The intricate connections between, and among, these seemingly different verbal activities – the singing of song, the delivering of an oracular prophecy, the placing of an enchantment, the incantation of a poem for any purpose – are apparent even in the language that defines them.  And although an incantation is actually the singing of a magical charm or curse, just to be on the safe side, we should add one more meaning that, in a sense, defines them all, and that is ‘a spell’.  In fact, we have this definition on the authority of the Roman scholar W. Warde Fowler, who once noted with regard to “a spell uttered by the Vestal virgins,” that their utterance would have been “precatio, i.e. a prayer, not carmen, which is the usual word for a spell.” (6)

Women, it seems, are the progenitors of spells and the like, a particular talent that

was loosely defined by this same otherwise brilliant scholar as “certain mystical powers exercised by women . . . among some savage peoples.” (7) If we were to

count the Greeks and Romans among these so-called “savages,” the list of women possessed of such mystical powers would be both long and distinguished.  In addition to Carmentis herself, that list would include the so-called “dangerous seductresses,” (8) the Sirens, about whom we shall have much to say; and, of course, the Sibyls, the

most famous of which is the Cumaean Sibyl who “prophesied by ‘singing the fates’ and writing on oak leaves,” (9) and whose praises Virgil sings in the Aeneid.  In the Metamorphoses of Ovid, she herself tells Aeneas that she will live so long that in the end, only her voice will be left:

        So changed shall I be, and invisible to anyone. But still, the fates will

        leave my voice, and by my voice I shall be known. (10)

We must not forget the very mysterious Sphinx (‘the Strangler’) of Thebes who poses oracular riddles of the highest order to the likes of Oedipus.  Her questions are initia-tory enigmas which conceal ambiguous allusions to higher knowledge. (11) And there is poor, hysterical Cassandra of Troy, taken by Agamemnon as a spoil of war, whose searing prophecies no one listened to because she was cursed by Apollo for refusing to sleep with him. (12)  There is also the wise Circe, herself a weaver of spells, who warns Odysseus of the dangers of the Sirens’s song, thus saving his life, and yet she is among the most maligned of all. (13)

As the reader can see, the women – both mortal and immortal – whom we have briefly mentioned, those who were known far and wide for their exercising of “certain mystical powers,” were indeed distinguished.  And we haven’t even gotten to the Irish yet!  But of all those who appear on this illustrious list, it is only the Sirens who lure with their eloquent song, promising knowledge of all that there is to know.


The sweet-voiced Sirens are typically defined as “sea nymphs, part woman and part bird, who lure mariners to destruction by their seductive singing.” (14)  These are not “the mermaids singing, each to each,” of whom T. S. Eliot speaks. (15)  Those alluring nymphs who ride the waves of the sea with such fluid grace are, invariably, distinctly fish-tailed.  Aside from this most important anatomical difference, Eliot’s sea-maidens are far more interested in singing to each other than they are in enchant-ing men to their doom.  The poet knows this all too well, for he says of them:

             I do not think that they will sing to me.

             I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

        Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

        When the wind blows the water white and black. (16)

The commonly accepted understanding of the Sirens as “sea-nymphs” is a notion that has evolved out of thin air.  The mere description of their form as “part woman and part bird,” makes them most unlikely candidates for inhabitants of the sea.  Their association with sweet song must have given rise, over time, to the idea of their bird-form because, as Jane Ellen Harrison reminds us, in Homer, which is the source from which we most familiarly know them,

        There is no word as to their form, no hint of parentage: he does not mean

        them to be mysterious, but by a fortunate chance he leaves them shrouded

        in mystery, the mystery of the hidden spell of the sea, with the haze of noon-

        tide about them and the meshes of sweet music for their unseen toils,––know-

        ing all things, yet for ever unknown. . . .

        The Sirens, though they sing to mariners, are not sea-maidens; they dwell on

        an island in a flowery meadow. They are mantic creatures like the Sphinx

        with whom they have much in common, knowing both the past and the future.

        Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm. The end of that song is

        death. (17)    

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe describes the Sirens as the “enchanters of all mankind”

(18) who, “by the melody of their singing enchant” (19)whoever comes their way.” (20)  Warning Odysseus of the perilous danger of their allure, the “queenly Circe” (21) in-structs him in the ways of hearing their sweet song without succumbing to harm. 

She tells him that as they approach the beach where “they sit in their meadow” (22)

        You must drive straight on past, but melt down sweet wax of honey

        and with it stop your companions’ ears, so none can listen;

        the rest, that is, but if you yourself are wanting to hear them,

        then have them tie you hand and foot on the fast ship, standing

        upright against the mast with the ropes’ ends lashed around it,

        so that you can have joy in hearing the song of the Sirens;

        but if you supplicate your men and implore them to set you

        free, then they must tie you fast with even more lashings. (23)

And so it was that the moment the “magical Sirens” (24) eyed “the swift ship . . . they directed their sweet song toward” (25) Odysseus, taunting him to “listen here to our singing; . . . to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips . . . .” (26)  And Odysseus, hearing their mellifluous sounds, was sorely tempted, but his men followed the warnings of Circe and lashed him tighter to the mast. 

This is the typical view of the role of Siren – as temptress who calls up those erotic


        impulses in life as yet unmoralized, imperious longings, ecstasies, . . .

        magical voices calling to a man from his ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’ and to

        which if he hearken it may be he will return home no more––voices too,

        which, whether a man sail by or stay to hearken, still sing on. (27)

We are told nothing of the actual song of the enchanters except that their notes are sweet.  We would expect that of the birdsong of small birds and, indeed, they are in fact described as sparrows in Suidas’s encyclopedic 10th century Greek Lexicon. (28)  Yet based upon depictions of the Sirens in Greek art, Jane Harrison emphatically describes them as a much larger species, as “birds of prey . . . with power to lure by their song”; as bird-women who “belong to the same order of bogey beings as the Sphinx and the Harpy.” (29)  And she is quite right, as usual, for they would appear not to be sparrows, but rather distinctly of the species sparrow-hawk (Accipiter nisus), although Harrison does not identify them as such. (30)



Siren at upper left is ‘Ime(r)opa’ (‘lovely-voiced’)

From: Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. (31)

To be sure, the Sirens are birds of prey, but we must not forget that they are young women, too.  As Harrison recalls for us, “Euripides makes his Helen in her anguish call on the ‘Winged maidens, virgins, daughters of the Earth, The Sirens,’ to join their sorrowful song to hers.” (32)  But why should their song be so filled with sorrow?  That, in itself, is a sad story, which like so many others of its kind, is told in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.  His account presumes their bird-form to be some sort of cruel punishment by Ceres (Demeter), “the queen of Erebus,” (33) a punishment having to do with the disappearance of her daughter Proserpine (Persephone, or Kore) into the underworld.  And so Ovid asks:

        But how did the daughters of Achelous come to have feathers and claws like

        birds, while retaining their human faces? Was it because these skilful singers    

        were among Proserpine’s companions, when she was gathering the spring    

        flowers? And after seeking her in vain the world over, they prayed that they    

        might fly across the waves on beating wings, so that the seas, too, might know

        of their anxiety. The gods consented, and suddenly they saw their limbs covered

        with golden plumage. But in case those melodies that fell so sweetly on the ear

        should be silenced, if the maidens lost their tongues, and their rich gift of song

        be denied expression, they retained the features of young girls, and kept their

        human voices. (34)

That old adage twisted into truth, that “no good deed goes unpunished,” would certainly seem to apply here.  Unlike so many others whom Ceres (Demeter) chanced upon in her search for Proserpine (Persephone, or Kore), her beloved daughter and missing other half, it would appear that these maidens were eager to do everything that they could to find their friend.  So where did this idea of punishment arise?  Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths, enumerates all of the known possibilities:

        These children of Achelous, or some say, Phorcys, by either the Muse  

        Terpsichore, or by Sterope, Porthaon’s daughter, had girls’ faces but birds’

        feet and feathers, and many different stories are told to account for this

        peculiarity: such as that they had been playing with Core when Hades ab-

        ducted her, and that Demeter, vexed because they had not come to her aid,

        gave them wings, saying: ‘Begone and search for my daughter all over the

        world!’ Or that Aphrodite turned them into birds because, for pride, they

        would not yield their maidenheads either to gods or men. They no longer

        had the power of flight, however, since the Muses had defeated them in a

        musical contest and pulled out their wing feathers to make themselves crowns.

        Now they sat and sang in a meadow among the heaped bones of sailors whom

        they had drawn to their death. (35)

What a miserable fate was theirs from every conceivable angle of their imaginary

astrological charts.  Their mythological miseries would suggest that they are creatures

of the earth for whom wings are a most inappropriate appendage, unless, as Jane Harrison long ago suggested, we understand their role in connection with the dead.  Regardless of the rarity of their images in Greek Art, (36) Harrison relied on her acute intuition and intimate knowledge of art and of all things Greek to put forward the theory that the Sirens were soul-birds in the same sense that the Egyptian Ba, the Soul, which accompanied the deceased “as a human-faced bird,” (37) was depicted hovering, wings spread, over the mummy, or perched protectively upon the funerary bier. 

Curiously, she does not note that virtually all of the stylized images of

the Ba in Egyptian art show that soul-bird to be none other than the

sparrow-hawk (Accipiter nisus), (38) the very same species that we have

identified for the Sirens drawn by the Greek vase painter of the scene from

the Odyssey.  Harrison’s attribution of the Sirens as soul-birds is not based,

therefore, on her knowledge of ornithology but is instead rooted in a clear

understanding of the universal concept of the bird as soul.  In her broad-

reaching conversation on this subject, she makes mention of that mysterious

notion of the soul flying to the heavens in bird-form, noting that the concept

“of the soul as a bird escaping from the mouth is a fancy so natural and

beautiful that it has arisen among many peoples.” (39)  She goes on to say

that “the persistent anthropomorphism of the Greeks stripped the bird-soul

of all but its wings. . . . the bird-woman became a death-demon, a soul sent

to fetch a soul, a Ker that lures a soul, a Siren.” (40)   

Of the more obscure funerary aspects of the Sirens, Harrison reveals a side of their history that is most illuminating to our understanding of them.

        They appear frequently as monuments, sometimes as actual mourners, on

        tombs  . . . [where] they are substantially Death-Keres, Harpies, though to

        begin with they imaged the soul itself. . . . Probably at first the Siren was

        placed on tombs as a sort of charm, a probaskánion, a soul to keep off souls.

        It has already been shown, in dealing with apotropaic ritual, that the charm

        itself is used as counter-charm. (41)

And that is not all.  It was only in later times that they appeared “as mourners, tearing their hair and lamenting.” (42)  They are even shown “bearing the dead in their arms.” (43The deeply personal involvement of the Sirens in these touching depictions makes it clear that, in time, “their apotropaic function was wholly forgotten.” (44)  Such heart-wrenching images are more in keeping with those of Creon standing center stage with his dead son in his arms at the end of the Antigone, or of Lear, howling, hold-ing his beloved Cordelia dead in his arms, “dead as earth,” (45) as he so pitifully tells us. 

