Flash Essay: Perception in the Symbol of the Bird-Woman
“Perception is ninety percent of reality.” – John Smith
What is a siren? A siren is described as a man-eating creature that is half woman and half bird. These sirens are originally maidens of Persephone who are later given wings by Demeter. They are often described as evil creatures harbouring wicked intentions, and they are often viewed as seductresses. The attitude in viewing them is negative. L. Teal Willoughby talks about questioning the assumptions indicated by symbols as well their role in the transformation of consciousness (139). Taking that into account, the siren represents more than the seductress. She represents an archetype marred by a skewed perception and she represents a scapegoat.
There are many female archetypes but the enchantress, wild woman, or seductress is associated to the sirens. Interestingly, a seductress is assertive, strong, smart, and has relationships that serve a purpose; sirens are implicit in that description. All of these characteristics are powerful and intimidating. Historically, and even presently, intimidating, powerful, and feared things are dealt with by twisting the powerful object to make it seem negative and therefore discrediting its power. The siren, as a symbol of the wild woman, needs to be considered with the view that, “symbols connect consciousness with the unconsciousness, including fears, desires, and denied prejudices…” (Willoughby 135). With that in mind it is interesting to note Baring and Cashford’s brief discussion on the bird-man in reference to shamans (36). A shaman is assertive, strong, smart, and has relationships that serve a purpose. However, the shaman, who can access and communicate with spirits of good and evil, is not considered a terrifying entity because the shaman is validated by his community. The shaman or bird-man’s power in connection to the mystery of death and life is perceived as positive and healing. Therefore, the bird as a historically positive symbol encompasses the perceived connection of the shaman to the bird. In contrast, the female has historically suffered prejudice and negativity resulting in being viewed as other and something to be feared. The siren is cast away from the idea of the bird as historically positive. Therefore, the siren and her connection to life and death is perceived as negative.
Baring and Cashford point out that “Many times in the Odyssey Athena manifests as a bird and is recognized as the goddess in six different bird forms…” (123). Athena, who is herself, a wild woman, a warrior, a goddess, and “…the chief war deity of the Greeks…” (Barring and Cashford 337). She is a female who is a teacher and builder. She is strategy, foresight, and wisdom. She offers a different perspective on a bird-woman. Comparatively, the siren is also strategy, foresight, and wisdom. However, Athena’s qualities of fierceness, ruthlessness, and unforgiveness are valued in relation to her masculinity. She is viewed as someone to be revered. In contrast, these qualities when viewed in relation to the feminine, or the siren, are perceived as wild and evil. They are something to be feared. Jung argues that, “…symbols carry the seeds of transformation if we allow them to engage our total perspective” (qtd. in Willoughby 139). If we regard these qualities without the lenses of masculine or feminine does the perception of them change?
“Jung identifies problematic approaches to symbols, such as one-sided patriarchal approaches that excludes and oppresses other perspectives” (qtd. In Willoughby 135). Many have argued that sirens are a symbol of danger and temptation. However, is it really her exterior beauty coupled with her voice that grants the siren power over others? An argument could be made that people give sirens power over them. It becomes a question of perspective. Is the siren not strategy, foresight, and wisdom, or in the case of the sailors a lack there-of? The siren as danger and temptation is a mask for the sailor’s failure to use strategy, foresight, and wisdom. Interestingly, nothing is ever said about the sailors falling prey to their own sexual desires. Perhaps it is a question of what controls fate instead of who. The shipwrecked crews know the dangers of sailing to close to the sirens from history as well as from viewing other wrecks, and yet they sail on to their demise blinded by a strong sexual desire. Whether the sailors made choice or succumb to their own temptation it is not an act the sirens control.
If “symbols bring together different levels of reality and relate them in a way that creates a unity of meaning and a new conscious experience” than perhaps it is time to acknowledge the sirens assertiveness, strength, intelligence, and purposefulness in a positive manner (Willoughby 139). It is time to change the perception of the symbol. It is time to stop placing blame on a scapegoat and take responsibility for one’s own actions. Baring and Cashford state that, “in many pictures of any tradition the direction of the bird’s flight is simply a matter of interpretation” (595). Is this any different? It is time to look at the complete perspective.
Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. Penguin Books, 1993.
Jung, Carl. Man and his Symbols. Dell Publishing Company, 1968.
