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The Truth of the Sirens

April 7, 2010

Both generally in myth and specifically in Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens are a group of semi-human women, often with features drawn from fish or birds, who sing a song so sublime that any mariner who hears their voices is drawn ineluctably towards his (as was most often the case) death on the rocks that surround them. The undertone, stated or otherwise, is one of a desire, perhaps sexual, conjured by the sirens’ chorus that is ultimately irresistible. To permit himself to hear the sirens’ song while avoiding the fate of all others who had heard it, Odysseus orders his crew to plug their ears with wax and bind him to the mast as they pass the island. He hears the song but escapes unscathed.

In The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason twists the story into something much more interesting, at least in my opinion. The allure of the sirens’ song is not its sweetness or any promised pleasure. Instead, the sirens’ song evokes in Odysseus a vision of truth and the ultimate meaning of the universe. At first, Odysseus tells us, the sirens bring back the past – cherished memories – “offering release from [his] displacement.” Odysseus laughs off this first salvo but the sirens “[launch] into a new song, an intricate counterpoint of just a few themes, varied and interwoven.” He continues:

“As their song crescendoed I had the sudden conviction that the world, which I had considered the province of meaningless chances, a made dance of atoms, was as orderly as the hexagons in the honeycombs I had just crushed into wax and that behind everything, from Helen’s weaving to Circe’s mountain to Scylla’s death was a subtle pattern, an order of the most compelling lucidity, but hidden from me, a code I could never crack.”

As he often does in the book, Mason flips the original narrative in a way that make us question the implicit assumptions of our myths. What would be more alluring, an indescribably sonorous melody, powerful enough to make us forget all else, or the edge of enlightenment? Perhaps this is an easy question, but it’s worth considering. Another thing that’s worth considering is buying this book.

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