Greek strength and courage. Homer, legendary Greek
Greek mythology, much like society at the time, had fairly distinct gender roles. Most females in Greek mythology are revered for their beauty and allure, and it is their charm and good looks that empower them (1). Men, in contrast, are usually exalted for their strength and courage. Homer, legendary Greek poet, is credited to writing The Odyssey, an epic that largely fits this equation. However, gender dynamics have changed dramatically over time, both in society and literature. Margaret Atwood, a contemporary writer, poet, and feminist, is known for writings that comment on the patriarchy of modern society. Her poem, Siren Song, is about ancient mythology, but in a modern context. Homer’s The Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s Siren Song, both depict the mythological Siren, however, in very different time periods and social contexts. Homer describes the Siren’s as seductive enchantresses, while Atwood describes them as intelligent and deceptive. Even they both authors characterizes the Sirens as dangerous, manipulative, and malicious, Atwood manages to empower them in a way Homer did not. Both passages describe the Siren’s as clever and manipulative. In “Siren Song”, the Siren also appeals to the ego of the victim. The Siren directly address the victim, chanting, “I will tell the secret to you, / to you, only to you…Help me! / Only you, only you can, / you are unique.” The repetition makes it sound rhythmic and hypnotic, luring the victim in by giving off a false sense of importance. The Sirens try to manipulate him by appealing to his ego as they address him as the “famous Odysseus –Achaea’s pride and glory.”Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens corresponds with gender stereotypes regarding male protagonists and female antagonists. Homer depicts Odysseus as a strong, heroic man resisting seductive, manipulative women. Much of the passage describes Odysseus rather than the Sirens. The passage begins with revering Odysseus’s masculinity. He “sliced” beeswax into pieces with a “sharp sword,” then “kneaded them with his two strong hands,” softening them with his “strength.” Homer uses an onslaught of powerful and aggressive diction to portray Odysseus as strong and masculine. Odysseus knew of the powers of the Sirens and took immense precautions, but he was still stubborn and egotistical to plug his ear like the rest of his crew. He thinks so highly of himself that he insists to hear the song, while knowing the repercussions. In contrast, Homer paints the Sirens as seductive, alluring, and feminine. Their “honeyed voices pouring from their lips” were “ravishing,” as Odysseus’s heart “throbbed.” Homer’s sensual and sexually connotative diction paints the Sirens as flirtatious and enticing. In the passage from The Odyssey, there is a frequent use of alliteration using the letter “s.” For example, Homer writes, “the ship was scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship.” This can be called sibilance, which is alliteration using soft consonants, like the letter “s,” to create a hissing sound. This serves to mimic the soft, yet malicious voice of the Sirens. Homer also draws the comparison between the enchanting women and snakes which is an archetypical portrayal of a female villains. This is another example of the gender normativity enforced throughout the passage. Atwood however, depicts the Siren employing a slightly different tactic for trapping its victims. The Siren entraps its victim without the use of seduction or charm. Atwood alludes to the traditional depiction of Siren’s by describing them as “looking picturesque and mythical” but juxtaposes the image with phrases like “bird suit,” “squatting,” and “feathery maniacs,” which tend to conjure more comical imagery. In “Siren Song”, the Siren tries to make the victim feel sorry for her to lure him in. She speaks like a damsel in distress, crying “Help me! / Only you, only you can.” She speaks in a clear-cut, conversational tone, which is a substantial contrast from Homer’s grandiose and theatrical depiction of the Sirens. This helps bring the poem into a more modern context. At last, however, she says, “Alas / it is a boring song / but it works every time,” revealing that it was a ploy all along. Atwood frequently uses irony to foreshadow the unexpected revelation in the last line. She describes the song as “the one song everyone / would like to learn…the song nobody knows / because anyone who had heard it / is dead, and the others can’t remember.” She also explains the song “forces men / to leap overboard in squadrons / even though they see beached skulls.” Atwood exposes the irony in the situation. This foreshadows that the entire poem is ironic as well. The Siren keeps referring “the song,” making it seem as if she is describing it, but the last line reveals that she was singing it all along. The Siren in “Siren Song” refers to the song as “boring” which refers to the lack of embellishment throughout the poem. However, she explains it “works every time,” conveying that she doesn’t need to resort to fanciful, seductive tactics to manipulate men. By doing so, Atwood conveys that the Sirens can do their job by using intelligence rather than seduction.The passage from The Odyssey differ in point of view as well. The passage is written in Odysseus’s point of view and “Siren Song” is written in a Siren’s point of view. By doing so, Homer empowers Odysseus the same way Atwood empowers the Siren. Additionally, the passage is written in the point of view of Odysseus, further reiterating his egotistical and braggart personality. The bulk of the passage is focused on Odysseus while the Sirens appear in less than half the excerpt. This depersonalizes the Sirens, reducing them to a mere obstacle that the hero, Odysseus, has to overcome, which he does fairly easily. Atwood on the other hand, writes the poem entirely in the Siren’s point of view. Additionally, she is triumphant at the end, empowering the Siren even more. The way Atwood structured the poem contrasts heavily with Homer’s organization. “Siren Song” is very choppy, line breaks often interrupting the flow of sentences, resulting in a staccato rhythm. This is ironic because the poem is about a song, which are supposed to be melodious. She employs a very conversational tone, with little description. Homer’s writing, however, is very embellished. He used long lines fraught with imagery with a tense, suspenseful tone.