The Sirens were mythical creatures spoken of in many ancient Greek stories, notably in the writings of the poet Homer (such as the Odyssey). The Sirens were beautiful creatures portrayed as seductively attractive women who lured and ensnared unsuspecting sailors with their enchanting music and hypnotizing voices. Sirens may have been beautiful, but they were also extremely dangerous. The linked video clip contains an excerpt from Pirates of the Caribbean 4, in which these mythical creatures are encountered.
In the Odyssey, when Odysseus leaves the home of the goddess Circe, Circe warns Odysseus about the Sirens, saying of them,
Next, where the Sirens dwells, you plough the seas; Their song is death, and makes destruction please. Unblest the man, whom music wins to stay nigh the cursed shore and listen to the lay. No more that wretch shall view the joys of life His blooming offspring, or his beauteous wife! In verdant meads they sport; and wide around lie human bones that whiten all the ground: The ground polluted floats with human gore, And human carnage taints the dreadful shore. Fly swift the dangerous coast: let every ear be stopp’d against the song! ’tis death to hear! Firm to the mast with chains thyself be bound, Nor trust thy virtue to the enchanting sound. If, mad with transport, freedom thou demand, Be every fetter strain’d, and added band to band.
The Sirens were cannibals. They would lure unsuspecting mariners, oblivious to the danger they were in, to their island, to be shipwrecked on the rocky coast. What a metaphor for the temptation we face as Christians! And just like temptation, the Sirens would offer a promise of delight, with a false assurance that the victim would be able to leave when he pleased.
Odysseus’ Encounter With The Sirens
In the Odyssey, Odysseus orders his men to plug their ears with beeswax. He himself, curious to know what the Sirens sounded like, asked to be tied tightly to the mast and leave him bound no matter how much he pleaded and begged to be released. He said “Me, me alone, with fetters firmly bound, the gods allow to hear the dangerous sound. Hear and obey; if freedom I demand, be every fetter strain’d, be added band to band.” He heard the voice of the Sirens, crying out to him,
Oh stay, O pride of Greece! Ulysses stay! Oh cease thy course, and listen to our lay! Blest is the man ordain’d our voice to hear, The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear. Approach! Thy soul shall into raptures rise! Approach! And learn new wisdom from the wise! We know whate’er the kings of mighty name achieved at Ilion in the field of fame; Whate’er beneath the sun’s bright journey lies. Oh stay, and learn new wisdom from the wise!
The Sirens, which typify worldly temptation, promise to deliver you the desires of your heart. In the case of Odysseus, this was wisdom. But their message was deceptive. To cease his course and approach the Sirens would mean certain death. He may enjoy the pleasure of the Sirens’ music for a short time, but the experience would be short lived. His fate would be to join the numerous other mariners whose bones littered the island. What a parallel for temptation! In like-manner, temptation gives the promise of pleasure and enjoyment. It promises to give you the desires and longings of your heart, that “Thy soul shall into raptures rise!” If it didn’t make those promises, it would not be tempting! It only asks that you “cease thy course” and “Approach!”: Cease from the race of faith; from the course that God has marked out for you; from your walk with Christ; and take another path, a seemingly more pleasurable one.
Notice also that the Sirens call out to Odysseus (Ulysses) by his name and promises the fulfillment of a desire that is specific to him (wisdom). The temptation is specific to the individual. Likewise, Satan knows our weaknesses and desires and will strike at precisely the point at which we are most vulnerable to falling.
Failing to sense the danger, victims do not realize that the ground around the Sirens is littered with bones: Yielding to temptation may feel good for a season, but it will ultimately ruin you if you persist. King David’s Siren was Bathsheba, with whom he committed adultery having murdered her husband Uriah. He ultimately came to regret his foolish actions when confronting the consequences later.
Remarkably, although Odysseus was well aware of how dangerous the Sirens were, he begged to be released so that he might go to them, but his men bound him still tighter. Such is the way of temptation: It promises some short-term gain or pleasure, such that we completely disregard the disastrous long-term consequences.
