Guest Post: The Call of Sirens, an essay by Amanda Kespohl

In honor of the upcoming anthology, Sirens, I have one of its lovely contributors, Amanda Kespohl, on the blog today to talk about the titular creatures and how the myth remains relevant to readers today. Take it away, Amanda!

The Call of Sirens

The_Siren
“The Siren” by John William Waterhouse (1900).

As Pedro Mendia-Landa writes in his article, “Universal Myths and Symbols: Animal Creatures and Creation,” mythology is a strange mixture of science, philosophy, and religion.[1] It endeavors to explain why and how the world and the things in it came to be.[2] Our ancient ancestors had no other way of explaining the world around them. Yet even now, in an age of DNA analysis, space travel, and the ability to plumb the depths of the earth in search of fossils, we still feel the need to tell ourselves stories about mermaids, fairies, dragons, and griffins. Perhaps this is because while the great mysteries of the universe are closer to our fingertips, we remain a mystery to ourselves. Our continued love for retellings of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales may be our way of trying to make sense of why we are the way we are.

As New York psychologist Karen Sharf explained in Elizabeth Landau’s article, “Why Do We Need to Look for Bigfoot?”, “[s]ome monsters are scary. Some monsters are friendly. Sometimes in movies or myths, we befriend the monster, and it’s just like in our inner world: There are monsters, there are darker aspects that we have to face.” [3] She further noted that “[w]e need these stories to teach us about what we’re going to come against in life and how to overcome it.”[4] The notion that fantastic tales hold truths about overcoming real-life obstacles is echoed in an oft-paraphrased quote by writer G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”[5] If this is so, what do we teach ourselves about our own nature and the obstacles we face by reading about sirens?

In Greek mythology, sirens were the beautiful daughters of a river god who used their unearthly voices to lure passing ships onto the rocks.[6] In some myths, they were the companions of Persephone who were transformed into human-bird hybrids as punishment for their failure to prevent her abduction.[7] Over time, the line between mermaids and sirens began to blur until mermaids were sometimes depicted as using their enchanting singing voices to entice sailors into the sea.[8] Regardless of whether they dwell in the sea or sky, sirens are often portrayed as dangerous, mysterious, and alluring. Even today, you can find such sirens in literature. For instance, in Something Rich and Strange by Patricia McKillip, an artist and her amateur geologist boyfriend find their relationship challenged by a mysterious singer and a handsome yet sinister artist who have a strange connection to the sea.[9]

There is a recurring theme in this conception of a siren—that of something tantalizing that threatens to lure us where we don’t belong, possibly to our doom. A warning, perhaps, of the dangers of wishing for the unattainable. It is human nature to want what we shouldn’t have. Yet, being led astray by illicit desires can bring about disaster. In the stories, the message regarding how to handle such temptations is typically to resist them, no matter the difficulty. In The Odyssey, Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of his ship while they stopped up their ears to pass by the sirens without falling under their influence.[10] Similarly, Jason and his Argonauts eluded the sirens by having Orpheus play his music so loudly that they didn’t hear the sirens singing.[11] And while I shan’t spoil McKillip’s story for you, suffice it to say that her characters also struggled against their fates, although with what success, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Other writers have put their own twist on this view of sirens as dangerous forces of nature, agreeing that they can be harmful, but depicting that harm as innocently inflicted. For instance, in Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, his Siren didn’t realize that she was luring men into harm’s way. She was only lonely, and looking for companionship. This suggests to me another reason that we like to read about sirens—to personify those natural forces that can cause harm and give us someone to blame for our misfortune. Perhaps, as Sharf suggested, even to give us a foe who can be defeated. But in truth, it’s as futile to blame a siren for singing as it is to blame the sea for its undertow. Maybe this particular strain of siren tales dictates acceptance—accidents happen. Sometimes, blame helps nothing, and all you can do is heal.

Ultimately, there are many ways to portray sirens, the range of which is reflected in SIRENS, the forthcoming anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish in which you’ll find my short story, “The Fisherman and the Golem.” We return to such tales, regardless of how they’re approached, because they contain kernels of truth dressed in strange and beautiful fiction. Parts of ourselves, our gifts and flaws, and echoes of the struggles we endure in real life.

About the Author

MoiAmanda Kespohl is a fantasy writer and appellate judicial clerk who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with her beagle, Bailey. Her work has previously been featured in Alien Abduction, a science fiction and fantasy anthology released by Robot Cowgirl Press. More recently, her short story, “The Fisherman and the Golem” was published in the Sirens anthology, edited by Rhonda Parrish and published by World Weaver Press.

Amanda can be found on the web at https://amandakespohl.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at @amandakespohl.

The Sirens anthology features short stories that run the gamut from sirens anthtraditional tales of sirens of the sea and sky to modern re-imaginings that take place in settings as diverse as a high school football game, wartime London, and even outer space. It is available at AmazonKobo, and Barnes and Noble.

Citations:

[1] Mendia-Landa, Pedro. “Universal Myths and Symbols: Animal Creatures and Creation.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Web. June 8, 2016. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1998/2/98.02.05.x.html#d.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Laundau, Elizabeth. “Why Do We Need to Look for Bigfoot?” CNN. Cable News Network. June 21, 2010. Web. June 3, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/21/bigfoot.psychology.monsters/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chesterton, G.K. “The Red Angel.” Tremendous Trifles. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1909. This quote has been famously paraphrased by famous authors such as Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and even in an episode of “Criminal Minds.” http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/101407141743/every-version-of-that-chesterton-quotation-about.

[6] “Sirens.” Greek Mythology. Web. June 8, 2016. http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Sirens/sirens.html.

[7] Cartwright, Mark. “Siren.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 16, 2015. Web. June 3, 2016. http://www.ancient.eu/Siren/.

[8] Kelly, Debra. “The Difference Between Mermaids and Sirens.” Knowledge Nuts. February 5, 2014. Web. June 3, 2016. http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/02/05/the-difference-between-mermaids-and-sirens/.

[9] This short novel was recently republished in the anthology, Dreams of Distant Shores, and is currently available as an ebook or in paperback.

[10] Cartwright, http://www.ancient.eu/Siren/.

[11] Ibid.

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