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This blog is dedicated to the art of musing. From now on, this is where I will muse.

Ulysses and the Sirens

Daily muse...Posted by Karen Sawyer Thu, June 30, 2011 00:37:25

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.

~ Franz Kafka, 'The Silence of the Sirens'

The myth of Ulysses (Odysseus) and the Sirens is a cautionary tale. You know how the popular version of the story goes... our hero sails in a ship through dangerous waters, where Sirens lure men to their doom. He orders his crew to plug their own ears with wax and to bind him tightly to the mast so that he may hear the Sirens’ song without succumbing to it.

On a practical note, the ocean itself has a powerful pull on the psyche. Having once been married to a fisherman, I can vouch for the fact that there is something mysteriously alluring about the sea that gets to every single one of them – you can see it in their eyes when they come ashore... they cannot wait to get back out there to ‘her’. I actually used to get a little bit jealous. You’ve as good as lost him for days, sometimes weeks on end, which is why other wives jokingly refer to one another as “Fishermen’s Widows”.

Needless to say, Ulysses’ experience with the Sirens is an allegory for the relationship between men and women, or, more appropriately, masculine and feminine energies. Ruth Martin has made an excellent study of it HERE. Her short thesis, entitled: Love at a Distance: Kafka and the Sirens, explains how this is a story of the heart and emotions, whichever way you interpret it.

You could also say this is a tale of unrequited love – that is, a love unreciprocated. But it’s not that Ulysses isn’t interested... he actually wants to hear the Sirens’ song and, when he does, it so attracts him that he yearns to surrender to it but is bound, both physically and by the rational command he’d already given to his crew to ignore his pleadings to be set free. Even before he heard the first note, he’d already decided not to allow himself that choice, which he appears to regret:

"They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens' voices.” [Homer’s Odyssey].

Perhaps it’s as Ruth writes: “... the sirens’ song is only a projection of the hero’s own ideas of the perfect song, and in order to maintain the beauty of this idea, he doesn’t allow himself to come too close to it”.

The Sirens represent the power in feminine intuitive wisdom – the ability to ‘know’ with the heart, not the head. It is expression of feeling, not thinking. This is deadly to the masculine logical power to reason. For a man to yield to the feminine – to allow himself to be embraced by that intimacy and, in turn, become emotionally vulnerable – he must (shamanically-speaking) ‘die’. Could it be that our testosterone-fuelled champion was terrified that being embraced by this powerful feminine force could open his heart and therefore sabotage his quest?

This story illustrates how both masculine (Ulysses) and feminine (sirens) have the potential to destroy one another. The Sirens, watching the object of their attentions sail by, are heartbroken. They themselves want to be heard and acknowledged, not through brute force but subtle persuasion. As he passes them by “...They no longer had any desire to allure; all that they wanted was to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from Ulysses' great eyes” [Kafka – The Silence of the Sirens]. Depending on which version of the story you hear, they are so overcome with grief at their loss that they then take their own lives by dashing themselves on the rocks.

Surely, as they are all-wise and all-knowing, doesn’t it seem more likely that they would just wait for the next ship and someone courageous who was up for it?

~ Karen


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