The Many Stories of the Sirens

The Many Stories of the Sirens
By Jennifer Bullis

Sometimes, a story you thought you knew becomes strange and unfamiliar. Such a change in perspective happened to me while researching myths of the Sirens in preparation for writing the libretto to “Honey Sweet We Sing for You,” a cantata created for the Early Music Seattle program For All Our Sisters.

Going into this project, my only knowledge of the Sirens was from their brief depiction in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, in which the Sirens’ seductive songs lure sailors to wreck their ships on rocky islands. To avoid this danger, Odysseus has his crew plug their ears with wax and bind him to the mast as they sail by.

Since Homer gives few details about the Sirens, I went looking for other sources. I learned that the most ancient depictions of the Sirens, on ceramics, show them as having the bodies of birds and either female or male human faces. After about the 5th century BCE, they were represented with female faces only.

At every point, the Sirens have been closely linked to music. Sources as far back as Homer’s time, in the 8th century BCE, number the Sirens as two, three, or four singers. Alternatively, “One played the cithara, the second sang, and the third played the flute.” A version of Jason and the Argonauts noted that before being transformed into birds, the Sirens served the goddess Persephone as handmaidens and musical attendants, who sang to her in enchanting harmony.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written 800 years after Homer, also connects the Sirens to Persephone. It’s in this version that I found most compelling material as to the power and necessity of women’s voices. Ovid depicts the Sirens as handmaidens picking flowers with Persephone in a mountain meadow, at the moment Hades breaks through the ground to abduct the young goddess and take her to the Underworld to be his queen. Persephone’s mother, the earth goddess Demeter, launches a desperate search for her. Demeter transforms the Sirens into human-bird hybrids to enable them to search and call out for Persephone over both sea and land.

When composer Aaron Grad invited me to write the libretto for this cantata, he wanted to give the Sirens a way to retell their story in their own voices. Our cantata picks up where Ovid’s narration leaves off. We depict the Sirens continuing to call out for their lost sister-goddess in their vivid, beautiful songs. We imagine these to be the same songs that sailors heard and to which they were fatally drawn.

The libretto of Honey Sweet We Sing for You urges listeners to unstop their ears to the cries of distress that women have been sounding for millennia. The Sirens’ song of enchantment, as it turns out, may have originated as a lament over the loss of their sister, a cry of rage over the violence done to them all, and their desperate, searching call for reunion and healing. We hope you will enjoy, and listen.