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.