When the Sirens were given a parentage they were considered the daughters of the river god Achelous, fathered upon Terpsichore, Melpomene, Sterope, or Chthon, the Earth, in Euripides' Helen 167, where Helen in her anguish calls upon "Winged maidens, virgins, daughters of the Earth". Roman writers linked the Sirens more closely to the sea, as daughters of Phorcys. Homer says nothing of their origin or names, but gives the number of the Sirens as two [Odyssey, 12:52]. Later writers mention both their names and number; some state that there were three, Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia (Tzetzes, ad Lycophron 7l2) or Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucosia (Eustathius, loc. cit.; Strabo v. §246, 252 ; Servius' commentary on Virgil's Georgics iv. 562). Eustathius (Commentaries §1709) states that they were two, Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia. Their number is variously reported as between two and five, and their individual names as Thelxiepeia/Thelxiope/Thelxinoe, Molpe, Aglaophonos/Aglaope, Pisinoe/Peisinoë, Parthenope, Ligeia, Leucosia, Raidne, and Teles.
According to Ovid (Metamorphoses V, 551), the Sirens were the companions of young Persephone and were given wings by Demeter to search for Persephone when she was abducted. Their song is continually calling on Persephone. The term "siren song" refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result. Later writers have inferred that the Sirens were anthropophagous (cannibals), based on Circe's description of them "lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.
As Jane Ellen Harrison notes, "It is strange and beautiful that Homer should make the Sirens appeal to the spirit, not to the flesh. "For the matter of the siren song is a promise to Odysseus of mantic truths, with a false promise of living to tell them, they sing,
"Once he hears to his heart's content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!
"They are mantic creatures like the Sphinx with whom they have much in common, knowing both the past and the future," Harrison observed. "Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm. The end of that song is death. That the sailors' flesh is rotting away, though, would suggest it has not been eaten. It has been suggested that, with their feathers stolen, their divine nature kept them alive, but unable to provide for their visitors, who starved to death by refusing to leave.
Sirens, like harpies, partake of women and of birds, in various ways. In early Greek art sirens were represented as birds with large women's heads, bird feathers and scaly feet and sometimes manes of lions. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps. The tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up Sirens had the form of sparrows, below they were women, or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women's faces. Birds were chosen because of their characteristic, beautiful voices. Later Sirens were sometimes also depicted as beautiful women, whose bodies, not only their voices, are seductive. The fact that in Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Romanian or Portuguese, the word for mermaid are respectively Sirena, Sirène, Sirena, Syrena, Sirenă and Sereia creates visual confusion, so that sirens are even represented as mermaids. "The sirens, though they sing to mariners, are not sea-maidens," Harrison cautions; "they dwell on an island in a flowery meadow.
The first century Roman historian Pliny the Elder discounted sirens as pure fable, "although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces.
In his Notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote of the siren, "The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners."
In 1917, Franz Kafka wrote in The Silence of the Sirens:
Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.
The so-called "Siren" of Canosa, a site in Apulia that was part of Magna Graecia, accompanied the deceased among grave goods in a burial and seems to have some psychopomp characteristics, guiding the dead on the after-life journey. The cast terracotta figure bears traces of its original white pigment. The woman bears the feet and the wings and tail of a bird. It is conserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, in Madrid.
In Argonautica (4.891-919) Jason had been warned by Chiron that Orpheus would be necessary in his journey. When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their voices. One of the crew, however, the sharp-eared hero Butes, heard the song and leapt into the sea, but he was caught up and carried safely away by the goddess Aphrodite.
Odysseus was curious as to what the Sirens sounded like, so, on Circe's advice, he had all his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied to the mast, no matter how much he would beg. When he heard their beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they stuck to their orders (or they couldn't hear him). When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus demonstrated with his frowns to be released (Odyssey XII, 39).
Some post-Homeric authors state that the Sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them, and that after Odysseus passed by they therefore flung themselves into the water and perished. A varying tradition associates this event with their encounter with Jason, though the incident does not appear in Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica. Many scholars believe the above vase depicts a drowning attempt on the part of one of the Sirens.
It is also said that Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded the Sirens to enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won the competition and then plucked out all of the Sirens' feathers and made crowns out of them.
Sirens continued to be used as a symbol for temptation regularly throughout Christian art of the medieval era; however, in the 17th century, some Jesuit writers began to assert their actual existence, including Cornelius a Lapide, Antonio de Lorea, and Athanasius Kircher, who argued that compartments must have been built for them aboard Noah's Ark.
The idea of the lure of the siren also features in the lyrics and composition of many musical pieces such as Erasure's "Siren Song", Roxy Music's album Siren, numerous variations of Song to the Siren, Savatage's song and album Sirens, Nightwish's song and single, 'The Siren' and New Order's album Waiting for the Sirens Call. Due to the bewitching powers suggested by the traditional mythology, sirens also tend to be used as characters in computer and video games such as the Final Fantasy series, the video game series Star Control's species "Syreens" and many others.
Sirens also appeared in the animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas as water, shaped into the bodies of beautiful women. The story retained the sirens' ability to lure sailors to their deaths by song; women were unaffected.
As a classical image the sirens and their story have been reproduced in countless sculptures, engravings and other works of art throughout history, including the paintings by John William Waterhouse which accompany this article. The image remains popular and iconic in a woodcut rendition (reproduced as a logo) representing the global coffee company Starbucks.