy waters fly.Q2
The ductile wax with busy hands I mould,
And cleft in fragments, and the fragments roll’d;
The aerial region now grew warm with day,
The wax dissolved beneath the burning ray;
Then every ear I barr’d against the strain,
And from access of frenzy lock’d the brain.
Now round the masts my mates the fetters roll’d,
And bound me limb by limb with fold on fold.
Then bending to the stroke, the active train
Plunge all at once their oars, and cleave the main.Q3
“While to the shore the rapid vessel flies,
Our swift approach the Siren choir descries;
Celestial music warbles from their tongue,
And thus the sweet deluders tune the song:
“‘Oh stay, O pride of Greece! Ulysses, stay!
Oh cease thy course, and listen to our lay!
Blest is the man ordain’d our voice to hear,
The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear.
Approach! thy soul shall into raptures rise!
Approach! and learn new wisdom from the wise!
We know whate’er the kings of mighty name
Achieved at Ilion in the field of fame;
Whate’er beneath the sun’s bright journey lies.
Oh stay, and learn new wisdom from the wise!’Q4
“Thus the sweet charmers warbled o’er the main;
My soul takes wing to meet the heavenly strain;
I give the sign, and struggle to be free;
Swift row my mates, and shoot along the sea;
New chains they add, and rapid urge the way,
Till, dying off, the distant sounds decay;
Then scudding swiftly from the dangerous ground,
The deafen’d ear unlock’d, the chains unbound. Q5
The Odyssey by Homer (8th Century BCE) is in the public domain.
- Celestial(adjective): belonging or relating to heaven
- Delude(verb): to deceive someone
- Rapture(noun): a feeling of intense pleasure or joy