The Sirens were Naiads, lovely Nymphs of the Sea, who lived on the island of Sirenum Scopuli surrounded by cliffs and rocks. Approaching sailors were entranced by their glorious enchanting singing, thus causing them to sail onto the cliffs and drown.
There are many stories about the origins of the Sirens, and the best known are connected with the abduction of Persephone. It is said that they were playmates of Demeter‘s daughter and had refused to help search for the maiden when she was carried off by Hades. For this they were turned into birds.
You may hear, however, that Aphrodite turned them into birds with the faces of women because they avoided the company of men and wished to remain virgins, but whatever the reason it’s of no use to seek a correlation between the events, for the punishment of the gods is beyond the understanding of mere mortals.
Another version relates that the Naiads were so appalled when Persephone was raped that they appealed to Zeus for wings so that they could fly off in pursuit of Hades. Yet another tale tells how the Naiad challenged the Muses in Arts and, inevitably, lost. The Muses subsequently banished the defeated nymphs who fled, humiliated, for the islands near the coast of Southern Italy.
From the sea-drenched crags around Sirenum Scopuli, the Sirens would sing their wondrous songs entrancing and luring sailors ever closer till the boats were shattered on the sharp teeth of the underwater rocks and the men, senseless, sucked down forever into the depths.
The Sweet Song of the Sirens
When the Argonauts sailed by, the Sirens had barely begun to sing when Orpheus the Musician realised the peril they faced. He strummed his lyre, raising his own voice in song — a song so clear and strong it drowned the sound of those lovely fatal Siren voices. Wiley Ulysses listened to the sweet song of the Siren in safety. He blocked the ears of his crew with wax and then directed them to strap him securely to the mast.
Vanquished, the Sirens from that moment lost all powers to do harm and were changed to rocks. One of them, Parthenope, threw herself into the sea in vexation. Her body was tossed on to the shore by the waves, and a tomb was erected for her on the very spot where later the city of Naples rose.
Sometimes confusion arises about mermaids. The Sirens are also nature spirits of the waters and in some artworks they are depicted as women whose bodies terminated in fish tails – so they are associated with mermaids and sometimes transformed into them in later legends.
But Sirens are always connected with Death. Their name is derived from ‘to bind or attach’ and they are indeed bound and attached to the dead. They were called on at the moment of death, and their images are frequently found on tombs.