The Sirens were like the seductive woman spoken of in Proverbs 9:13-18:
The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest place of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” and to him who lacks sense, she says, “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
How did Odysseus and his men successfully battle the Sirens’ seduction? Odysseus was tied to the mast, and his sailors plugged their ears with beeswax. From this, we can glean two lessons in battling temptation. One is to eliminate our ability to respond to temptation. Jesus put it this way (Matthew 5:29-30):
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Such a principle was adopted by Odysseus. Although he could hear the Sirens’ voice and was tempted, he had no ability to yield to the temptation. The desire was still there, but he, being roped to the mast of the ship, was unable to respond to it. Similarly, the follower of Christ ought to also abide by this principle: If there is something in your life that is consistently presenting opportunity for you to yield to temptation, get rid of it if at all possible! Odysseus had been warned by Circe not to “trust thy virtue to the enchanting sound.” Often, the character of temptation is such that we must flee from temptation rather than engage in hand-to-hand combat with it. Joseph exercised this principle in running from Potiphars’ wife when she attempted to seduce him to sleep with her.
The second lesson is that plugging our ears, so that we do not hear temptations’ seductive music, is an effective way to gain victory. Take care to guard your senses, particularly your eyes and ears. There is so much sensual imagery around today that the need to protect one’s eyes is more important now than ever before. Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, told a story of a man named Alypius, which aptly illustrates this point:
He, not relinquishing that worldly way which his parents had bewitched him to pursue, had gone before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away in an extraordinary manner with an incredible eagerness after the gladitorial shows. For, being utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by various of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the ampitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them. They hearing this, dragged him on nevertheless, desirous, perchance, to see whether he could do as he said.
When they had arrived there, and had taken their places as they could, the whole place became excited with the inhuman sports. But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamor was raised, which entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on You [God]. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him there. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others. And from all this did Thou [God], with a most powerful and most merciful hand, pluck him, and taughtest him not to repose confidence in himself, but in You — but not till long after.
How important it is that we take measures to guard our senses! Prior to that fateful day, Alypius could never have envisioned himself becoming “delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime.” Nonetheless, as a result of simple curiosity, he let his guard down, opened his eyes, and allowed it to gain a foot-hold on his mind. A modern example where temptation gains an entry into our brains in this way is pornography, exposure to which is best avoided altogether. One of the biggest initiators of an addiction to pornography is an innocent accidental first exposure. Thus, it is so important that we guard our senses.
Like the Sirens, pornography offers a deceiving promise of momentary excitement (the bate), but if you steer off your course in its direction it will trap you, robbing you of your passage back the way you came, dash you to pieces, seizing everything from you.
Jason’s Encounter With The Sirens
In the Argonautica, by Apollonius Rhodius, Jason had received warning from the centaur, Chiron, that Orpheus was needed in his travels. Orpheus ultimately saved the sailors from falling victim to the Sirens’ seduction. We read,
And soon they saw a fair island, Anthemoessa, where the clear-voiced Sirens, daughters of Archelous, used to beguile with their sweet songs whoever cast anchor there, and then destroy them. Them lovely Teripsichore, one of the Muses, bare, united with Achelous; and once they tended Demeter’s noble daughter still unwed, and sang to her in chorus; and at that time they were fashioned in part like birds and in part like maidens to behold. And ever on the watch from their place of prospect with its fair haven, often from many had they taken away their sweet return, consuming them with wasting desire; and suddenly to the heroes too, they sent forth from their lips a lily-like voice. And they were already about to cast from the ship the hawsers to the shore, had not Thracian Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, stringing in his hands his Bistonian lyre, rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens’ voice.
What lesson can we glean from this story? May our ears be so filled with the sweet melody of Christ that the seductive music of the Sirens is utterly overcome by it. Be so saturated with a knowledge of His attributes, character, and beauty, that you esteem Him as greater than whatever temptation you are facing. As the Psalmist David wrote, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,” (Psalm 119:11). The believer ought to be so consumed with a love and a passion for Christ that the music of the Sirens of temptation is not even noticed. As the classic hymn states, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”
The Sirens present a powerful metaphor for the temptation faced by Christians. Like the Sirens, the temptation to fall into sin can be highly enticing and seductive. It may offer you pleasure here and now, but remember that the island is littered with the bones of previous victims. A Christian must not steer off from the course marked out for him. Rather, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The Christian has means in his toolbox to gain victory over temptation. The stories spoken of above illustrate three ways in which yielding to temptation may be avoided: (1) Restricting our ability to respond to temptation; (2) Guarding our senses, particularly our eyes and ears; and (3) Listening to the sweeter melody of Christ.