In modern pop culture, mermaids are benign and often romantic creatures of the sea who readily find happiness in the company of humans, as in The Little Mermaid, The Shape of Water, and even Aquaman. But in medieval times, sea sirens were deadly as well as sexy. A new TV show, Siren, is a return to the earlier view of mermaids. Its main character, Ryn, surprises humans by not being Ariel.
Although Ryn is more of a mermaid than a siren in form, her ferocity – in particular, her taste for human flesh – finds its roots in the siren legend. In The Odyssey, the Sirens are said to have been surrounded by ‘a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling’. It is never stated if the Sirens actually eat those men, or if their corpses just become desiccated after long exposure to the hot, Mediterranean sun, but cannibalism is certainly implied here. In particular, in Circe’s prophecy, the Sirens are mentioned side by side with Scylla, another girl-turned-monster who expressively devours human. The sirens’ birdlike body also invites the readers to compare them with Sphinx, who is also known for her cannibalistic taste.
The Medieval thinkers picked up the cue readily enough. Although not all of them necessarily spells out the Sirens’ cannibalistic diet, the Sirens are more and more pictured as femme fatale. In medieval bestiaries, the Sirens are portrayed as deadly seducers who use their seductive songs to lure the sailors to sleep, and then attack them with sharp teeth and tear open their flesh.
The natural origin of the myth is clear: the sea is dangerous, no matter how alluring its creatures are. Read about the medieval notion of mermaids at Medievalists.