BMCR 2007.11.20

Il mito delle Sirene. Immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi

, , , Il mito delle sirene : immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi. Saggi / [Einaudi] ; 881. Torino: Einaudi, 2007. XII, 268 p., [8] c. di tav. : il. ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9788806178048. €22.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

The book under review forms part of the Mythologica series, launched in 2002 by Einaudi (Torino) under the direction of the Professor of Classics and novelist Maurizio Bettini. The series has already covered the myths of Helen, Narcissus and Oedipus and has announced two forthcoming volumes, the myth of Antigone and the myth of Circe.

As with the rest of the volumes in the series, the book consists of 3 parts: an introductory narrative by Bettini, the study of the myth itself — in this case by Luigi Spina, Professor of Classics at the University Federico II of Naples —, and an Iconography section, prepared by Stefano Chiodi and Claudio Franzoni.

Bettini’s text is a retelling of the story of the Sirens, obviously meant to recall the myth to the reader, yet through an unorthodox version. Bettini does not base his narrative on the canonical texts, such as Homer or Apollonius of Rhodes, but instead he makes use of the Telegoneia, the epic relating the vicissitudes of the son of Ulysses and Circe, Telegonos, who was thought to have unknowingly killed his own father, a story known to the Middle Ages through the works of Dictys the Cretan and Bénoît de Sainte Maure.

However, the Telegoneia — which anyway does not mention the Sirens at all — serves only as a point of departure for a narrative à la Saint Exupéry, that contains a story within a story. Ulysses recounts to a young boy how he had narrated his adventure with the Sirens to a man who had never seen the sea. This man asked Ulysses one question that no one had ever asked him: What did the Sirens sing? What made their song so irresistible, Ulysses confides to the young boy, was the fact that although it had no meaning, it was sung with the voices of all the women he had loved until then (one cannot avoid recalling here Wong Kar Wai’s film 2046). Through this narrative, Bettini gives an answer to one of the most tormenting problems of Greek mythology that he tries out on his readers. But while he attempts to close the gaping question, at the same time he creates a new mystery: he ends his story by making the young boy, who is no other than Telegonos, kill Ulysses although he is quite aware he is facing his father. In such a way, a new version of the myth is created, which remains open to new interpretations. What Bettini really does here is to remain faithful to the description he has given of his series: ” Mythologica,” he says, “explores the countless transformations that the classical myths have undergone from Antiquity to our day, whether through narrative, iconography, or interpretation. In fact, the myth is never exhausted — there is always another version to be read, the myth is never concluded — there is always another version to be written.”

Luigi Spina, begins his share of the book with an introduction in which he expounds his method. He bases his study on a “biological, or rather, biographical scheme” (p. 36; cf. 70), a method which allows him to “put order among images and tales”, and he thus proceeds to study the Sirens as real beings that have been born, have lived and died. He structures his study in two main parts: “The life of a Siren” and “The echo of the Sirens”, giving to his chapters or subchapters playful titles, in many cases reminiscent of gialli or movie titles, such as “Small homicides” (p. 84), “An announced death” (p. 88), “One dies only twice” (p. 92) or, with a Magrittean touch, “This Siren is not a Siren” (p. 158), as Spina “knows that the reader knows (and that the reader knows that he knows)”, to paraphrase his compatriot Umberto Eco.

The biographical scheme obliges Spina to deal with his sources not according to the principles of intertextuality, i.e. according to “literary time’ (p. 70), which respects the order of appearance of the various texts, but according to the “temporal relationships” (p. 66) of the myth itself. Thus, the Odyssey, by “the poet that we will never tire of calling Homer” (p. 65), the text responsible for the “almost total, invasive fortuna” (p. 74) of the myth, is treated not as the Urtext but as a narrative element posterior to Apollonius of Rhodes since in his Argonautica Apollonius deals with the meeting of Orpheus and the Sirens (p. 65 sq.), which, in terms of mythical history, happened before their meeting with Ulysses. Spina tries, he tells us, to resist all temptations to use phrases like “here, just as Homer before him — or, here, contrary to Homer — Apollonius of Rhodes…” (p. 66). However, despite his well-intentioned efforts to respect the temporal logic of the myth, the world evolves, and together with it, its literature, and Spina will have to acknowledge later on in his study (p. 121) the huge distance that separates Virgil from Homer, even though the fleet of Aeneas passes through the same seas only shortly after the vessel of Ulysses.

