Are Sirens Evil Mermaids Or the Same Mythical Creature?

You probably know mermaids as the kind and beautiful mythical creatures who are half-woman and half-fish. 

But if you’ve also heard about sirens, the dangerous creatures known to lure sailors to their doom, you may wonder if they are just the evil counterpart to the mermaid or if there are other differences. 

We’re going to see that sirens and mermaids are not the same mythical creature. 

While sirens are nasty and mermaids usually are kind, they also differ in other ways, including appearance.

Throughout history, there have been evil siren mermaids with a fishtail on a woman’s body. However, many a siren has been based on other animals, particularly half-bird creatures.

So, as we try to avoid the evil call towards the rocks, let’s set sail on a voyage of discovery and learn all there is to know about sirens.

What Is a Siren?

The most frequently used description for a siren comes from Greek mythology, where they were evil part-human creatures who would entice sailors to crash their ships onto rocks.

The word siren is said to come from the Greek words “seirá,” meaning a rope or cord, and “eírō,” which means to tie, fasten or join.

Together in Greek, these words describe someone who is an entangler or binder.

Reading Suggestion: Are Mermaids Real? 12 Mermaid Sightings in History

what is a siren

When we ask, “How do sirens kill sailors?” we could say that they entangle them with their enchanting song, causing them to become delusional and easy to lure to their deaths.

It’s important to understand that these enchanting creatures are part-human and part another animal. You might think that all sirens are half-fish, like mermaids, but this isn’t the case.

As we will see when we consider what a siren looks like, the original sirens in Greek mythology were half-bird creatures.

How Do Sirens Kill Sailors? Do Sirens Sing?

The mythological sirens would use music and song to lure sailors to their islands.

Here the humans would either meet their fate when their ships smashed helplessly onto the rocky shore or, worse, be gruesomely devoured by the sirens.

Reading Suggestion: Are Mermaids Real? 12 Mermaid Sightings in History

The siren is said to be able to read the victim’s mind. The siren song they then sing convinces the unwitting sailor that the siren is the “perfect person” for them, and they are uncontrollably drawn to be with the siren.

Mythology Mermaid

Greek mythology said that the sirens would die themselves if anyone ever escaped from their singing and lived to tale.

As it was only possible to pass the sirens unharmed if you didn’t hear their song, Odysseus in Homer’s “Odyssey” was said to have made his men fill their ears with beeswax.

However, ever the adventurer wanting to hear the siren song for himself, Odysseus ordered his sailors to tie him tightly to the ship’s mast and ordered them not to let him go under any circumstances.

Reading Suggestion: 16 of the Most Famous Shipwrecks That Sunk

Eventually, when Odysseus passed the sirens and told others of his experience with their song, the sirens threw themselves into the sea and drowned.

Other sirens, such as those encountered by The Argonauts of Greek mythology, had their siren song defeated by musicians drowning them out.

Orpheus was said to have played his musical instruments so loudly when his ship met the danger that the crew could not hear the siren’s song and were able to escape.

Some later writers suggested that sirens would eat their victim’s corpses, while others claimed they just wanted to take the spirit and would leave the body to rot uneaten.

What Is a Female Siren?

You probably already think that all sirens are female. However, some of the first sirens known in Greek mythology were male.

Most Greek sirens were human only from the chest or above upwards, so the most apparent difference between male and female sirens is that the men had beards.

What Is a Female Siren

Early sirens in both Egyptian and Greek mythology were said to accompany the souls of the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

So perhaps they would match the sex of their partner. Both were called “sirens” without distinction.

While both male and female sirens had existed in early Greek art, from around the 5th century BC, all known depictions of sirens are as beautiful women.

How Do Sirens Become Sirens?

It is thought that the mythological Greek sirens were not necessarily originally evil. Greek folklore suggests that the god Zeus first created the sirens to be playmates for Persephone, his daughter.

However, when Hades kidnapped her daughter, these friends were cursed by Demeter, the mother of Persephone. 

Reading Suggestion: What are the different types of Coral? Names and Pictures

The myth of the sirens spread from ancient Greece across Europe and became ingrained in folklore in the Roman Empire, France, England, Italy, Poland, and France.

How Do Sirens Become Sirens

In these cultures, the sirens were regarded purely as existing in the seas and being female.

The Latin name “Sirenia” is used today to describe the order of the aquatic mammals, which includes manatees and dugongs, which many people believe are the origin of many siren mermaid stories.

How Do Sirens Mate/Reproduce?

It is unknown how the mythological sirens mated. However, Greek literature mentions several families of sea nymphs, including sirens who were daughters of the river god Achelous.

Reading Suggestion: What is the Most Dangerous Shark in the world to Humans?

It may be that male sirens existed to form family groups, but they haven’t been detailed in folklore because they didn’t sing.

Or perhaps, as magical creatures, the sirens could simply come into existence as the gods demanded.

What Does a Siren Look Like?

Now that we know what a siren is and how they act, what does a siren look like?

The earliest sirens in Homer’s Odyssey were not given physical descriptions. The reader was left to focus on their mischievous tactics and imagine their appearance for themselves.

However, later literature and art show us what the sirens looked like.

Half Bird Creatures

In the 7th century BC, sirens were depicted in art as being human-headed birds. These sirens had a large female human head on a body with a bird’s feathers and scaly feet.

Later descriptions showed the sirens as having a more significant proportion of the human body, with some having wings while others did not.

