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.