Odyssey Funmaries #12: The Sirens (Book XII.I-CCXVII)

“Keep that beeswax lodged in tight, boys!”*


The Sirens episode in The Odyssey is among its best-known, and even someone who has never read the epic poem likely still has a mental picture of Odysseus lashed to the mast, or has once referenced some beguiling temptation as “a siren song” which must be resisted. This episode is often cited as the crux for the argument that Odysseus possesses a superior moral fiber.** To reference Jonah Lehrer’s recent (fascinating) New Yorker article, Odysseus is a “high denier.” He passes the marshmallow test.

A very brief recap of the specifics: Circe informs Odysseus that when he and his shipmates sail past the island of the Sirens, their “high, thrilling song … will transfix him” unless his crew lashes him to the mast, rope on rope. (And stop the crew’s ears with beeswax, Circe adds.) Odysseus advises the crew of the plan with the caveat, “If I plead, commanding you to set me free, / then lash me faster, rope on pressing rope.”

Hmmmm. Where have we seen this before?

Beeswax-stoppered, the crew sails on and — sure enough — Odysseus pleads. (Presumably some variation on, “No, really, guys! When I told you not to let me go I said it on Opposite Day, so what I really meant was for you to UNTIE ME FROM THIS EFFIN’ MAST RIGHT NOW.”) The crew sticks with the tough love (possibly because it can’t even hear Odysseus through the beeswax).

We can appreciate the depth of Odysseus’s self-restraint (and self-preservation) by referencing artistic renderings of the Sirens in all their resplendent beauty. After all, they don’t just sell coffee! Consider:


Wait … is that the right slide? That’s a Siren? And this is really on display in the Louvre? Oh. Well, let’s see what else we can find.

Sirena de Canosa s. IV adC (M.A.N. Madrid) 01

Seriously? Is someone pulling my leg here? She looks like a toad. And those webbed feet! I mean, it’s ghastly.

What about —


GAHHHH! Please, make it stop!

Hasn’t anyone captured the rapturous beauty of the sirens? Anyone?


Ah, yes! That’s the ticket! John Duigan’s 1994 film, The Sirens! Featuring Elle Macpherson. (Now there’s a siren.)

Of course, the Coen brothers took a stab at The Odyssey with O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here’s the Sirens scene as envisioned by the Coens, the key difference being that no one is lashed, especially the poor, helpless Tim Blake Nelson, whose face at the end of the clip pretty much says it all.


Countdown to Bloomsday…

We read page 1 of Ulysses in a week!

 Wandering Rocks is one Siren song you shouldn’t resist!


* = “Ulysses and the Sirens,” John William Waterhouse.

** = Is it really superior moral fiber Odysseus demonstrates here, or simply his competency in ordering himself to be tied up?


15 Responses

  1. 1)While reading this particular episode, I thought that it was interesting that almost every retelling of this story I’ve come across has the Sirens being particularly beautiful (specifically thinking about “O Brother”). Yet nowhere in the translation is there even a mention of their beauty. Their thrilling voices, yes. Beauty, no. Sex sells I guess?

    2)I’m calling shenanigans on Odysseus’ moral fiber.

  2. As astute observation! And this leads me to think that perhaps the true Homeric Siren is none other than … Susan Boyle?

  3. I second Tad’s #2. My morning Apple Jacks have more fiber than this sleazeball.

    It’s interesting to note what the Sirens actually sing about when you’re passing by. They sing about you and events from your own life’s adventure. To listen is to indulge in the grossest narcissistic self-indulgence. And Odysseus does so while putting at risk his own crew’s lives.

    Can’t live with the ship full of treasure? Have to listen to a pretty song about yourself, too? Yeesh.

    Also … Mark linked The Eagles in his post. And now you’re linking Erasure AND Susan Boyle?? The quality of these pop culture references is taking a nose-dive. PULL UP.

  4. Wait. Who’s ericbescak and why is he commenting on this thread?

  5. He’s a “friend” of mine who apparently doesn’t know his place. He needs to lighten up. Especially on Erasure. What a stupid last name.

    BTW…Could you fit any more images on this post? I don’t want to accuse you of anything … given your commitment to my ill-planned-and-ridiculously-ambitious funmary production schedule, but this one feels a little padded. And I don’t want this to sound like a threat, but you better knock it out of the park for OF #15.

    • If JerryGrit is criticizing noble Voreblog’s funmary, I can’t wait to see the steaming dump he takes on mine.

      • second.

      • Have no fear, you guys are coming in fresh. I’ve pretty much flamed out on these things. Anything you guys do will be much better. Way better. I am excited for your contributions.

        I criticize Ben not really because of the quality of his post, but because of long-running seething resentments.

  6. Of course it feels padded. I haven’t slept in a week! You’re working me TO THE BONE.

  7. Don’t you mean, “TO THE BONEPONY”?

    Sorry, buddy. You’re making me feel like the Salieri to your Mozart. Feel free to post nothing but cat pics for your last funmary.

  8. Hi! Thanks for referencing us! Bonepony is coming to your town to play its brand of Stomp music. What is Stomp music, you may wonder? Stomp music is a marriage of techno, rave, bluegrass, and rockabilly. The ancient greeks would have loved it!

  9. I want to come back to Tad’s #2 (seconded by Jerry).

    I pulled out my ENGL 1-2 notebook prior to rereading The Odyssey to see what the great Professor Lentz said about Odysseus. He was firmly in the Odysseus = noble, moral hero camp. He argued that Odysseus’s ability to “know the minds of many distant men” was a virtue and returned again and again to Odysseus’s self-possession and restraint (a “humble” virtue).

    I gotta say, rereading The Odyssey has been a bit disillusioning. I’m right there with you guys calling shenanigans. Which brings me to a moral and spiritual precipice which you, Jerry, can appreciate: Was Lentz wrong?

    I will say that much of our Odyssey conversation was framed as a comparison to The Iliad and that, compared to Achilles, Odysseus came out looking a whole lot better. I found an old paper I wrote about those two. It was terrible.

    • I’ll give you a dollar if you post the paper. I’ll be happy to write a funmary for it!

      And was Lentz wrong? I guess it depends. We’re definitely applying our value system to a very different time and place.

      That said, Odysseus’ supposed virtues of “knowing men’s minds” and “restraint” seem a little unconvincing when he has gods and prophets telling him exactly what’s going to happen all the time. I think it’s all self-interest, and of the grossest sort. He’s simply gaming a system he has inside info on for his benefit.

      With Lentz, a man of remarkable self-possession and restraint (maybe?), maybe he was projecting a little? I’m uncomfortable analyzing professors, but maybe he needed to idealize Odysseus for seedy personal reasons we probably shouldn’t pry into?

      • Fair point. I’m not sailing into those waters.

        Too late on the Odysseus/Achilles paper. I already burned it.

  10. […] to Circe’s speech to Odysseus after he has ascended from Hades but before he encounters the Sirens, Scylla & Charybdis and the Oxen of the Sun (coming tomorrow!). The text amounts to a mere 19 […]

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