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Effective Irony: The Sirens in Homer’s and Atwood’s Writings

Homer’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song” each depict the great power of the Sirens of Greek mythology; on a deeper level, the two works explore the destructiveness of women through the archetype of the femme fatale. Both Homer and Atwood highlight the influence women have over men through the irresistible temptations of the Sirens. However, through the juxtaposition of the two opposing points of view of each poem, two differing portrayals of the Sirens emerge.

Written in the point of view of Odysseus, Homer’s poem emphasizes the qualities of masculinity and strength, suggesting that the Sirens, though formidable, are no match for the Odysseus and his crew. Odysseus recalls his “trim ship…speeding toward / the Sirens’ island” (1-2), immediately setting a tone of confidence despite the precarious situation he finds himself in, his diction suggesting that the situation is totally within his control. In preparation for the encounter with the Sirens, Odysseus kneads the wax with his “two strong hands” (4) and administers the precautionary measure to his “comrades one by one” (7) before being “lashed by ropes to the mast” (9) himself, indirectly characterizing the Sirens as overtly dangerous and powerful through the preparations necessary to face them, but also characterizing Odysseus and his crew as cunning and trusting of one another, suggesting their strength as one unit. Upon encountering the Sirens, the men “[fling] themselves at the oars” (22) and “[spring] up at once / to bind [Odysseus] faster with rope on chafing rope” (23-24), further reinforcing the crew’s physical strength as they overcome what could have been certain death. Although women did hold power over men in ancient Greece, the male dominated society ultimately forced females into subservience and is reflected in Homer’s portrayal of the Sirens.

Atwood’s poem, which reflects the point of view of a Siren, emphasizes emotional power over physical power, implying that men are vulnerable through their curiosity and through temptation. The speaker immediately entices the reader by describing “one song everyone / would like to learn: the song / that is irresistible” (1-3), setting a suspenseful tone through enjambed lines that accelerate the pace, pulling the reader in, and anaphora that teases the possibility of hearing the aforementioned song. Likewise, the Siren appeals directly to the reader, claiming she “will tell the secret to you, /…only to you” (19-20) because “Only you, only you can” (23) save her, creating a seductive tone as the Siren characterizes herself as the cliche damsel in distress, while utilizing the second person point-of-view to tempt the reader to be her hero when in reality she is leading him to his death. While men held the dominant role in ancient Greek society, they were susceptible to temptation and seduction because their abundance of physical strength was offset by their emotional weakness, which the Sirens exploit.

While Homer and Atwood differ with their portrayal of the Sirens, both poets characterize them as manipulative, deceitful, and irresistible, reinforcing the motif of the femme fatale through this stereotype of women in Greek society. In Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens, they “burst into their thrilling song” (Homer 13), referring to him as “famous Odysseus – Achaea’s pride and glory” (Homer 14) with their “honeyed voices” (Homer 17), using flattery in an attempt to lure him to his death. The Sirens likewise promise to make Odysseus “a wiser man” (Homer 18) with their “ravishing voices” (Homer 19), making his heart “[throb] to listen longer” (Homer 20), and further demonstrating the power of their treachery through sensory language; had Odysseus not been restrained he would have succumbed to the temptation. Their song is so powerful that it “forces men / to leap overboard in squadrons” (Atwood 4-5) even though “anyone who has heard it / is dead” (Atwood 8-9), indirectly characterizing the Sirens as paradigms of the femme fatale because they are irresistible to men but ultimately lead to their downfall. In a patriarchal society, when denied real authority, women will resort to their powers of temptation.

Homer and Atwood both demonstrate the power women hold over men through the two differing portrayals of the Sirens: Homer, while admitting their power, maintains masculinity over the strength of the Sirens, while Atwood upholds the emotional control women exert over man, yet they both maintain the stereotype of the femme fatale. In a society focused on controlling women, these stereotypes only perpetuated the divide as women, being characterized this way eventually found it to be true and failed to recognize that they could be more.

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