Homer’s Odyssey in Art: the Allure of the Sirens

Hugh Jackman is reportedly in talks to play the lead in a movie adaptation of The Odyssey.  In Homer’s epic poem, the Sirens sing a song so irresistible that none can hear it and escape. Circe warns Odysseus of the danger and tells him how to avoid it. He must plug up his mens’ ears with beeswax, and have himself tied to the mast if he wishes to hear it.

It is a scene that has beguiled many artists including John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), known for his depictions of women from ancient Greek mythology.

“Going forward
I carried wax along the line, and laid it
thick on their ears. They tied me up, then, plumb
amidships, back to the mast, lashed to the mast,
and took themselves again to rowing. Soon,
as we came smartly within hailing distance,
the two Sirens, noting our fast ship,
off their point, made ready, and they sang…”

(Odyssey, Book Twelve, lines 144 ff.)

The most remarkable difference between the Homeric tale and its visual interpretations consists in the fact that in Homer the Sirens are not described: therefore, painters could use artistic license.

In Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891 by Waterhouse, the Sirens are portrayed as hybrid creatures, part woman and part bird. It is likely that Waterhouse got his inspiration from Ancient Greek vases.



Ulysses and the Sirens, illustration from an antique Greek vase, French School, (19th century) / Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images

Sirens as winged maidens

In early Greek art, Sirens were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps. Birds were chosen because of their beautiful voices.



Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909 by Herbert James Draper (1864-1920) / Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums, UK / Bridgeman Images

The Siren as beautiful temptress

The fearsome creatures are depicted very differently in Draper’s more provocative retelling, by imagining them as beautiful mermaid seductresses. We see a boat full of muscly sailors apparently terrified by three nude girls. The image of the temptress frequently occurs in late Victorian art, often as little more than an excuse for eroticism.

Find out more

Believed to have been written near the end of the 8th century BC, The Odyssey follows the adventures of the warrior Odysseus and the fantastic trials and tribulations he encounters on his decade-long journey home to Greece after the fall of Troy.

Production on The Odyssey movie is planned to begin in early 2016 with Erik Feig, Jim Miller and James Myers overseeing for Lionsgate.

Homer in art 

Homer’s Odyssey has inspired many artists. See more images in the Bridgeman archive.

Get in touch with the Bridgeman team on uksales@bridgemanimages.com with enquires about licensing and clearing copyright.

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