We all love sirens, don’t we? They usually travel in threes, like MacBeth’s witches. When I saw MacBeth at my local theatre a few years ago, the witches’ opening speeches came out of a swirling mist in the darkness, and sitting in the front row, I jumped half out of my skin, even though I knew what to expect. From the moment the play opens with the phrase, ‘When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ we have a shivering sense of it already being too late to escape.
Sirens do not always hunt in threes. Sometimes they hunt alone, like the Lorelei siren, singing irresistibly to lure sailors to their death on the rocks of the great river Rhine. Her very aloneness is her weapon. The victim, walking into her lair in confidence, feels invincible, and almost pities the siren about to devour him. I say ‘him’, as sirens are usually depicted as female, and their victims are generally male. Time for a gender swap, maybe?
The siren’s typical characteristics are: physical beauty that is often a mirage or façade to hide something hideous and unnatural. The beauty is used to seduce; song or music soothes the senses or even calls an unnatural slumber to fall upon their prey, or again, to seduce, arousing their victims with promises of love and physical fulfilment. The sirens lie in wait, endlessly patient, ready to snare the unwary, the naive, the innocent adventurer who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or any guy who thinks he can take advantage of a lucky situation. As in the mesmerising scene with the sirens in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? there is a pleasurable anticipation of what might happen. The three sirens wash their clothes in the river, the rhythmic slapping of cloth on stone and water providing the percussion for a seductive call to the watching man’s senses. He is trapped and cannot get away.
Sirens have mysterious powers, and they can bend a man to their will, no matter how good and chaste he may be, no matter how worldly-wise and ‘experienced’ in the ways of love. Maybe he’ll get ‘loved up and turned into a horny toad’, as the men in O Brother Where Art Thou fear will happen to them, but it’s a chance the unwitting victim is always, always prepared to take. Sirens are bringers of doom, of ruin. They are depicted as mercurial, evasive, changing and insubstantial, there one minute and gone the next. No victim will see their true self until his ruin is complete. No one can resist the lure of the siren when she has decided to call them.
But the siren is not the only one who owns this fatal attraction.
The innocent—pure or naive, chaste of body and mind, or merely without guile—this person is as alluring to the siren as she is to him. Evil craves purity. Wickedness pursues goodness to overtake and devour it. Monsters are always appeased—and always drawn in—by their need to consume maidens and the innocent. The dark always seeks the light, because in its own way the light has become the unknowable to those who live in darkness. The siren can never know or experience innocence, because that would mean a denial of her own essential nature—it would require purity and great sacrifice. To follow the way of the innocent is alien and impossible for the siren to achieve. She is forced by her very nature to live outside of society’s acceptance and rules, and must live by instinct alone. Thus, the innocent, completely oblivious of their power, draw the siren after them. The siren is doomed to flutter towards the candleflame of purity as a moth, and just as unable to save themselves.
Which one is the victim, which one is the hunter?