Sirens

Post written for the Ure Discovery Blog: (and currently published on their facebook page)

38.8.48 – The Siren
(Kendrick School)

Black Figure Lekythos (dating from c. 550-525 BCE) depicting a Siren between two male figures, one of which is holding a spear

38.8.48

What Sort of Pot?

A lekythos (Greek: λήκυθος – Plural: Lekythoi) is a type of Greek pottery used for storing oil and perfume. It has a narrow neck and one handle. Many lekythoi are found in tombs and the images on the sides were often depictions of daily activities or rituals and especially those connected with death. Giant Lekythoi sometimes formed tomb markers.
This one was identified as being made in around 520 BC by Annie Ure.

What are Sirens?

In classical mythology the Sirens lured sailors to their deaths with their songs. They appear most famously in Homer’s Odyssey [Bk. XII] but also feature in Appollonius Rhodes’ Argonautica [4.891-919] and Ovid’s Metamorphoses [5.551 and following.]. Although modern artists often show Sirens in the shape of beautiful women the ancient Greeks painted them as half-human and half-bird with wings and talons or webbed feet and their distinctive shape makes them a recognisable type of decoration.
The Sirens were associated with music and death and are sometimes said to help make travelling to the underworld easier with their music. They are perhaps related to the Egyptian Ba [See Here].

One of the most famous images is from a vase in the British Museum which shows Odysseus tied to the mast so he can listen to their beautiful song without going crazy. The Sirens have feathers and neat hair that makes them more obviously feminine than the ones on this Lekythos.

Odysseus & the Sirens – British Museum

As time went by the images of Sirens made them more and more human.
Statue in National Museum of Archaeology, Athens
137-Sirene-vers--330

H.J. Draper (1909) Ulysses and the Sirens
Ulysses and the Sirens by H.J. Draper

Modern writers often use Sirens and Siren song to symbolise something almost irresistible but dangerous and female singers who are especially alluring are also described as Sirens. …All a bit different to the dark winged figure on this pot who is singing the warrior into his afterlife.

Other Sirens

In the Ure Museum there are several other items with Sirens on that you can look up on the database or go take a look at:
2005.3.24 – Aryballos on display in “History Grave”
37.7.1 – Aryballos in “Myth & Religion”
37.7.2 – Aryballos in “Greece”
51.1.4 – Plate in “Myth & Religion”
See also this decoration in Tampa Museum of Art;  this Lekythos in the British Museum and this one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further Academic Reading

Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum – University of Reading i (prepared by P.N. Ure & A.D. Ure (1954))
11.11 [Image: http://www.cvaonline.org Record no. 538] Text. p.20 [CVA online record no.20]

Beazley Archive no. 14355

D. Buitron-Oliver & B. Cohen (1995) “Between Skylla and Penelope: Female Characters of the Odyssey in Archaic and Classical Greek Art” in B. Cohen (ed.) The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey Oxford University Press: Oxford etc. pp.29-60. Esp. 30-34

J.E. Harrison (1903) Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion Cambridge University Press: Cambridge esp. pp. 202-206.

P. Hunt (2009) “Homer’s Odyssey in Art: Sirens from Greek Vases to Waterhouse” on Philolog

S. Kerns “O Homer, Where art Thou? A Greek Classic becomes an American Original” XChanges

E. Vermeule (1979) Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry University of California Press: Berkeley [Sather Classical Lectures Vol. 46]

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