Achelois: Ancient Greek Sirens Daughters of a River-God

Achelois is the surname of the Ancient Greek mythological Sirens, the daughters of Achelous and a muse, or Asterope.

Any account of the Sirens must include a mention of Achelous, the most revered of our river-gods, to whom, (and sometimes to Phorkys), is said to be the father of the Sirens.

Herakles fought with this river-god, as well as with the Old One of the Sea and with Triton. Like these latter, Achelous had a lower body consisting of a serpent-like fish. But his head was horned, and one of the horns was broken off by Herakles. From the blood that dripped from the wound the Sirens were born: a birth similar to that of the Erinyes. In our ancient tongue the Sirens were called Seirenes. This word, in its masculine form, was also the description of a species of bees or wasps—as also was the name of Pemphredo, one of the Graiai.

Our ancient painters and designers upon vessels depicted the Sirens not only as female beings, but some, times as male and bearded. That the beings depicted are Sirens, either male or female, is shown by their having predominantly a bird’s body, to which a human head is added, and often also a woman’s breasts and arms. The talon-feet are often very powerful, and sometimes end in a lion’s pads, as if to reveal a close kinship between Siren and Sphinx. The lower part of the body is sometimes shaped like an egg.

Closely akin to the Sirens are also the Graiai, as “swanlike maidens”, and likewise Medousa, at least in that picture in which a bird with a Gorgon’s countenance and two pairs of wings seizes up a struggling youth in each hand and snatches them away.

Such snatching creatures, however, are more properly Harpies, whose name means “Snatchers”. The distinguishing characteristic of the Sirens, on the other hand, is—apart from their birdlike shape—their talent for music; and this connects them with the Muses. They play on the lyre or on the double flute; or, when two of them are portrayed together, one of them plays on the former and the other on the latter. And as they play they sing.

To all this both the tales and the Sirens’ own names bear witness, and so do the pictures of them. These pictures, which appear on the tombstones of our classical age, are of marvelous beauty, and clearly were inspired not by our seamen’s fables, but by other old stories that are now forgotten.

The Sirens did, in fact, find their way into seamen’s legend —as did the great goddess Skylla. Homer puts a tale of them into the mouth of the great liar Odysseus, who speaks of two Sirens but does not tell their names. One of these names, however—Himeropa, “she whose voice awakens desire”—is to be found in an ancient vase painting.

Later on we find mention of two trinities of Sirens. One of these is thought to correspond to the Sirens of Homer. Their individual names have been passed down in various forms:

  • Thelxiepeia, Thelxinoe or Thelxiope is “the enchantress”, for “thelgein” means “to enchant”.
  • Aglaope, Aglaophonos or Aglaopheme is “she of the glorious voice”.
  • Peisinoc, or Pasinoe, may mean “the seductive”, if the former version is correct.

A second trinity is that of the Sirens who were worshipped in Graecia Major, on the southern Tyrrhenian coast of Italy:

  • Parthenope, “the Virginal”, in Neapolis, which is now called Naples;
  • Leucosia, “the White Goddess”.
  • Ligeia, “she of the bright voice, south of Naples.

The mothers of the Sirens, who bore them to Achelous, are claimed to be Sterope (which means the same as the Hesperidean name Asterope) or, alternatively, one of the Muses.

Older story-tellers had knowledge of another mother; and they also knew of a close link between the Sirens and Persephone. It was told that the Sirens were companions of the Queen of the Underworld; that they were daughters of Chthon, the “depths of the earth”, and that Persephone sent them into this world.

An ancient vase-painting shows two Sirens singing before a great goddess and gazing towards the ship of Odysseus, which is being attacked from the air by two huge birds. It was the Sirens’ task to bring all approaching travelers before the great Queen Persephone, to entice them into her presence by the sweet tones of their music and song. And this they did not only to unlucky seamen, but to all who must enter the realm of the dead. By their art the bitterness of death is alleviated and disguised. Perhaps the male Sirens had the task of making death sweeter for women.

Odysseus’s story of the Sirens is as follows: Kirke (or Circe) had warned him that he must steer clear of the voices and the flowery meadows of the Sirens; or, if he could not do this, then he alone might hear their bright voice, but first he must fill his shipmates’ can with wax and have himself bound to the mast.

The Sirens sat in their meadow. It seemed to be covered with flowers; but–and here the story turns into a real bogy tale, obviously a sailor’s yarn—it was full of mouldering human bones and dried-up human skins. The words they sang to Odysseus, as he stood erect and bound, are also reported:

“Come hither, Odysseus famed in song, great glory of the Greeks! Bring your ship to, so that you may hear our voice. Never has any man voyaged past this place in his black ship without listening to our song. It flows like honey from our mouths. He who has heard it finds delight and gains wisdom. For we know all that the Greeks and Trojans suffered, by the will of the gods, for Troy. And we know all that happens on the earth, everywhere and at all times!”

At these words Odysseus, according to his own story, wanted to be set free of his bonds; but his shipmates bound him all the more firmly. It is not to be wondered at that Odysseus felt thus: the Sirens made themselves out to be oracular goddesses, which perhaps, at the place where they had their shrine, they really were. Nevertheless they were always goddesses of death and love, servants of the Goddess of the Underworld, Persephone. The goddess of the realm of the dead is, to a certain degree, herself also dead. The Sirens served death, and were themselves doomed to die—or so one tale informs us—if ever a ship came by and the crew did not fall victim to them. When Odysseus and his shipmates had escaped, the Sirens committed suicide.

Hesiod told that Zeus gave the Sirens the island of Anthemoessa, “rich in flowers”, as their dwelling place. This accords with the fact that they served not only death, but also love. A carving in relief, of a later date, shows a Siren, only the lower parts of whose legs are those of a bird, amorously approaching a sleeping man who resembles a Satyr. The scene is reminiscent of Selene’s approach to Endymion. There was something amorous also about the egg-like shape of the Sirens as shown in early pictures of them: the more so as they often clasped small human figures against their bodies. They served not only the goddess of death, but also served human mortals in that they carried men—or, at any rate, men’s desires–on golden wings to Heaven.

Source: Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, 1951, p. 56-58

Source mentions of Achelois:

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XIV:75-100

Fleeing from the new city, Carthage, and its sandy shores, and carried back to the home of his loyal half-brother Acestes, son of Venus of Eryx, Aeneas sacrificed there, and paid honours at his dead father’s, Anchises’s, tomb. Then he loosed the ships, that Iris almost destroyed by fire, at Juno’s command, and passed the Aeolian Islands, smoking with clouds of hot sulphur, the kingdom of Aeolus, son of Hippotes, and passed the rocky isle of the Sirens, the daughters of Acheloüs.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book V:533-571

But why have you, Sirens, skilled in song, daughters of Acheloüs, the feathers and claws of birds, while still bearing human faces? Is it because you were numbered among the companions, when Proserpine gathered the flowers of Spring? When you had searched in vain for her on land, you wanted, then, to cross the waves on beating wings, so that the waters would also know of your trouble. The gods were willing, and suddenly you saw your limbs covered with golden plumage. But, so that your song, born, sweetly, in our ears, and your rich vocal gift, might not be lost with your tongues, each virgin face and human voice remained.

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