The Sirens as Psychopomps and Muses of the Underworld

I came across this beautiful description of the Sirens in Karl Kerenyi’s Gods of the Greeks (first published in 1951). It seems that far form being the evil seductresses often portrayed in literature, they were in fact guides of the souls to the underworld. Like the Sphinx, they symbolized the ultimate mysteries of life and death and the knowledge of fate:

“Any account of the Sirens must include a mention of Acheloos, the most revered of our river gods, to whom … is attributed the paternity of the Sirens … Acheloos had a lower body consisting of a serpent-like fish. But his head was horned, and one of the horns was broken off by Herakles. From the blood that dripped from the wound the Sirens were born: a birth similar to that of the Erinyes.

Acheloos, detail from a Roman mosaic in Zeugma (via Wikipedia)

Our ancient painters and designers upon vessels depicted the Sirens not only as female beings, but sometimes as male and bearded. That the beings depicted are Sirens, either male or female, is shown by their having predominantly a bird’s body, to which a human head is added, and often also a woman’s breasts and arms. The talon feet are often very powerful, and sometimes end in a lion’s pads, as if to reveal a close kinship between Siren and Sphinx. The lower part of the body is sometimes shaped like an egg. …The distinguishing characteristic of the Sirens … is—apart from their birdlike shape—their talent for music; and this connects them with the Muses. They play on the lyre or on the double flute …

[There is] a close link between the Sirens and Persephone. It was told that the Sirens were companions of the Queen of the Underworld; that they were daughters of Chthon, the ‘depths of the earth’, and that Persephone sent them into this world. … By their art the bitterness of death is alleviated and disguised.”

The Siren of Canosa (4th century BC)
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6 Responses to The Sirens as Psychopomps and Muses of the Underworld

  1. Jeff says:

    Hmm. The Siren’s song guides the soul across the Abyss? Something to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the interesting background on sirens. My post dealt with their portrayal in illustrations of the episode in The Odyssey. https://misfitsandheroes.wordpress.com/2021/03/09/sirens/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Diego Rueda says:

    It looks like the symbol of the benevolent and the terrifying underworld is both depicted by the sirens. It is like the images of the female in many traditions. However I wonder how far we can stretch these traditions to fit a current psychological approach, and fill the gaps that we are missing: Ether from the mythological perspective, or from a psychological perspective.  

    Also maybe this is related to the tarot cards, in particular the card number XII, The hanged man, and he is illuminated; either by good things or bad things. I believe this card shows us the moment when we let the unconscious embrace us and we suspend ourselves in it. When this happens we see both the benevolente mother and the evil like devil, like “Lilith”: Not because she is evil but because we reject something that it is our innermost part of the soul. 

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, really thoughtful remarks and questions – thank you. It was Jung who said that the shadow is an inextricable part of every archetype along with the light. Of course, the feminine has not only been carrying her own shadow but also has been a target of projections for centuries.
      About the question you ask if we can “stretch these traditions to fit a current psychological approach,” I do not have the answer to that. But I think the sacred and the ancient should be approached with reverence and without breaking the seal of mystery. I think Hillman said something to that effect but I cannot find the relevant quote.
      Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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