The purpose of this essay is to consider why the crucial episode of the Sirens in Odyssey scroll 12 is seminal to understanding the Odyssey as a whole, and why what happens in the episode gets to the essence of Odysseus’ character as a hero. Furthermore, this paper takes into account the significance of the vase painter’s one snapshot image of this tale and how one can compare these two representations of this mythos.
In the beginning of scroll 12, when Circe first tells Odysseus about the Sirens, she stresses that
[a]nyone who approaches
Unaware and hears their voices will never again
Be welcomed home by his wife and children
In other words, those who listen to the song of the Sirens are denied their nostos and thus Odysseus must avoid falling prey to their distractions.
The audience hears the song that the Sirens sing to Odysseus within the performance of the Odyssey, in which the Sirens are offering to sing what is essentially the entirety of the Iliad:
For we know everything
that the Greeks and the Trojans
Suffered in wide Troy
by the will of the gods.
The Odyssey is in constant competition with the Iliad, as Odysseus, a secondary character in the Iliad gets his own kleos and his own epic song. Everyone who listened to the Odyssey was also familiar with the Iliad and so would understand this allusion. By showing that the Iliad is encapsulated by the Odyssey, the singer is asserting that Odysseus is more of a hero than Achilles, namely that his song and his kleos is more than what Achilles achieved. Moreover, since the Sirens’s song represents both the Iliad and a loss of nostos, by listening to the song and escaping the Sirens, Odysseus is once more proving that his heroic narrative is superior to that of Achilles since he gets both kleos and nostos.
The red figure vase painting of this same mythos allows for a wider breadth of interpretation than analysis of the text can provide. A vase painting is a snapshot image of a myth where the artist must choose a single moment in which to encapsulate the entire narrative. The creator of this vase chose to show Odysseus strapped to the mast of his ship, looking up at the Sirens overhead. Odysseus’s head is the only thing he can move, and so it is tilted upward, so that he may hear all that the Sirens sing to call to him, and thus come closer to them. This enables the observer to understand Odysseus’s mortality as he gives in to the call of the Sirens, reinforcing the fact that he is susceptible to the same faults as his human brethren.
The man leaning on the bow of the ship gesturing toward Odysseus and the front rower looking back at Odysseus have wax in their ears, as do all of the other men on the ship. Nevertheless, they must be curious about what the Sirens are singing. The gesture of the first man is perhaps one where then man is indicating that Odysseus is trying to struggle free, and that they must tighten the ropes around him. This mirrors the scene described in the Odyssey:
But they just leaned on their oars and rowed on,
Perimedes and Eurylochus jumped up,
Looped more rope around me, and pulled tight.
When we had rowed past, and the Siren’s song
Had faded on the waves, only then did my crew
Take the wax from their ears and untie me.
The very fact that Odysseus listens to the Sirens reveals another aspect of Odysseus’s heroic nature. By choosing to keep his ears open and his body tied down, Odysseus is both braving the Sirens, but cognizant of his own weaknesses and limitations as is pointed out to him by Circe. This episode emphasizes Odysseus’s humanity as he is susceptible to the song of the Sirens as a mortal.
The Sirens are close overhead on the vase, two of them on either side looking down at the men, while one flies close to the ship with her eyes closed, as if she is in a trance with her own music. The ship is small, and the Sirens are close because of the limited space on the vase, but also because having the Sirens closer reinforces the danger present to the men. Despite the fact that they are close, the Sirens do not attack because they need to have the men come to them, they cannot attack directly. No mention of how close the Sirens are appears within the Odyssey, but one can assume that the island was farther away from the boat than what appears on the vase.
By comparing the two media through which this mythos is conveyed, one can see that although the vase conveys but a small scene within the tale, there is as much rich attention to detail as is within the Homeric text. The song of the Sirens is seminal to the understanding of the Odyssey as a whole because it represents how closely Odysseus comes to losing his nostos, and how only with the help of others is he able to finally find his way back home. His men do not make the trip back, but it is due to their presence that he made it past the Sirens, and due to Circe’s help that he is told how it would happen. This help from Circe also embodies one of the great secrets of the Odyssey, which is that women are the ones who really ensure that Odysseus gets home. Athena is the most obvious in her manipulation of events, but it is Circe who guides Odysseus through the dangers of the sea, Calypso who shelters him, Ino who ensures his way to the Phaeacians, and Nausicaa who brought him to Alcinous.
This episode gets to the essence of Odysseus by showing how his song depends on women as much as on himself. It expresses both the dangers women pose to Odysseus (through the Sirens) as well as how integral women are to his success (through Circe and later Penelope) and in doing so shows that just as the Sirens sing the entire Iliad, women are the ones who ultimately control the outcome of Odysseus’s song.
Written for CLAS 167B: Classical Myths Told and Retold, April 1st 2018
Citations:  Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lombardo, p. 179, scroll 12, lines 42-44  Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lombardo, p. 183, scroll 12, lines 197-198  Homer, Odyssey, trans. Lombardo, p. 184, scroll 12, lines 203-208 Link to information about the vase from the British Museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=399666&partId=1