Ocean is a voyage

(Mirrored from Sonya Taaffe’s LiveJournal Blog or Dreamwidth Blog)

Belated rabbit, rabbit! My poem “Σειρήνοιϊν” is now online at Uncanny Magazine. It was written for Elise Matthesen. The title means “of the two Sirens” in Homeric Greek.

The number of Sirens in Greek myth is various. Most commonly there are three, although according to Homeric epic there are two of them: witness the use of the rare dual in Odyssey 12.52.

. . . ἀτὰρ αὐτὸς ἀκουέμεν αἴ κ᾽ ἐθέλῃσθα,
δησάντων σ᾽ ἐν νηῒ θοῇ χεῖράς τε πόδας τε
ὀρθὸν ἐν ἱστοπέδῃ, ἐκ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πείρατ᾽ ἀνήφθω,
ὄφρα κε τερπόμενος ὄπ᾽ ἀκούσῃς Σειρήνοιϊν.

. . . but if you yourself wish to hear,
let them bind you hand and foot in the swift ship
upright at the heel of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast to it,
so that you may hear and delight in the voice of the two Sirens.

(Classical Greek nouns have three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, plural. The genitive singular of Σειρήν is Σειρῆνος, one Siren; the genitive plural is Σειρήνων, an unspecified number of more than one Sirens. Most uses of the dual had already assimilated into the plural by the time of Homeric Greek; a noun declines in only two cases in the dual where the singular and plural get five cases to choose from and it’s not unusual in Attic Greek for a dual subject to take a plural verb because there are dual verb forms, but they are relatively restricted compared to the exploding tentacular tangle that is the classical Greek verb under normal circumstances. I have the impression that the dual is more common in Semitic languages, but I can’t verify this from experience: Akkadian confines its use of the dual mostly to body parts that come in pairs. Latin and related Italic languages dropped the concept like a hot rock except for one or two fossilized instances, like the number ambo, “both.” English has the same sort of vestiges, visible in the usage of both and the implied alternatives of either or neither. People who know other languages should totally chime in here.)

The mourning siren in the Museum of Fine Arts has been on my mind since I photographed it last November. I felt like a bad classicist for missing it until March, but it turns out that mourning sirens are a thing. Their first association with death is obvious, as Kirke warns Odysseus in Odyssey 12.41–46:

ὅς τις ἀιδρείῃ πελάσῃ καὶ φθόγγον ἀκούσῃ
Σειρήνων, τῷ δ᾽ οὔ τι γυνὴ καὶ νήπια τέκνα
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντι παρίσταται οὐδὲ γάνυνται,
ἀλλά τε Σειρῆνες λιγυρῇ θέλγουσιν ἀοιδῇ
ἥμεναι ἐν λειμῶνι, πολὺς δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ ὀστεόφιν θὶς
ἀνδρῶν πυθομένων, περὶ δὲ ῥινοὶ μινύθουσι.

Whoever draws near in ignorance and hears the voice
of the Sirens, never will his wife and little children
stand beside him when he has come home and be glad of him,
but the Sirens charm him with their clear-voiced song
as they lie in a meadow and all about them a great heap of bones
of men rotting and the flesh shrinking away.

But why then the actions of mourners? Why grieve over the human dead, instead of nesting happily among them? Since we find them all over funerarymonuments (and other associated material culture: memorial tablets, lots of lekythoi, even representations of tombs), they must possess some resonance beyond the merely monstrous or the generically chthonic. I like a cinerary urn decorated with Skylla as much as the next Etruscan, but I don’t see her repeated across the centuries.

Later traditions reconfigure the Sirens as devouring seductresses, but what they promise the hero in Odyssey 12.184–191 is not sex, but knowledge:

δεῦρ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἰών, πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν,
νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωιτέρην ὄπ ἀκούσῃς.
οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῇδε παρήλασε νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
πρίν γ᾽ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

Come here, much-famed Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
stay your ship so that you may hear the voice of the two of us.
For no one yet has passed this way in a black ship
before he heard the honey-sweet voice from our mouths,
but he goes on delighting and knowing more.
For we know all that in broad Troy
the Argives and the Trojans endured by the will of the gods
and we know all that comes to be on the nourishing earth.

Unless you feel like assuming that the Sirens have a different bait for every traveler (mostly this sentence provides me with an excuse to link this Roman relief of a Siren having sex with some dude), their lure is the storyteller’s: they know the truth of things. I’ve made use of this conceit already in my poem “Anthemoessa on the Main Line.” In a funerary context, then, it seems very obvious to me that what they do is remember the dead. Their voices are more beautiful than any human keening and the deceased is never unknown to them: they know all our life stories. They know what really happened. They tell the dead true.

So one of the impetus for this poem was thinking about mourning sirens, the singers of the dead, and how that function fits with the Sirens of epic, who will tell you the story of the world until you die of it. Another was being asked by Elise Matthesen for a poem. And the last was discovering this fifth-century bronze askos in the shape of a siren with a pomegranate in one hand and a syrinx—panpipes—in the other. She was in the Getty Museum when the picture was taken, though she has since been repatriated to Italy on account of being sold illegally. I know she is holding the two symbols of her mythos, music and the underworld. It still looked instantly like she was offering a choice to me.

As to the rest, I really don’t feel the need to explain the discrepancy between two or three Sirens; myth proliferates, it contradicts itself, and it’s healthiest when it’s told in at least two voices. I just found I rather liked the idea that originally there was one Siren on the fatal isle of Anthemoessa and any others chose to join her. Hence the dual in the title: Σειρήνοιϊν, of the two Sirens. Now, anyway.

Amal El-Mohtar reads the poem in the podcast. I am very pleased that this is where it found its home.

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