Today, Sirens are imagined as sweet, alluring singers in the shape of a woman or mermaid. In early Greek mythology, sirens were actually prophets and described as having bodies of a bird and beautiful human heads with voices so sweetly seductive that no man can resist them, and a taste for human flesh. There may have been as few as three of them or as many as eight. Some ancient myths say the sirens are the daughters of the river Achelous and the Muse of dancing, Terpsichore the "Whirler."

Their family history is complex and contradictory. They were originally water nymphs, daughter of a river god named Achelous, but they seem to have been related to Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. No one knows exactly why they evolved into an avian species. One story is that they did so in order to console humans, by singing to them during their afterlife in the Underworld, but this would not account for their later activities. Another story is that when they were water nymphs they insisted on retaining their virginity, thus exasperating Venus Aphrodite into changing them into birds.

The numbers and names of the sirens are inconsistant in classical mythology.

  • Homer mentions two Sirens, but only names one, Himeropa ('arousing face').
  • Elsewhere, there was said to be three of them called Thelchtereia ("enchantress"), Aglaope ("glorious face"), and Peisinoe ("seductress").
  • Finally, in Italy, they were named Parthenope ("virgin"), Leucosia ("white goddess"), and Ligeia ("bright-voiced").

Sirens are skilled musicians both vocally and instrumentally. According to the writers who claimed there were three of them, one sang, one played the lyre, and one played the flute. They lived on a lonely, rocky island called Anthemoessa ("flowery") near the southwestern coast of Italy between the island of Aeaea and the rock of Scylla. There on the island they awaited passing ships. They were companions of Persephone and were with her when she was kidnapped by Hades. As the servants of the goddess of the underworld, they sang prophecies relating to the kingdom of the god Hades and their voices were so sweet that enchanted sailors smashed their ships upon the rocks beneath the Sirens' coastal meadow. Lycophorn calls the Sirens 'barren nightingales and slayers of the Centaurs, because the Centaurs were so charmed with their song that they forgot to eat.

Sirens were a supreme danger to navigation until the crews of two ships managed to evade them. The first were those of the ship commanded by Odysseus, whom Circe the sorceress had warned of the power of the sirens. He stopped up the ears of his crew with beeswax so that they would not hear the siren songs, and had himself lashed to the foot of the mast so that he would not surrender to their seduction. When he begged to be released, the crew had orders to tighten his bonds.

Odysseus and his men passed safely by, but other crews perished until Jason and the Argonauts came within siren range. The Argonauts were accompanied by the god Orpheus and sailed past in the ship Argo and they knew nothing of the sirens' dreadful powers, and one of the crew, Butes (some accounts say his name was Eryx), actually jumped overboard and swam into their grasp, but was saved by Aphrodite who loved him. The rest of the Argonauts might have followed him, but Orpheus, the supreme musician, struck up a tune on his lyre and sang even more beguilingly than the sirens. The crew could not help listening to him instead of to the sirens, who were so infuriated by this second failure that they threw themselves into the sea.

It is not known why they devoted themselves to devouring humans, especially seafarers. In a legend about the Sirens and the Muses, it was said Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded the Sirens to enter a singing contest with the Muses. The Muses won the competition and then plucked out all of the Sirens' feathers and made crowns out of them.

Another account says they were so proud of their musical ability that they challenged the Muses to a singing contest, and when they lost it they exiled themselves to a rocky island (possibly the Isle of Capri) and revenged themselves on passing sailors. Some stories say that they also had the ability to change themselves into mermaids, so that their bare-breasted beauty made them even more seductive to seamen.

Whatever the facts may be, there can be no doubt as to their technique. When they sighted an approaching ship, they posed on the rocks and sang songs of such exquisite sweetness, promising such transcendental delights, that the sailors abandoned their ship and swam ashore. As soon as they landed the sirens pounced, tore them apart with their cruel talons, and added their bones to those which littered the island.

There was a temple of the Sirens near Surrentum (Sorrento), and the tomb of Parthenope was said to be near Neapolis (Naples). Originally characters in Greek mythology, the Sirens have also become part of Voodoo belief. The consort of Agoiue, the loa or spirit of the ociaens, is the Lady of the Sirens.