The Evolution of “Sirens” of the Sea

The sirens of myth are the beach warning systems of reality

photo of The Siren by J.W.Waterhouse
The Siren by J.W.Waterhouse
(click on image to enlarge)

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hope to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!

So William Shakespeare wrote, in one of his sonnets, of the mythical creatures also written about by the likes of Homer, Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut and Giovanni Boccaccio. And what the heck is a “limbeck” anyway? Well, it’s not the indie alternative country bank out of Orange, California; Shakespeare hadn’t heard of them! But it is a Medieval Latin word indicating a “beaker in which something is distilled”.

What is distilled in the word “siren” the moment it is heard is a great sense of danger; don’t go there or the results will prove bad, even fatal. Never be lured by the “sirens’ song”.

Originally, sirens were believed by the Ancient Greeks to be half human and half bird. They sang and played music, mostly harps, to lure sailors to their deaths on the rocky shores of the island where the sirens lived “among the flowers”. As the Romans put in their two cents’ (or maybe two lira) worth, the legend grew to make these haunting creatures half human and half fish. But they were always female. Hence the concept of mermaids.

Sirens were encountered by some of the great heroes of Greek mythology, like Jason (of Argonauts fame), Orpheus (presumably before he found himself in the Underworld) and Odysseus. The concept of sirens and mermaids, and their watery domains, has been painted and sculpted by artists throughout the centuries. J.W. Waterhouse seems not to have known which version to believe, the Greek or Roman; he painted both “The Siren” and “A Mermaid”.

Sirens, and their mermaid sisters, over time, have taken on a more broad meaning and now denote any type of woman that attracts male attention. The 1994 film, Sirens, starring Hugh Grant, had model Elle MacPherson cast as the siren.

Of course, siren has another meaning. It’s a siren we hear when emergency vehicles are rushing to the scene of an accident, fire or crime; in a way, then, word retains its fear-based, danger sensibility.

Marine scientists in India have been working diligently to develop a siren that will serve as an effective tsunami warning system. The 2004 earthquake that began below of the floor of the Indian Ocean and devastated The Philippines, Indonesia and many of the Phuket Beaches in Thailand, served as a wake-up call; there was no warning issued and as a result thousands of people died.

History has proved that when a sub-oceanic earthquake erupts, there is an approximately two-hour lead time before a tsunami condition develops and collides with land. The Indian scientists feel that while not an ideal length of time to plan and execute an escape, it’s better than no lead time. When the 2004 tsunami waves hit, the majority who died were on or near the beaches in the nations it struck. Those who were at home or at their places of business, if they had a radio or television on, might have received short warning through that form of media, but those on the beach would have had no way of knowing. The need for a beach-side, loud, tsunami warning system became evident.

There are gorgeous beaches throughout this area. We have profiled Phuket Beaches on this website and most of us dream of such a vacation. But we want to be safe. The sirens of yore have loaned their moniker, if not their eerie beauty, to a system that could save lives and allow us to enjoy our beach holidays with confidence and security.

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