Following the presentation of the methodology adopted in the book, the reader is offered in Part I the life and deeds of the Sirens. First comes their genealogy — the various figures thought to have mothered them, the Muses Melpomene, Calliope and Sterope or even Gaia/Chthon, and the father, Acheloos, or maybe Phorkys, both aquatic beings. Next follows their politeia, an existence linked to punishment and death. After being transformed into birds by Aphrodite for having chosen a life of virginity, they are punished again later in their lives for having challenged the Muses in an unsuccessful singing contest and, as a result, are plucked of their feathers. When the Argonauts together with Orpheus, another offspring of one of the Muses, passed (well before Ulysses’ vessel) off the shores of their island, the melody of Orpheus’s cithara managed to neutralize their song (p. 64 sq.). And then again, they suffered one further and well-known defeat in the Odyssey with the successful passage of Ulysses — one of the only two human beings who solved the mystery of their song (the other one was Butes, p. 68). The Sirens fearsome? Not really. After such an unsuccessful life-story, Spina concludes that the myth of the Sirens is actually a “myth of failure” (p. 73), a “myth of defeat” (p. 84). However, when he turns to the narrative of their death, which unavoidably puts an end to these defeats, he argues that it is then, in their afterlife — their Nachleben — that we feel their real power, given the “fascination” exercised by their myth through the centuries (p. 87). Part I closes with a survey of their “speaking names” (p. 95) — names that signify bonds and imprisonment and burning — and with the topography related to their myth. This chapter is tedious at times, due to the huge amount of information it contains and the fact that the numerous stories related to their various localizations are “in disagreement” (p. 120). Hence, inevitably the text lacks cohesion.

Having read Part I containing the exposition of the myth, the biography of the Sirens, one expects to find in Part II, entitled “The echo of the Sirens”, a study of its fortuna, an expectation nourished further through the subtitle of the book: Images and stories from Greece to our day, which accompanies all the volumes of the series. The reader’s expectations, however, are not entirely fulfilled. In this part, Spina argues at first that the “metaphoric production” of the myth of the Sirens has transformed it from a “myth of defeat” into “a potentially victorious myth” (p. 133). Next he proposes the term “narrative cooperation” (p. 134) in order, apparently, to illustrate the importance of the listener/reader for its later fortuna. Finally, he proceeds to expose the “extramythical” transformations (p. 139) of the Sirens from female-birds into female-fish, from singing beings into mute beings and from Sirens into sirens (the sound device). These transformations, he claims, are due to the efforts of those who tried to make sense of the myth, to understand its Bedeutung, a process that has often resulted in new myths (p.136).

Still, despite Spina’s declarations, Part II contains no systematic study of the fortuna of the myth, no examination of the relationships between the various elements, nor is there any kind of assessment of the significance of the various “testimonies” used. The result is that some heavy-weight humanists with great influence — such as Erasmus (referred to in n. 73, p. 212, although missing in the index) or Montaigne (p. 160) — get minimal treatment or even no treatment at all (e.g. Guillaume Budé, for whom the Sirens symbolized the eloquence developed at court, and who thus introduced the myth in the then flourishing anti-court literature). At the same time, other key elements that account for its fortuna (e.g., Renaissance emblems) are not touched upon at all. The reader is offered instead a free-association narrative, which, while not lacking wit and humour, can also be tiring for anyone who is seeking to organize the various elements of the myth in a chronological framework. This is the case, e.g., of the subchapter “? deafening silence, almost offensive” where we pass from the Norwegian Columbia professor Jon Elster to Franz Kafka, on to the contemporary Spaniard author, Garcia Morales, then to (among others) Plato, Seneca, Cassiodorus, Aretino, Bertold Brecht and the filmmaker Mario Camerini. The text is more consistent in the last chapter, “This Siren is not a Siren”, where Spina deals with the Christian interpretation of the myth, although in its last subchapter he slips again into a more garrulous personal narrative (p. 171 ff.), as he refers to the frustrations he experienced during the writing of his book, something with which anyone who has studied a myth cannot but sympathize. But shouldn’t these considerations form part of a methodological chapter separate from the corpus of the study? Especially as Spina’s share of the book closes with a pleasant conclusion entitled “Growing Old with the Sirens (a quasi-conclusion)” where he confesses his failure since, despite his efforts, he feels unable to reply to the fundamental question: what was the content of the Sirens’ song.

