03 - Sirens Bind: Siren-Song as Binding Spell in the Odyssey, Plato’s Cratylus, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and a Roman Curse Tablet from the 1st Century C.E.

A comparison of the Sirens of the Odyssey, Plato's Cratylus, Xenophon's Memorabilia, and TheDeMa517, a curse tablet buried along Rome's Via Ostiensis in the 1st century C.E. (Bevilacqua & Colacicchi 2009, 303; Urbanová 2017, 72), reveals siren-song as an archetypal binding spell within both the literary discourse and practice of "magic" in Greco-Roman antiquity.

Plato's Cratylus (403c-404a) subordinates the Sirens to Hades' supreme verbal binding in a passage that abounds with the sort of "[r]itualized binding language" of the early Greek curses analyzed by Jessica Lamont (2021a, 472). In Xenophon's Memorabilia (2.6.8-12), Socrates cites the Sirens' song in the Odyssey as an incantation (2.6.11), the spellbinding of "the Sirens [who] incanting hold fast" (αἱ Σειρῆνες ἐπᾴδουσαι κατεῖχον, 2.6.11) contrasted with the rejected method of physically "holding [one] fast like a slave by binding" (δήσαντα κατέχειν ὥσπερ δοῦλον, 2.6.9). TheDeMa517, a defixio or binding spell, invokes along with Circe the "monstrous Sirens [who] held humans fast" (monstrinae Siredenae cantibus homines detinebant, B.29). This invocation of the Odyssean Sirens represents a meaningful moment of overlap between the "discourse" of "magic" in Greco-Roman antiquity (Edmonds 2019, 7) and an instance of ritualized activity that has been characterized as "magic" by scholars in modernity. Moreover, it provides evidence for the impact of literature on historical practice and the perceived ritual efficacy of the Sirens' spellbinding in Rome. In each of these sources, Sirens bind, a conceptualization that casts light on the mechanism of Odysseus' preservation in the Odyssey: Odysseus' bonds are a physical countermeasure to the Sirens' verbal binding. As Odysseus tells his crew to "bind [him] in a painful bond" (με δεσμῷ / δήσατ᾿ ἐν ἀργαλέῳ, Od. 12.160-1) - - an "exception," Lamont notes, to the generally destructive sense of such language (2021a, n. 16) - - Odysseus inverts the usual meaning of painful restraint: these bonds are painful because they preserve, keeping the spellbound Odysseus from an intensely pleasurable if fatal end.

Reconsidering the Sirens of the Odyssey through those of Plato's Cratylus, Xenophon's Memorabilia, and TheDeMa517, as well as within a broader tradition of binding spells in Greco-Roman antiquity, this paper substantiates previous suggestions that Sirens bind. Gerald Gresseth (1970) associates the Sirens' "Magic Song" with "the Binding Song sung by the Furies in the Eumenides," a song that "binds the mind (desmios phrenôn)" (208). Françoise Bader (1994) etymologizes "‘Binder'-Sirens"("Lieuses"-Sirènes) and attends to the "bonds" (liens) of the Odyssey's poetic composition (29). Daniel Tiffany (2009), drawing on the work of Christopher Faraone, suggests that "the enigmatic songs of the Sphinx and the Sirens share a common origin in the ancient tradition of metrical charms (έπῳδαί) [sic] or ‘binding spells' (αγωγή) [sic]" (70). While complementing these disparate scholars' insights, this paper contextualizes Sirens in light of the material record: it analyzes the Siren-passages of the Odyssey, Plato's Cratylus, and Xenophon's Memorabilia in light of Greek katadesmoi and locates the Odyssean Sirens within a Roman defixio. Thus contextualized, siren-song emerges as an archetypal binding spell.


Catherine Saterson, Yale University