Enchantresses of the ancient world are commonly vilified and blamed for the hero’s misery. However, they are fascinating figures. The hero is usually a big, strong, manly man who has seen his share of war and violence. As he is perfectly capable to remove himself from the clutches of violent men, he would certainly be capable to get away from a delicate woman. The enchantress is usually depicted as a woman (the “weaker sex”) – delicate, sweet-voiced, fair. In short, she is hardly the type to force the physically strong hero to stay with her if he doesn’t want to do so. She must then attract the hero’s mind, will or heart somehow. Because we don’t want to ever think that the great Heracles, Aeneas or Odysseus are anything but virtuous, we prefer not to think of them as understandably weary warriors with a lot of demands being put on their shoulders looking for refuge from their difficult journeys. Instead, the enchantress must have had some special tricks or supernatural powers to attract these men, trapped them in her island against his will and stop them from continuing their travels. In the case of the Odyssey, the enchantresses never even leave their islands. It was Odysseus who comes to them.
Mythology is not all magic and incredible beings. There are perfectly reasonable explanations to the charms of the enchantress – most of which are still used today. The charms of the ancient enchantress is what I want to look at this month. Illustrator ROOSDY is going to help me with the visuals. For more of his work, you can find him on Instagram @roosdy01 . His paintings as well as merchandise for this series will be available on society6
We often hear that femme fatales such as Cleopatra, who managed to entrance not one but two Roman generals, was not beautiful. In fact, she was apparently quite homely in her appearance. However, she was powerful, intelligent and well-read – well-positioned to seduce a thinking man such as a scholar, a senator or an emperor.
The sirens in ancient Greek mythology were no supermodels either. In early Greek art, they were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, the sirens were little birds with women’s faces.
Their reputation also doesn’t help. “They sit in a meadow; men’s corpses lie heaped up all round them, mouldering upon the bones as the skin decays.” Circe warns Odysseus. As later painters depicted sirens as beautiful naked women instead of scary singing bird ladies, we then assume that they seduce the travellers with their magnificent beauty. If they’re not physically beautiful, well then they must have really divine voices.
To put this simply, what Cleopatra and the Sirens offered the men are romance. A quick google search for the definition of Romance will give you this result: a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. Romance is synonymous with the words mystery, glamour, excitement, mystique. The sirens do more than just sing the travellers to their deaths. They promise romance. They promise something different, an escape for the weary and, at this point, very bored travellers who have been stuck on their ship after being at war for 10 years. For a long time, the lives of these men would have been as far as they could be from anything comfortable, beautiful or artistic. They would have had to find their way home to wives who may have remarried and families who may have moved on and forgotten all about them. In short, whatever journey they experienced were far from over. The sirens provide them respite, with music and the arts. Perhaps their voices are divine, but it is their artistic intelligence that enchants the travellers. As Pausanias says, “Down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Seiren (Siren) whatever is charming in both poetry and prose.”
This post originally appears on www.martinifisher.com as part 1 of the Charm of the Enchantress series