Wednesday, 1 September 2010
Redressing the Balance
In my previous post, we saw a terrified looking sea-maiden being hauled in by hungry-looking sailors. This picture shows a rather different balance of power. Same painter, four years later. Polish, if you must, your recollection of the stories of Odysseus and his crew. Here we see them, with the Sirens coming aboard. Odysseus is bound tightly to the mast, so he can hear their song, without hurling himself overboard and drowning in his need to get closer to them... his crew, in the first ever successful attempt to avoid dying when meeting the Sirens, have all stopped up their ears with wax, whilst the ship's poet, Orpheus declaims poetry, loudly, in case a tiny bit of siren-song gets past the wax.
In this depiction, the crew looks far from enthusiastic at being boarded by by the daughters of Melponeme.
And the girls look as though they're having a ball, taunting the puny, trembling, mortals.
Homer, Odyssey 12. 200 ff :
"Then with heavy heart I [Odysseus] spoke to my comrades thus : `Friends it is not right that only one man, or only two, should know the divine decrees that Lady Kirke has uttered to me. I will tell you of them, so that in full knowledge we may die or in full knowledge escape, it may be, from death and doom. Her first command was to shun the Seirenes--their enchanting notes, their flowery meadow. I alone was to hear their song, she said. You for your part must bind me with galling ropes as I stand upright against the mast-stay, with the rope-ends tied to the mast itself; then I shall stay there immovably. And if I beg and beseech you to set me free, you must bind me hard with more ropes again.’
Thus I told my comrades and made things plain, point by point. Meanwhile the trim ship sped swiftly on to the island of the Seirenes, wafted still be the favouring breeze. Then of a sudden the wind dropped and everything became hushed and still, because some divinity lulled the waters. My men stood up, furled the sails and stowed them in the ship’s hold, then sat at the thwarts and made the sea white with their polished oars of fir. I myself, with my sharp sword, cut a great round of wax into little pieces and set about kneading them with all the strength I had. Under my mighty hands, and under the beams of the lordly sun-god whose father is Hyperion, the wax quickly began to melt, and with it I sealed all my comrades’ ears in turn. Then they bound me fast, hand and foot, with the rope-ends tied to the mast itself, then again sat down and dipped their oars in the whitening sea. But them, the Seirenes saw the quick vessel near them and raised their voices in high clear notes : `Come hither, renowned Odysseus, hither, you pride and glory of all Achaea! Pause with your ship; listen to our song. Never has nay man passed this way in his dark vessel and left unheard the honey-sweet music from our lips; first he has taken his delight, then gone on his way a wiser man. We know of all the sorrows in the wide land of Troy that Argives and Trojans bore because the gods would needs have it so; we know all things that come to pass on the fruitful earth.’
So they sang with their lovely voices, and my heart was eager to listen still. I twitched my brows to sign to the crew to let me go, but they leaned to their oars and rowed on; Eurylokhos and Perimedes quickly stood up and bound me with more ropes and with firmer hold. But when they had rowed well past the Seirenes--when music and words could be heard no more--my trusty comrades were quick to take out the wax that had sealed their ears, and to rescue and unbind myself. But the island was hardly left behind when I saw smoke above the heavy breakers and heard a great noise [the whirlpool of Kharybdis]."