Half Bird Creatures

One famous example is the “Siren of Canosa” from southern Italy, who guided the dead to the afterlife. Terracotta statues show her as a half-human woman with a bird’s wings, tail, and feet.

You can find written descriptions of a siren in the tenth-century Byzantine era encyclopedia of the ancient world, called The Suda.

Here, sirens are once again called half-bird creatures who either had women’s faces on the bird’s body or were women below with a sparrow-like form from the chest up.

Half Fish Siren Mermaids

It wasn’t until the 3rd century BC that sirens were recorded in stories as part fish and half-human.

Although rare, Greek and Roman artifacts have been found depicting sirens as mermaids.

Mermaid

The siren mermaids became the dominant form in the medieval era, and there are several examples of the siren appearing in folklore as mermaid-like.

In the early 8th century AD, the siren mermaid appeared in the catalog of mythological creatures “Liber Monstrorum” (The Book of Monsters).

Reading Suggestion: 10 Creepy Extinct Sea Creatures and 1 Still Alive

Here she was described as being a sea girl with a scaly fishtail on the body of a maiden.

Christian art texts known as Physiologus in the mid-9th century described the siren as half-fish and included illustrations looking similar to a classical mermaid.

Completely Human

While the vast majority of historical sirens were either part bird or part fish, in the 19th-century, writers and artists began to describe their sirens as being entirely human in form.

Completely Human

William Etty, an English artist, painted his sirens as completely human young women on their small island in his painting The Sirens and Ulysses in 1837.

Do Sirens Have Two Tails?

Although some half-human siren mermaids have been depicted as having two tails, not all of them do.

The siren daughter Mixoparthenos has been described as having the body of a bird in some literature and that of a fish in others.

Reading Suggestion: How long Can a Shark Survive Out Of The Water?

Many of the half-fish, half-woman depictions show the siren as double-tailed as she lured sailors to their deaths on the rocky shores of her island.

Possibly the most famous siren with two tails is the Melusine which is the logo of the Starbucks coffee brand.

What’s the Difference Between a Siren and Mermaids?

So, are sirens and mermaids the same? No, they are different in several ways. The main difference is temperament.

A mermaid is kind, while sirens are dangerous temptations embodied.

They may also appear to look quite different from each other. A mermaid is always half women and half fish, but as we have seen, sirens have emerged as a mix with other animals.

What’s the Difference Between a Siren and Mermaids

Character

Mermaids in fiction are always described as being kind and loving. No stories exist of a mermaid doing anyone any harm.

Indeed, while they will shy away from human interaction, mermaids are often portrayed as actively rescuing sailors in distress from their sea homes. 

Reading Suggestion: What is the Most Dangerous Shark in the world to Humans?

Probably the most famous mermaid of all, The Little Mermaid from the Hans Christian Andersen story, falls in love with a prince and will do anything to be with him. No evil intentions here.

On the other hand, the sirens have represented death from all eras of mythology, particularly for sailors.

Whether it’s causing ships to crash onto the rocky coast after the siren’s enchanting voices have attracted the sailors or actually devouring their victims to obtain their souls, sirens are just not nice.

Appearance

All mermaids are half woman, half fish. The same can be said for some sirens, although those from ancient Greece and other eras are often half-bird or more with their female figures.

So, sirens and mermaids can look similar. However, mermaids are universally described as being beautiful, and the same cannot be said of the sirens.

Reading Suggestion: Strange and Scary Animals in the Mariana Trench

Many sirens in folkloric traditions worldwide are described as ugly and unappealing until the enchanting voices bewitch the sailor.

Appearance

At that point, the siren becomes irresistible to the beholder, and they find themselves utterly entranced.

Why Are Sirens Mistaken for Mermaids?

If you’re comparing mermaid vs. siren and both have come from the ocean with a half-fish, half-woman form, it’s understandable why you might get mistaken between the two.

After all, men have fallen in love with both siren and mermaid. To the unwitting, they both seem to be irresistibly beautiful women.

Once their song has started, it’s effectively impossible to escape from a siren.

Reading Suggestion: What is the Most Dangerous Shark?

So, if you do ever find yourself in the unlikely situation of not knowing if you are approaching a siren or a mermaid, then the only thing to do is to be like Odysseus’s men and fill your ears with beeswax!.

After that, you can assess the intentions of the mythological creature!

Do Mermaids and Sirens Exist?

No, there is no evidence that mermaids and sirens exist in modern society.

From their origins in ancient Greece, stories of both sirens and mermaids have spread through almost all the prominent human cultures.

Many of the mermaid and siren tales probably have their origins in sightings of sea mammals like the dugong or manatee.

Do Mermaids and Sirens Exist (1)

Other land-based sirens come from folklore or even religious roots as a metaphor to spread a message of good behavior.

Out on the ocean, many a seafaring accident may have been deliberately blamed on the mysterious sirens and their enchanting voices.

After all, that’s more interesting than navigational error or some other kind of accident.

Conclusion

As we’ve looked at sirens, we’ve seen that they originated in ancient Greek mythology.

They are the dangerous beasts said to lure unwitting sailors onto the rocky coasts of their islands with their enchanting music and voices.

Reading Suggestion: What’s The Fastest Shark of the Ocean?

Unlike the mermaid, who has always been portrayed as good-natured, sirens are always considered evil.

While there are siren mermaids who have a fishtail with a woman’s body, the original sirens were at least half-bird. This is unlike true mermaids, who are always half fish.

So, sirens are not the same mythical creature as mermaids, although some can share the same appearance.

British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.

Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.

When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.

Leave a Comment