THE SIRENS

BY V. C. TURNBULL

Circe, when her spell was broken and she could no longer hope to keep Ulysses in her toils, repented her of the mischief she had done to his companions, and in a sudden fit of generosity (for though fickle and froward she was not wholly bad or heartless) determined to speed her parting guest. Not only did she know the power of herbs that could turn men into beasts, but as a goddess she could see into the future and foretell what should come to pass.

So on the day of his departure she made a great feast and bade Ulysses and his crew. And they ate and drank to their hearts' content, and had no fear that they should suffer the fate of their companions. But Ulysses she took aside and revealed to him all that should befall him on his homeward voyage, and instructed him how he should avoid the perils that would beset him on the way. And first of all she bade him beware of the Sirens—sea maidens, whose song is more musical than is Apollo's lute; no mortal can resist its ravishment, and he who listens is lost.

But Ulysses, whose soul still hungered for new adventures, said: "To hear such music, a man might well choose to die. Let me at any risk hear the song of the Sirens!"

Then the goddess instructed him how, if he followed her precepts, he might hear the song of the Sirens and yet live. What the instructions were there is no need to tell, for Ulysses did all that the goddess had bidden him, and all that she foretold came to pass.

So on the morrow the crew embarked, and Circe sending them a fair wind they were carried swiftly upon their way. But the heart of Ulysses was heavy as he pondered the counsels of the goddess and thought on the Sirens who had drawn so many men to their death. So he stood up and spoke to all his men, saying:

"Friends, it is well I should declare to you the oracles of Circe, that with foreknowledge we may shun death—for she bade us shun the sound of the voices of the Sirens, and me only she bade listen to their song. Bind me, therefore, in a hard bond, that I may remain unmoved in my place, upright in the mast-stead, and from the mast let rope-ends be tied; and if I entreat and command you to set me free, then do ye bind me with yet more bonds."

The men gave good heed, promising to obey in all things the commands of their wise leader.

Meanwhile, land was spied ahead, and, Circe's wind still speeding the ship, she was borne swiftly towards the shore. Suddenly the wind ceased and there was a dead calm. No sea-bird cried, and the very waves seemed spell-bound. Then Ulysses knew that they were approaching the perilous Isle of the Sirens. So while his men were furling in the idle sails and plying the oars once more, he drew his sharp sword and, cutting in pieces a great cake of wax, kneaded it with his strong hands. Then, when the wax was soft, he anointed therewith the ears of his men as they sat at their oars, that they might not hear the voices of the Sirens. And the men in their turn bound their leader hand and foot upright in the mast-stead, and from the mast they fastened rope-ends. Having done this, they sat down to their oars and smote the level waters.

Fast sped the ship across the bay, and now they were within hailing distance of the land. And there on the shore stood the Sirens, lovely as goddesses, singing and striking their golden lyres. Round about them was a green meadow, very sweet to the eyes of those sea-worn warriors, for the white bones with which it was strewn appeared but as lilies such as they remembered in their fields at home.

Nearer sped the ship, and now the Sirens, seeing the far-famed Ulysses on board, sang yet more sweetly, in this fashion:

"O hither, come hither and furl your sails,
Come hither to me and to me:
Hither, come hither and frolic and play;
Here it is only the mew that wails;
We will sing to you all the day:
Mariner, mariner, furl your sails;
... sweet shall your welcome be.
O hither, come hither, and be our lords,
For merry brides are we:


We will kiss sweet kisses and speak sweet words:
O listen, listen, your eyes shall glisten
When the sharp clear twang of the golden chords
Runs up the ridgèd sea.
Who can light on as happy a shore
All the world o'er, all the world o'er?
Whither away? listen and stay: mariner, mariner, fly no more."[3]

So they sang, waving their white arms, beckoning with smiles and twanging their golden lyres. And their  voice floating over the waters was sweet in the ears of travel-worn Ulysses—so sweet indeed, that forgetting the wise counsels of Circe, he called to his company to unbind him. But they, having their ears stopped with wax, could hear neither him nor the Sirens, and rowed more swiftly than before. So Ulysses made signs to them, nodding and frowning, whereupon two of them, Perimedes and Eurylochus, remembering his former words, rose and bound him yet faster to the mast. And bending their backs the rowers pulled their hardest, the curved keel shooting past the perilous shore. Fainter and fainter grew the song of the Sirens as now they were left behind, and their white arms could hardly be seen beckoning. And anon a breeze broke once more upon the deadly calm, and the sails being hoisted the ship was swept out to sea and the Isle of the Sirens became but a speck upon the horizon and was lost to view.

So, by following the wise counsels of Circe of the braided tresses, the much-experienced Ulysses and all his comrades escaped the wiles of the Sirens who had enticed many to their death.

But when the Sirens saw themselves at last defeated, their song was turned into a wail and their white robes seemed like wind-swept foam as they plunged beneath the wave. But the Sirens are immortal, and though no men can now behold their white bosoms pressing golden harps, yet their voices are still heard and still they sing the same song that they sang to Ulysses:

"Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more."[4]