THE SIRENS

Plato calls the spirits which sing the music of the spheres Sirens. This seems to conflict with the more destructive version of the Sirens in Homer – but Plutarch (Moralia 6) explains that there is no conflict. The Sirens song is the divine harmony which sings in all things and that it is why it is so alluring. The Sirens’ are the same as the muses, says Plutarch.

“Here on earth a kind of faint echo of that music reaches us, and appealing to our souls through the medium of words, reminds them of what they experienced in an earlier existence. The ears of most souls, however, are plastered over and blocked up, not with wax, but with carnal obstructions and affections. But any soul that through innate gifts is aware of this echo, and remembers that other world, suffers what falls in no way short of the very maddest passions of love, longing and yearning to break the tie with the body, but unable to do so. Not that I fall in with this interpretation at all points. My view is that just as Plato speaks of ‘shafts’ and ‘spindles’instead of ‘axes,’ and of ‘whorls’ for ‘stars,’ so here, too, contrary to usage, he gives the name of ‘Sirens’ to the Muses, because they ‘seyen’ (eirousas), that is ‘speak,’ the divine truths in the realm of Death”(Plutarch Moralia 6, Loeb Classical Library)

 

Clement of Alexandria (2nd century AD) quotes a lost play by Euripides:

“He who is a (true) Gnostic must imitate God as far as possible…
Therefore Euripides says:
” I have golden wings on my back,
And the winged sandals of the Sirens fit me too:
I shall go floating into the vast ether
In order to approach Zeus”

(Stromateis IV 25, 172)

(This translation, the reference to Plutarch and other ideas in this section are from Peter Dronke: Imagination in the Late Pagan and early Christian World, the first nine centuries AD. Firenze: Sismel. Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2003)

There are nine muses, eight for the spheres, which are the fundamentals of harmony, and one for the Earth, to guide us towards the heavenly music.

(See THE MODES AND THE MUSES)

It’s the earthly muse, Thalia, who is muse of pastoral poetry or comedy. It’s in comedy that we learn that music is made of all the harmonies. Comedy teaches us the necessity for tolerance and variety. This was one of the messages of Lord Shaftesbury who was an influence on Haydn amongst others. We should laugh at the absurd even in religion. Shaftesbury was following Aristotle’s lost book, of course – as anyone who has read a great book about a Franciscan detective will know. (Nothing new in this. John Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century said that “true reason laughs” at taking the story of Adam and Eve literally. That was over a thousand years ago.)

But the essence of comedy is not mockery – but variety, even incongruity, and, like a Haydn symphony, the joyful inclusion of opposites.

There’s nothing more serious.

To Proclus, who thinks there are three different kinds of sirens, the celestial sirens of Plato dance around the World Soul. This is a very attractive image – though, in terms of Harmony, the sirens are themselves aspects of the World Soul, which, as far as Plato is concerned, is the pattern of Harmony as a whole within all of Nature and within us.

We can imagine these sirens or muses in human terms because the harmonies they represent are also part of us – they are archetypal qualities or modes. They are “real”, as fundamental principles, and the imagination clothes them and makes them intelligible, with whatever images and memories are real to the individual.

In my “Ravello Dialogues” the character of Vairrey is, very clearly, I believe, a personification of Thalia, as an earthly dancer who serves the World Soul – or, if one does not wish to you use that term, she is a dancer who guides the traveller towards an understanding of Harmony in Nature by her dances, jokes, and random behaviour. She encourages the narrator to take the wrong road, to be subject to chance. This reminds me of the story of St Francis asking to be spun round until he drops to indicate which road to take. Of course St Francis assumes that God will guide his giddy falling, but one might equally suggest that it is the Harmony in Nature which guides the chance. Is there really a difference? The inherent law is, in Christian terms, God’s first made thing, a law which allows freedom.

See RAVELLO DIALOGUE 6

There is a deep connection between this imagery of the sirens dance and the Seven Liberal Arts. In the story Vairrey might as well be a servant of Mary. Perhaps she is. Mary is not the World Soul – she is a human being in which the Harmony, or Human Nature, is perfectly expressed, attracting, some say, God’s love. The Seven Liberal Arts serve Mary – as in the first stone representation of Mary, at Chartres, and they are the work of the muses or sirens in practical form.

 

The serious danger is that people dismiss poetic or “pagan” imagery as something alien to the Christian world when it is simply a way of understanding aspects of nature (which in this study I call Harmony) which are true regardless of our religious language. Any understanding of Incarnation, and the story which Bonaventure sees as the completion of Creation, must involve an understanding of unity of things which is brought about by the Laws of Nature, Harmony, or the sirens’ song.

 

(My personal interest in these ideas goes back a long way. Here is an extract from a film I made in 1971/2.)