The Sirens

Sirens Odysseus Homer

Two weeks away crewing on a boat in the Ionian Sea this month was made even more pleasurable by the company of Odysseus in Emily Wilson’s quite stunning new translation of The Odyssey (Norton, 2018, https://www.wwnorton.co.uk/books/9780393089059-the-odyssey-66fb35b3-90cf-4bb9-b8c2-ac2da15d61bc).

We anchored one night halfway between the mainland and the island of Zakynthos beside the uninhabited island of Arpia, one of the Stamfani Islands. About two o’clock in the morning, I woke up thinking that someone had left a radio on in the yacht: there was a strange, almost metallic singing noise quite clearly audible down in our cabin.

I went up and stood on deck. It was a beautiful starry night, the moon days away from being full. And this was the sound I heard:

It was one of the most mesmerising sounds I’ve ever heard. I was transfixed, lying down on the roof of the yacht for an hour in the dark, listening to the calling of the birds and watching shooting stars overhead. The next day, we worked out through diligent Googling that the birds were Scopoli’s Shearwaters – it turns out that the Stamfani Islands hold the largest collection of Shearwaters in the whole of Greece, 17,000 at the last count.

And then one of our crew made the brilliant suggestion that perhaps these were the Sirens whom Circe commanded Odysseus to ignore. Here’s Circe’s advice (which, in typical Odysseus fashion, he has to ignore, preferring instead to be strapped to the mast by his crew so he can’t be lured) in Wilson’s translation:

“If anyone goes near them
in ignorance, and listens to their voices,
that man will never travel to his home,
and never make his wife and children happy
to have him back with them again.”

Thankfully, I’ve managed to make it home and have spoken to both my kids today on this Father’s Day and they seemed quite cheerful, so maybe these weren’t the Sirens after all, or maybe Homer was toying with us as usual.

But they have left a mark, that’s for sure. Unfinished business, I suspect.

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