The idea for my manuscript first came to me in high school during a creative writing class. Back then, it was no more than a single scene: three sirens dancing around a blazing fire when suddenly, one is chosen. One turns human. While this particular imagery fascinated me, a single scene does not a novel make. I needed to flesh out these characters (What was the ritual? Why the desire to turn human? What do sirens want? You know, besides to pick the bones of men clean), and I found one of my main sources of inspiration from a rather old book: Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
I read a good chunk of the Metamorphoses in college in my Latin IV class. I was entirely smitten with it. Ovid meanders through myths with only a single common thread: the subjects of each tale are transformed. The poetry is complex, and it truly breaks my heart that I no longer retain the skills to translate it.
We primarily studied Book 3, so I was surprised when I started doing research for my story to find that Ovid had a passage about my favorite winged women:
Was there to give Achelous’ daughters feathers
And claws, but let them keep the faces of girls?
Was it because they were with her when she gathered
Those fatal flowers? They were her dear companions,
The Sirens, skilled in singing, and they sought her
Through all the lands in vain, and came to the ocean,
And prayed they might seek her there, be given
Wings for their quest, and hover over the waters,
And the gods were kind, and gave them golden plumage,
But let them keep the lovely singing voices,
So dear to the ears of men, the human features,
The human voice, the dower of song forever.
Am I the only one that gets chills from reading this passage? This was the first time I encountered the idea that the sirens had a story before they were either the terrifying harpies or the seductive mermaids we see in myth. This made them more complex than a simple trial for Odysseus to overcome with his cunning: they had experienced a great loss. They had motivations I’d never considered.
Before they were transformed, the sirens were Persephone’s friends. If you’re a little fuzzy on your Greek mythology, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter (the Goddess of the Harvest) that was captured by Hades and forced to be his queen. According to Ovid’s version, the sirens were with Persephone when she “gathered those fatal flowers.” The thought did, and still does, make my skin tingle. I now had a backstory, something that I couldn’t wait to explore. We see depictions of monstrous women in myth and legend all the time–Odysseus himself goes on to encounter at least two more on his adventures alone: the dragon-like sea creature Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. If we leave the realm of the Greco-Romans, we see Grendel’s mother from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and the Sphinx from the Egyptians. But we don’t often see explanations for where these monstresses came from. In recent years, some of the more famous deadly females have received the chance to tell their own stories. We can look to Madeline Miller’s Circe and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife for examples of mythological women regaining control of their own narratives.
The sirens have certainly been given backstories in other fiction, but I have yet to find one where they also retained their monstrous appearance. Over the years, the sirens morph from the winged creatures depicted on Grecian urns into more delicate mermaids. The lure of their song becomes intertwined with the lure of their beauty, a potent warning for men against the dangers of carnal temptations. See the new Freeform show Siren or explore the work of Pre-Raphaelite painters for examples of admittedly sexier sirens.
In one of the Pirates of the Caribbean installments, a mermaid named Syrena is captured in a subplot. Despite her name, neither she nor the other mermaids ever actually use their music to lure the sailors to their doom, although Syrena is admittedly very beautiful–so much so that one of the sailors does indeed fall in love with her.
I wanted my sirens to find power in their physical forms: large, beating wings, talons sharper than knives. I wanted them to have a reason for their current state, and I wanted them to have a motivation fueling their hatred of men. I found all that in thirteen beautiful lines of poetry.