But as time went further on, the most characteristic attribute, that for which the Sirens were always best known, began to serve a most useful function in the rites of the dead.  As Harrison explains,

        The Siren was a singer, she would chant the funeral dirge; this dirge might be

        the praises of the dead. . . . Even on funeral monuments the notion of the Siren

        as either soul or Death-Angel is more and more obscured by her potency as

        sweet-singer . . . a soul who sings to souls. (46)

I can think of no finer way of remembering these well-meaning soul-birds who seemed always to be trapped in limbo through no fault of their own.  Plato, however, found a way to free them.  We are, once again, indebted to Jane Harrison for reminding us that at the end of the Republic in the Myth of Er, which has everything to do with the fate of the soul, the Sirens, who in this scenario now number eight, are perched upon each of the eight spheres that represents a planet whirling in space.  The geocentric configuration represents the Fixed Stars at the widest outermost rim,

        next in breadth is the sixth (Venus); then the fourth (Mars); then the eighth

        (Moon); then the seventh (Sun); then the fifth (Mercury); then the third

        (Jupiter); and the second (Saturn) is narrowest of all. . . . The spindle re-

        volved as a whole with one motion; but, within the whole as it turned, the

        seven inner circles revolved slowly in the opposite direction . . . .

        The spindle turned on the knees of Necessity. Upon each of its circles stood

        a Siren who was carried round with its movement, uttering a single sound on

        one note, so that all the eight made up the concords of a single scale. (47)

The great Classical scholar Francis Cornford has diligently noted in his introduction to the Myth of Er that the “Sirens sing eight notes at consonant intervals forming the structure of a scale (harmonia), which represents the Pythagorean ‘music of the spheres’.” (48)  What is generally meant by the musical term ‘consonant interval’ is that the sound generated is “pleasing to the ear.” (49)  Of the ratios considered capable of producing such pleasing harmonies, namely, “the octave 2:1, fifth 3:2, and fourth 4:3,” (50) only the octave, the eighth, would satisfy the definition of ‘harmonia’.  In fact, “according to the oldest Greek musical theory of Philolaos, the octave was first called ‘Harmonia’ and [only] later ‘Diapason’,” (51) and so, therefore, literally defines it.

So we can say with great certainty, that in this euphoric vision of life after death, each of the Sirens, in turn, sang a note of whatever scale it was that they intoned as they whirled in space, and that, together, their pleasing notes formed an harmonic octave of undetermined frequency. (52) The souls awaiting the choosing of their own fates are treated to an even more spectacular performance than has thus far been described, for, next we learn that:

        Round about, at equal distances, were seated, each upon a throne, the three    

        daughters of Necessity, the Fates, robed in white with garlands on their heads,

        Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, chanting to the Sirens’ music, Lachesis of things

        past, Clotho of the present, and Atropos of things to come. And from time to

        time Clotho [the Spinner] lays her right hand on the outer rim of the Spindle

        and helps to turn it, while Atropos [the Inflexible] turns the inner circles like-

        wise with her left, and Lachesis [She who allots] with either hand takes hold

        of inner and outer alternately. (53)

Not only has Plato found for the Sirens well-deserved release from their tortured existences, but he has positioned them in a place of highest honor, each singing a note against which the Fates offer their chanted elaboration.  The harmonic overtones and undertones of these female voices weaving their song together must have been beyond spectacular to hear, but that such singing would constitute what is known as the ‘music of the spheres’ which, in itself, is an enchanting idea, is another matter altogether.  To prove the point, if what they sang was truly the ‘music of the spheres’ even though the specific key in which the Sirens sang is not named, that key should be discoverable merely by knowing the keynote associated with the planet upon whose rim each stands. 

In the elaborate system of the ‘music of the spheres’, an idea of such seriousness that the physicist-astronomer Johannes Kepler  (1571-1630) devoted considerable energies to proving its veracity, (54) each planet creates its (theoretically unheard) vibrational note in the octave as it whirls in infinite space.  That note is established for each planet by means of a complex system of proven mathematical ratios pertaining to the speed of its orbit.  Of those planets described in the Myth of Er’s earth-centered system, we have the following notes: Mercury = D in the 30th octave, Venus = A in the 32nd octave, Mars = D in the 33rd octave, Jupiter = F# in the 36th octave, Saturn = D in the 37th octave, Sun = B in the 8th octave, Moon (the synodic month – “from one full moon to another”) = G# in the 29th octave, and the Earth = C# in the 32nd octave. (55)

