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Definition: siren from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Greek mythology, a sea nymph, half woman and half bird, who lured sailors to shipwreck along rocky coasts with her irresistable singing, before devouring them. Odysseus, on the advice of the enchantress Circe, tied himself to the mast of his ship in order to hear the sirens safely, and plugged his crew's ears with wax.

When the Argonauts sailed by, the singing of their companion Orpheus surpassed that of the sirens and the expedition escaped. Enraged, the nymphs threw themselves into the sea and were transformed into rocks.


Summary Article: Siren (perhaps from Greek seira, ‘rope’, so ‘entangler’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

One of the mythical monsters, half-woman and half-bird, said by Greek poets to entice seamen by the sweetness of their song to such a degree that the listeners forgot all and died of hunger. The word thus came to be applied to any dangerous, alluring woman.

In Homeric mythology there were two sirens, but later writers name three: PARTHENOPE, Ligea and Leucosia. The number was still further augmented by others. The sirens were the daughters of Achelous and either MELPOMENE, Sterope or TERPSICHORE.

ULYSSES escaped their blandishments by filling his companions’ ears with wax and lashing himself to the mast of his ship. While the ARGONAUTS sailed past their island, ORPHEUS sang and played on his harp so that he and his companions would not be lured towards them.

Plato says there were three kinds of sirens: the celestial, the generative and the cathartic. The first were under the government of JUPITER, the second under that of NEPTUNE and the third of PLUTO. When the soul is in heaven, the sirens seek, by harmonic motion, to unite it to the divine life of the celestial host, and when it is in HADES, to conform it to the infernal regimen, but on earth they spawn generation, of which the sea is emblematic (Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, Bk vi (5th century ad)).

In 1819 the word was adopted by the French physicist Charles Cagniard de la Tour (1777-1859) as the name of an acoustical instrument used to produce musical tones and to measure the number of vibrations in a note. It was this that gave the term for the modern mechanical whistle sounded at a factory to indicate that work is to be started or finished for the day. Sirens with two or more notes were employed in the Second World War to give warning of an air raid, sounding the ‘alarm’ beforehand and the ‘all clear’ after.

What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.

sir thomas browne: Hydriotaphia, ch v (1658)
Siren suit

A one-piece lined and warm garment on the lines of a boiler suit, sometimes worn in London during the air raids of the Second World War. It was much favoured by Sir Winston Churchill and was so named from its being slipped on over night clothes at the first wail of the SIREN.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2012

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