Sirens, Muses, and Female Narrators in the Odyssey
Lillian Eileen Doherty
To judge by the frequency with which it has been evoked or adapted in ancient and modern works of art, 1 the episode of the Sirens is one of the most compelling in the Odyssey -- one of those passages that are most likely to resonate in the imaginations of readers. It can be a shock, then, even to one who knows the epic well, to be reminded that Odysseus' account of the episode takes just thirty-five lines -- less than a page and a half in the Oxford Classical Text editiony 2 -- and that the snatch of the Sirens' song we are allowed to hear is only eight lines long. The evocative power of the passage, then, seems to stand in inverse proportion to its length. I would like to examine this paradox in light of the narrative strategies of the Odyssey as a whole. At the same time I will explore the implications, for the poet and his audience, of attributing to female figures the power to tell stories in epic form -- the power, that is, to manipulate the traditional and culturally sanctioned discourse of the poet's own medium.
The Sirens episode distills in a particularly potent set of images the dynamics of male-female interaction that prevail in the Odyssey. 3 Insofar as female figures constitute a series of threats or false goals for the male hero, the Sirens, like Kalypso and Kirke, must be relegated to the margins of the human world and resisted with all available means. Yet because the Sirens also represent the lure of poetry, indeed of epic poetry, their power is intertwined with that of the