All of this is very, very far from everyday thinking.  But mythology is not about everyday thinking.  It is about magical thinking and about teaching the Truths of reality to the listener who is prepared to hear.  It has been said that one must exercise great caution in the use of the Sun tone for meditation.  The same holds true when one enters the enchanting world of mythology.

        the sun tone represents a door from one world into another. . . . Once you . . .

        are able to resonate in unity with certain basic vibrations, you can leave familiar

        dimensions without damage to yourself and step over the threshold of Yin and


        Meditation music attuned to this tone is beyond all imagination and will lead

        the listener into new dimensions. It is recommended above all for people whose

        souls are full of joy and whose spirits are clear, for those who are prepared to

        leave everything they know behind them, without regret. (56)

This, too, is essential for succumbing to the pleasures of enchantment.







  1. 1.  Spoken by the Sibyl of Cumae in The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Mary M. Innes, Translator, Intro. (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1955-1973), Book XIV, 101 passim, pp. 314-15.

  2. 2.  John Michell and Christine Rhone, Twelve-Tribe Nations and the Science of Enchanting the Landscape. (Grand Rapids:Phanes Press, 1991), p. 91.)

  3. 3.   D. P. Simpson, Cassell’s Latin Dictionary. (New York: Macmillan Co., Inc., 1977.) “Carmentis”, p. 92.

  4. 4.   Ibid., “carmen”, p. 92.

  5. 5.   Ibid.

  6. 6.   W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus. The Gifford Lectures for 1909-10 Delivered in Edinburgh University. (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1933), p. 53.

  7. 7.   Ibid.

  8. 8.   <>.

  9. 9.   <>.

  10. 10.  The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Mary M. Innes, Translator, Intro. op. cit., Book XIV, 101 passim, pp. 314-15.

  11. 11.  See: Tracy Boyd, “The Power of Naming: Notes for a True Reading of the Oedipus Rex” at  <>.

  12. 12.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. Two Volumes. (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1959), Vol. II, The Foundation of Troy, 158.q., pp. 263-64.

  13. 13.  See: Tracy Boyd, Circe’s Circle of Oaks at the Edge of the World” at <>.

  14. 14. iPhone app.

  15. 15.  T. S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, from Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917.

  16. 16.  Ibid.

  17. 17.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. (New York: Meridian Books, 1955. Originally published in 1903, then 1908, and again in 1922), pp. 198-99.

  18. 18.  The Odyssey of Homer. Translated with an Introduction by Richmond Lattimore. (New York: Harper Colophon Books: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), Book XII. 39-40, p. 186.

  19. 19.  Ibid., Book XII, 44.

  20. 20.  Ibid., Book XII, 40.

  21. 21.  Ibid., Book XII, 36.

  22. 22.  Ibid., Book XII, 45.

  23. 23.  Ibid., Book XII, 47-54.

  24. 24.  Ibid., Book XII, 158-59, p. 189.

  25. 25.  Ibid., Book XII, 182 . . . 183, p. 190.

  26. 26.  Ibid., Book XII, 185 . . . 187-88.

  27. 27.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., p. 206.

  28. 28.  <>.

  29. 29.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., p. 199.

  30. 30.  See Ibid., Fig. 37, p. 202, also illustrated here, and her detailed description on pp. 201-202.

  31. 31.  Ibid., Fig. 37, p. 202, of British Museum  red-figured stamnos, Cat. No. E440. The inscription over the upper left Siren is ‘Ime(r)opa’ (‘lovely-voiced’). Curiously, the Greek word imeros means ‘longing’, ‘yearning after’.

  32. 32.  Ibid., p. 200, quot. Eur. Hel. 167.

