In Greek mythology, the Sirens (Greek singular: Σειρήν, Seirḗn; Greek plural: Σειρῆνες, Seirênes) were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Roman poets placed them on some small islands called Sirenum scopuli.
In some later, rationalized traditions, the literal geography of the "flowery" island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa, is fixed: sometimes on Cape Pelorum and at others in the islands known as the Sirenuse, near Paestum, or in Capreae.
All such locations were surrounded by cliffs and rocks.
According to the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus, Plato said there were three kinds of Sirens: the celestial, the generative, and the purificatory / cathartic. The first were under the government of Zeus, the second under that of Poseidon, and the third of Hades. 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 in Hades, to conform the soul to eternal infernal regimen; but when on earth their only job to "produce generation, of which the sea is emblematic".
Sirens were believed to look like a combination of women and birds in various different forms. In early Greek art, they were represented as birds with large women's heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments,
especially harps and lyres.
The seventh-century Anglo-Latin catalogue Liber Monstrorum says that Sirens were women from their heads to their navels, and instead of legs they had fish tails. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, Sirens had the form of sparrows, and below they were women or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women's faces.
By the Middle Ages, the figure of the Siren had transformed into the
enduring mermaid figure.
Originally, Sirens were shown to be male or female, but the male Siren disappeared from art around the fifth century BC.
The first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder discounted Sirens as a pure fable, "although Dinon, the father of Clearchus, a celebrated writer, asserts that they exist in India, and that they charm men by their song, and, having first lulled them to sleep, tear them to pieces." In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, "The siren sings so sweetly that she lulls the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners."