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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Simply Irresistible": Siren Songs, Femme Fatales, and Bleached Skulls

 


"Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.




The Sirens and Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are creatures with the head of a female and the body of a bird. They lived on three small rocky islands and with the irresistible charm of their song, they lured mariners to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island (Virgil V, 846; Ovid XIV, 88).

The tale of the Sirens is connected to voyages of the Argonauts. They were a band of heroes in Greek mythology who in the years before the Trojan War accompanied their leader Jason in his quest to find the Golden Fleece, which represented the royal power to rightfully put Jason on the throne of Iolcos.

During a sailing journey, Jason escaped the Sirens because when he heard their song, Orpheus, a legendary musician, poet, and prophet, immediately realized the peril. He took out his lyre and sang a song so clear and ringing that it drowned the sound of those lovely fatal voices.

On another journey,  Odysseus, legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer's epic poem the Odyssey, sailed close the islands inhabited by the Sirens. He had his sailors stuff their ears with wax, and had them tie him to the mast for he, being a legendary Greek hero and all, wanted to hear their beautiful voices.

The Sirens sang when they approached, their words even more enticing than the melody. They would give knowledge to every man who came to them, they said, ripe wisdom and a quickening of the spirit. As he hears the Sirens, the song is so seductive that Odysseus begs to be released from his fetters, but his faithful men only bind him tighter. Odysseys' heart ran with longing but the ropes held him and the ship quickly sailed to safer waters (Odyssey XII, 39). 

Homer mentions only two sirens, but later authors mention three or four. They were regarded as the daughters of Phorcys, the sea god; or Achelous, the storm god, and either, Melpone, muse of tragedy; Sterope, daughter of Atlas; or Terpsichore, muse of dance and chorus. 

According to Ovid, they were nymphs and the play-mates of Persephone. the queen of the underworld and the daughter of Zeus and the harvest-goddess Demeter.  Persephone carried into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead. Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld. They were present when she was abducted and, because they did not interfere, Demeter changed them into birds with female faces (Ovid V, 551).





"Siren Song"

Poet Margaret Atwood introduces the reader to the song of the beguiling sirens by stating...

"This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls"
 
What seductress would not love to employ such an enchanting "song"? In "Siren Song," Atwood illuminates the relationship between temptation and the price of fulfilling it. Her verse might be directed to the nature of the male ego (Homer's victims were, of course, men), or she might be determined to draw her theme to encompass all who face magnetic temptation. 

In either case, the "song" employed by the Siren is irresistible to her target even though the provocative lure is potentially deadly. Whether Atwood uses the Greek allusion of the Sirens to expose dangers such as those faced by a married man encountering a tempting adulteress or a junkie preparing to inject an irresistible, sweet needle, the message is clear -- temptation can crash a victim upon its shores.

"the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember."

Readers can quickly imagine the type of people the Siren attracts and how the she goes about handling her accommodating “visitors.”  

"Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

"I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

"with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable."

Atwood composes the poem with humor. The image of a desperate, disgruntled Siren in a “bird suit squatting” and singing in a trio with two other“feathery maniacs" is comical. In fact, it seems to be anything but "picturesque and mythical."

Yet, the speaker is deceptive. In pretending to need rescue, she lures the mariner. The Siren claims that she will reveal the secret of their deadly song when actually it is the song she sings that is bait. The fact the singing can be "fatal" is evident; it is "valuable" in the sense that few escape hearing it with their lives.

The poem develops as a one-sided dialogue, an appeal that starts off soft and intriguing and then picks up pace towards the end with urgency,

"I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

"is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

"at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time."

The Siren finds her alluring process effective, but boring. She is used to seeing men leap overboard "in squadrons" to get to her. It's happened all her life, and, in fact, her use of deception to destroy and lay waste is her very purpose. It's just "another man done gone" folk matter.

The seductive skill of the Siren has never been bested (except by Jason and Odysseus as chronicled in Greek epics). She boastfully confesses her guile "works every time." This conveys that the Siren is deceitful and proud of her song because she can lure men to help her escape herself when she really doesn’t want to do this. She is a beautiful, bewitching "killing machine."

And, even though there are plenty of "bleached skulls on the beach," the happy candidate slated for death marches on to the lyrical song of the Siren. Isn't this symbolic of the archetypal lure of the deadly female -- the femme fatale?

Here is one thought that may give pause for some sympathy for such a femme fatale. The siren may also be seen as a depiction of the loneliness that stems from toying with the human heart. With her song, she provides a warning to the readers about the fate that follows such games.

Good stuff - Greek myths. Read and learn for enjoyment. And, of course, this poem also reminds me of a classic rock song.


"And the colors of the sea blind your eyes with trembling mermaids 
And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses (Latin equivalent of the Greek Odysseus) 
How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing 

"Sparkling waves are calling you to touch her white laced lips
You see your girl's brown body dancing through the turquoise  

And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea  
And when your fingers find her, she drowns you in her body  
Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind
 

"The tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers  
You want to take her with you to the hard land of the winter"

from "Tales of Brave Ulysses" by Cream, song inspired by trips Eric Clapton took to the Greek Islands


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