To come to more specific points, an element that may be surprising for some is the fact that, although exhaustive at times, Spina avoids examining similar myths. He refers only briefly to “other females of the sea” (p. 144), such as Melusine, Ondine or Lorelei, and although he mentions Gorgias and his affirmation of the spellbinding power of logos (p. 77-78; cf. p. 105), and Quintilianus, who referred to its persuasive function (p. 132), there is no reference whatsoever, e.g., to the myth of Hercules Gallicus and to his seductive oratory that literally captivated his audience. He only hints at the “world of feminine seduction” (p. 170) and characterizes such elements as “the sweetness of their song” or their power of “verbal seduction” simply as “easy metaphors in the rhetoric camp” (p. 171), discarding them rather too easily.

Spina’s documentation, however, is impeccable as he makes use of a remarkably wide bibliographical corpus: he refers, for instance, even to scholars writing in less standard languages, such as Nikolaos Politis, a Modern Greek folklorist (p. 206, n. 129), or the Polish poet Artur Oppman (p. 206, n. 132). However, it is a pity that the important bibliography on the fortuna of the myth in literature appears as a simple note (n. 41 on p. 217), lost among the more topical ones. Also, the separate chapter “The Sirens in the course of time” (by Spina?), containing a commented bibliography, is particularly instructive. On the other hand, on an ergonomic level, the idea of putting the notes at the end of the book and arranging them by chapters is not a good choice. Even the non-specialist reader will often feel the need to verify some detail, which means first checking the chapter in question and then trying to locate the right note. One solution would be to transform them into footnotes, a choice that would admittedly affect the whole conception of the book, or otherwise require the continuous numbering of all the notes. The same problem applies to the links between text and iconography, where again the indications are not always clear (p. 91, l. 5; p. 102, l. 27).

What seems to be the more challenging element of this book is Spina’s style. The personal character of his manner of expression — which is narrative in nature, just as myths are — is further accentuated by the use of punctuation in the titles (“When a man with a zither meets the Sirens…”, “Ulysses at last!”), as well as by the eccentric titles themselves. He can often be engaging, especially when he speaks off the record, i.e. outside the limits his plan imposes on him, but also confusing. Above all, his relaxed style brings us to the main issue here: the problem of the genre of this book.

It is not a typical fruit of scholarship. Thus it may not prove useful as a reference book despite the exhaustive documentation that accompanies it, iconographical and bibliographical (see, e.g. the illuminating commented bibliography under the title “Sirens in the course of time” or the very helpful list of “Testimonies” — by Spina?). But neither is it a book addressed to a broad public, given the references to little-known mythographers and scholiasts, and the multiple layers of cultural references and meanings. Its ambition seems to be to serve as ‘food for thought’.

Exegesis, allegory, parody, metaphor: the myth of the Sirens has been available for centuries — and is still available — to whoever wants not only to read its founding texts, but also to continue the itinerary traced by ancient and more recent exegetes. Yet the myth — any myth — offers also another possibility: the possibility of continuing its story (p. 171).

This passage by Spina gives the key to the understanding of this book’s genre: it is a study addressed not to those who want to follow the itinerary traced by the myth, but to those who want to continue it. Thus, as a book that proposes a palimpsest inviting us all to add our version, it seems to be addressed especially to creators, i.e., to writers and artists, who are thus encouraged to pick up Ariadne’s thread from Bettini and Spina and continue the journey in the meanders of this myth. Above all, it is a book not only about docere but also about delectare : about seduction. This is what Bettini and Spina, just as the Sirens, try to do to their at times puzzled reader through their appealing personal style. It is also about pleasure — at least Bettini and Spina certainly got a great deal of that through its writing.