  33. 33.  The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Mary M. Innes, Translator, Intro., op. cit., Book V, 542, p. 130.

  34. 34.  Ibid., Book V, 552-564, pp. 130-31.

  35. 35.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, op. cit., Vol. II, “Odysseus’s Wanderings” 170q, p. 361.

  36. 36.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., p. 200.

  37. 37.  Ibid.

  38. 38.  See: Elaine A. Evans, who has identified the Egyptian species in her article, “Ancient Egyptian Ba-Bird”, McClung Museum, University of Tennessee, Research Notes, No. 14, November, 1993 at:  <>.

  39. 39.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., p. 201.

  40. 40.  Ibid.

  41. 41.  Ibid., pp. 203-04, and Jane Harrison’s own reference to such charms on p. 196.

  42. 42.  Ibid., p. 204.

  43. 43.  John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977,) p. 189, referring to the ‘Harpy Tomb’ from Xanthos in Anatolia; and Chapter XXII Soul Birds, pp. 188-191, passim, which is drawn largely from Jane Ellen Harrison’s writings about the Sirens in her 1903 Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, but which he shockingly fails to acknowledge, probably because he does not agree with her theory of the Siren as soul-bird!

  44. 44.  Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., p. 204.

  45. 45.  William Shakespeare, King Lear. V. III. 263.

  46. 46.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., pp. 204-05.

  47. 47.  The Republic of Plato. Francis MacDonald Cornford, Translator, Introduction, Notes. (New York/London: Oxford University Press, 1945; 27th printing, 1965), X.615-16, p. 354.

  48. 48.  Ibid., Francis MacDonald Cornford, Introductory commentary on the Myth of Er, p. 350.

  49. 49.  <>.

  50. 50.  Ibid.

  51. 51.  Hans Cousto, The Cosmic Octave: Origin of Harmony. Christopher Baker and Judith Harrison, Translators. (Mendocino, CA.: LifeRhythm, 1988, p.  96, quot. Platon.

  52. 52.  Regarding the workings of the octave, Hans Cousto quotes Platon: “The division of a string reveals the octave as the simplest proportion (1:2). . . . To form an octave is to double a frequency [first rising octave] or to halve it [first descending octave].” Ibid.

  53. 53.  The Republic of Plato. Francis MacDonald Cornford, Translator, Introduction, Notes, op. cit., X.616-17, pp. 354-55. Cornford has translated their names elsewhere in his fascinating introduction to the Myth of Er. They appear here in brackets only because they have been inserted by the author of the present article and are not a part of this particular quotation of Plato’s.

  54. 54.  See: Hans Cousto, The Cosmic Octave: Origin of Harmony. op. cit., pp. 84-85.  This entire book offers a very informative discussion of the sounds of the planets’ orbits with clear diagrams and detailed mathematical formulae by a truly avant-garde musicologist and mathematician.

  55. 55.  All of these calculations are from Hans Cousto, The Cosmic Octave: Origin of Harmony. op. cit., passim, and pp. 76, 111, 121; and from planetware’s website with further information on Hans Cousto and his brilliant work: <>.

  56. 56.  Hans Cousto, The Cosmic Octave: Origin of Harmony. op. cit., pp. 91-92.




The Romans made a goddess of the seer Carmentis, dedicated a temple to her and named one of the gates of the city, the Porta Carmentalis, in her honor. (3)  This mortal who “prophesied on the Capitoline Hill” (4) was a singer of oracles, or so we should have guessed from her name.  The Latin word carmen has many related meanings: ‘a song or tune, either vocal or instrumental, also of birds’, ‘a poem of any kind’, ‘a prediction, an oracle, or oracular declaration’, ‘an incantation’, ‘a religious or legal formula, which in ancient times was composed in verse’. (5)  Carmen would appear to be rather an important word.

An enchantment, as its name implies, is created by chanting.” (2)

by Tracy Boyd

© 2011

The Sibyl of Cumae (1)