We all like a good song, right? We tend to like good songs even more when attractive women and men sing them. Unless of course, that is, you're a sailor and those pretty songs are coming from mythical bird-women who want nothing more than to lure you to your death. In that case, good songs may not be so great after all.
But when it comes to Margaret Atwood's "Siren Song," we can at least have a little laugh while being lured to our deaths. She kind of makes light of the whole myth of Sirens (mythical bird-women) who have a nasty habit of singing these beautiful songs that are so enchanting that sailors forget all about the island of rocks and human skulls that they happen to be sailing right into.
Atwood's speaker portrays those dangerous Siren ladies as kind of bored with the whole thing. After all, their job is pretty simple, their song is easy to sing, and the story always ends the same: dead sailors who fall right into their trap and end up rotting away on an island. Yum. Meanwhile, the Sirens don't enjoy looking "picturesque and mythical." Maybe they'd prefer to wear a Snuggie instead of a "bird suit."
So Atwood gives us a slightly different spin on the whole Siren myth that's not just about pretty songs and stupid sailors. Her speaker provides the Siren's point-of-view, showing that it's not as fun as it may look in The Odyssey. We kind of feel bad for the Sirens who appear trapped on that island with little to do besides luring sailors to their deaths. They'd prefer not to be "feathery maniacs," singing boring songs, but since those sailors keep coming, what else can they do?
On a deeper level, the poem also explores the whole notion of the damsel-in-distress motif and the men who can't help but play the hero. Atwood turns the predator/prey theme on its head, making that Siren call for help more like a call to death. And when those sailors can't resist pretty women and pretty songs, their quest to save the day turns into a quest to be killed. That's some food for thought, the next time you decide to take a cruise and spot a bird-woman perched delicately above an island of human skulls.
Why Should I Care?
We're guessing you're not planning on cruising around an island of rocks and human skulls any time soon, but if that island happens to come your way, you'll know what to do. Margaret Atwood's "Siren Song" does a great job of bringing those classical myths up-to-date and reminding us that those myths still have a neat way of capturing our imaginations and maybe even teaching us a thing or two.
If you think about it, much of Greek mythology is often a learning guide of various allegories that relate to the common sorts of conflicts people face in real life. Take a look at Icarus, Narcissus, and the like. Since we still hear about those myths on occasion, we've got reason to suspect that there's still some relevance there, no matter if we're searching for Sirens on smart phones rather than ancient tablets.
And what better way to update a myth than to give us the perspective of those dangerous and mysterious Sirens? By unveiling some of the mystery behind these ladies, we come to understand that even myths are rarely one-sided. Villains may not be so eager to be villains, just like heroes who may prefer to take it easy on their couch rather than save the day. It kind of reminds us of Watchmen and the way that film makes its heroes appear less than perfect and eager.
So we get a fuller picture in Atwood's poem that lends some humanity to an otherwise mythical creature. And when we make myths sound a bit more human, we come to realize that we just might have something in common with those Sirens. After all, the guy standing outside that mattress store might not be thrilled wearing a giant mattress in order to get our business. Likewise, our villains and heroes may not want to wear their "bird suit" every day but feel that they have to for various reasons. So at the very least, Atwood's poem gives us reason to keep an open mind when it comes to myths, villains, and the human experience they so cleverly allegorize.