Sirens: the Femme Fatales of Folklore

Sirens, edited by Rhonda ParrishToday’s guest post is about Sirens, the next Magical Menageries anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish, and is by Eliza Chan.

Sirens. That was Rhonda Parrish’s call for submissions for the latest World Weaver Press anthology.  The alarm bells started going, well, the connotations of sirens with the emergency services, wailing noise and flashing lights. How interesting that minor creatures from Greek mythology have become a word for warning, the noise of life or death scenarios. It made me think, why are mythological sirens portrayed as malevolent whereas mermaids fill the Disney store and waterpark shows? What makes a siren a siren rather than a mermaid, a nymph or another water creature? Or are these all one and the same?

For me, and I’m guessing most others, my knowledge about sirens comes from Homer’s The Odyssey and the scene where brave and foolish Odysseus, although pre-warned by Circe, chooses to listen to the siren song whilst his crew plug their ears up with wax. Tied to the mast of his ship, he is unable to throw himself overboard but what he gained from hearing the song and living. Did he simply want to hear the legendary song, to test his own power against the magic, or did he have a sadistic edge to him?

The word siren now has mainly negative connotations. Much like temptress, seductress, femme fatale or vamp, sirens belong to the trope of beautiful women out to entrap innocent men. Be she a hybrid with wings or fins, the very notion of her being half-something else points towards animalistic and savage tendency. Sirens are as wild and unpredictable as the seas.

So where does a siren end and a mermaid begin? In English they are distinct however in many other languages including Spanish, French and Italian, the word for both is the same. And get this, the old wives’ tale about mermaids being the hallucinations of lonely fishermen who had seen manatees off the side of the vessels? Sirenia is the biological order name for sea cows including manatees and dugong.

Mermaids seem to have evolved from sirens. There’s evidence to back this up in their shared traits. Looking at European mythology, most of the humanoid water creatures are female and follow the template of a siren in being beautiful, dangerous and tragic. Preferably with a song or two. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is very siren-like. Her main power over the prince is her voice, and without it, she does not have the skills to make him fall for her. Scottish selkies, are also siren-like, seals who shed their skin to become beautiful women.  Song of the Sea, a marvellous 2014 Irish animated film about selkies had an obligatory tragic love story and a magical song. Welsh Morgens are beautiful water spirits who lure men into the water by brushing their hair and singing. If you haven’t guessed, morgens were the model for Morgan le Fay of the King Arthur mythology, not exactly the most pleasant character in Camelot. The Slavic Rusalka is a drowned spirit with perpetually wet hair, who seduces men with her looks and voice then pulls them under the water.

I could go on. After a while it all sounds a bit familiar. A bit like fairy tales were to teach children to not trust stepmothers, strangers and peculiar bargains, sirens and their elk taught men that beautiful women were not to be trusted. They have ulterior motives, dangerous power and can never been tamed. In our modern world, this portrayal of women’s beauty makes most people balk. And there has thankfully, been a backlash against the idea that sirens, mermaids, women, were made to please men, to ensnare men.

Which brings me back to Odysseus. He chose to listen to the siren song, despite knowing how dangerous it was. He also chose to deafen his men so only he alone would experience the song. Some versions of the myth say the sirens would die if their song was ineffective against men. So Odysseus and his crew were responsible for their deaths. And the sirens? Did they have any choice? Agency? Or were they bound to sing to any person that passed by? Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Siren Song” looks at this.

That’s why the Sirens anthology is so timely. What will 16 different writers do with an intoxicating yet dated trope of woman’s power of song and seduction? Mermaids have been given all the hype so it’s about time sirens had their chance. Which parts of the myth will each writer choose to keep, which to subvert, and which to abandon altogether? There’s only one way to find out.

Eliza ChanEliza Chan writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. She has had work published in Fantasy Magazine, Lontar and a Fox Spirit anthology Winter Tales. Her story “One More Song” is in Sirens anthology (editor Rhonda Parrish), out on July 12th from World Weaver Press. She tweets as @elizawchan.

Thanks, Eliza! There are so many dangerous water-based females in folklore and mythology. Since I write a lot here about Japanese folklore, I’ll mention the nure onago, the nure onna, the iso onna — actually, the whole shoreline is fairly ominous!

(Note to regular readers: I’ve had a couple of questions about the mermaid story I was working on. Please note that story is not in this anthology. You should acquire this anthology; I’ve read it and reviewed it and I like it! But my story turned out far too long for this. Don’t worry, you’ll get to see it later now! but please don’t misunderstand that it’s here.)

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