Willoughby, L. T. “Ecofeminist Consciousness and the Transforming Power of Symbols.” Ecofeminism and the Sacred, edited by Carol J. Adams, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993, pp. 133-148.
By Sarah Little
To further celebrate our inaugural issue the editors of Cauldron Anthology will be posting poems, essays and flash fiction to celebrate the theme of Siren. We will be posting every Saturday, alternating between Siren themed works, and riddles for our upcoming second issue. Today we have our first riddle. See if you can guess the theme for Issue 2!
I am a protector, a guardian
of a liminal state.
If you meet me, you
have a toll to pay.
Most cannot afford to pay,
but perhaps you can.
If you cannot, you may not
Who am I?
The image of the siren is synonymous with Greek Mythology and of course, the epic of the Odyssey. The siren is a strong figure, a temptress of the sea who encourages even the most moralistic of men to cast aside their virtues and partake in a less than holy ritual. They are the Hellenic figure of temptation; a reminder of sin.
First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them (Homer).
While also a symbol of temptation to some degree, the mermaid has become a figure of a weakened femininity that is solely reliant on the world of men.
Her skin was as soft and tender as a rose petal, and her eyes were as blue as the deep sea, but like all the others she had no feet. Her body ended in a fish tail (Hans Christian Anderson).
There is a clear change is imagery between Homer’s Sirens and Hans Christian Anderson’s mermaid. Though Anderson draws upon the mythology already created by the Greeks, he does not use the strong female image like Homer. Instead he portrays a beautiful girl unable to stand on two feet. She is granted her feet later in the story by magic, she does not earn it nor does she take it. Homer’s sirens on the other hand are able to make their own choices, even if they are seen as sinful.
Skip forward to the twenty-first century and we see another change in the mythos of the siren. We have begun to see the emergence of strong female characters unmarred by their sinful label of the past. Women are no longer the temptresses of old, nor are they solely reliant on men. Women are becoming products of their own making, destroying the tattered paths of old and building new identities. But this does not mean that all female characters in literature are written as strong, independent women. No, for the most part they mimic the reality of society; women can be strong, but they can also be weak, just as their male counterparts can be.
Kate Forsyth’s Dancing on Knives is an example of sirens in twenty-first century literature. The novel creates a discourse on the role of women in society. Women are complicated; they cannot be pigeonholed into one category. Dancing on Knives explores the idea of women as sexual objects, the property of men. But it also aims to break free of this ideology. Like Anderson’s mermaid, the main female protagonist in Dancing on Knives feels trapped, but unlike the mermaid her predicament is self-inflicted. She put herself in that situation and she is the only one who can get herself out of it. There is a sense that women have finally been accepted as being able to make their own choices. However, Dancing with Knives still questions how much control women have over themselves, particularly in terms of sexual identity.
Forsyth’s work also brings up the more modern image of the male siren. This figure is just as much a temptress as the feminine siren, but it is not plagued with social contempt in the same way the female character is. The male siren is often congratulated on their conquests, rather than condemned for their loose morals. The male siren, though flawed in his own way, is often a figure of strength and masculinity. He is a message to men that leading a woman away from her virtues is an admirable plight and something to aspire to.
The siren has been reconstructed many times throughout history, from the Greek temptress, to the reliant on men mermaid, to the complex modern female. Though the character of the siren is becoming more inclusive and questioning of social norms, the figure is still one cast beneath its male companion. The siren is yet to break free from its social and gender shackles.
Homer. “The Odyssey.” Project Gutenberg, 9 April 2013, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1727/1727-h/1727-h.htm.
Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” The Hans Christian Anderson Centre, The University of Southern Denmark, 11 August 2015, http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheLittleMermaid_e.html.
Forsyth, Kate. Dancing with Knives. Random House, 2014.
To start gearing up for our inaugural issue, the editors of Cauldron Anthology will be posting poems, essays and flash fiction to celebrate our theme. We will be posting every Saturday, alternating between Siren themed works, and riddles for our upcoming second issue. See if you can guess the theme for Issue 2!
The Siren's Song
She sung the song
of dreams past and memories future,
calling out to whomever would listen;
The day would come
when oceans rose and thunder roared,
an invitation to worthy seafarers;
That would be the day
that she sung her song of temptation,
challenging the virtues of man;
for one to resist.