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A medieval siren up to no good!1250-1300 from a bestiary seen in the British Library.

‘I know there is an Other in the shadows,

whose fate it is to wear out the long solitudes

which weave and unweave this Hades

and to long for my blood and devour my death.

Each of us seeks the other. If only this were

the final day of waiting.’ (from Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges)

Myths and other sources from the past tell of monstrous people living at the edge of the known world: the ‘other’. Early maps show extraordinary races of humans living in India and Ethiopia:men with dog’s heads; and strange hopping one-legged creatures  who used their giant feet as umbrellas to protect them from the sun. Read more about medieval monsters here: at The British Library.

In our reading of Greek myths we have encountered monsters, many of them women. Many of us began to notice that women fell into two categories, the passive, patient and obedient and the other; those who transgress, who are ambitious and tricky. The latter are the women who do not conform, who are considered mad, bad and nasty – they lead poor hapless men astray or are deemed bad merely by being female and seductive!  It is through their beauty, pride or ambition that these women, these bad girls become transformed and monstrous.

Consider Medusa, a fling in a temple with Poseidon led to uncontrollable hair and a petrifying gaze. There are different versions of the temple liaison- Ovid (Metamorphoses, IV. 779ff)  says ‘rape’ in which case she is doubly punished: the attack itself and snaky hair and isolation while other versions suggest Medusa was punished for boasting that her beauty surpassed that of Athena. (Read more here) Arachne’s boasts about weaving led to her spinning for ever but in the shadows as a spider and Medea’s ambitions have  branded her as a heartless mother, a child killer. Her name is of Greek origins meaning cunning and is related to Greek medos, counsel , plan, cunning. (Read here about Medea and Jason from Bullfinch’s Mythology).

Scylla too is another hapless victim metamorphosed into a monster.  Her rejection of Glaucus causes his bitter revenge. Aided by Circe who is jealous of Scylla’s beauty and spurred by Glaucus’ indifference to her, in this particular version, Circe contributes to Scylla’s shocking metamorphosis.  Scylla’s name is perhaps connected to Greek scyllein to tear. And tear she does with her six heads all equipped with three sets of teeth as mariners attempt to pass through the narrow straits where she lurks in a cave opposite Charybidis, incessantly voracious, pouncing upon those who stray too close. Female and deadly. Perhaps as Marina Warner suggests in her brilliant 1994 Reith lectures, Managing Monsters,  this fear of these monstrous women may in fact be connected with fear of gynocracy, rule by women.

The students in humanities are attuned to these representations of women as monsters and the girls in particular are questioning this. This post could be a lengthy examination of how women are presented in myth and fairy tale, fascinating, but for now we are narrowing it to the ‘sirens’ and ‘harpies’ and one group’s work in progress on ‘fate’!


Sirens as well as being the watery temptresses of Greek mythology have been included in Medieval bestiaries where of course they are regarded through the lens of Christian morality. Sirens, with the upper body of women and the lower body of a fish or even a bird sang beautiful songs lulling and luring sailors to sleep. The rapacious siren then attacks and kills the hapless men. In the bestiaries of the Middle Ages the messages suggests that those who take pleasure in worldly diversions are exposing themselves to the devil.

We discovered that the word, ‘siren’,  first attested in English in 14th century, was of Greek origin as we had expected from the myths. We were intrigued by the root, and its metaphoric suggestion of the wiles of sirens. The etymon is Greek  ‘seira’ meaning “cord, rope’ so leading to a sense of a “binder, an entangler,”  This came to refer specifically to the sirens that Odysseus encountered as well as being applied more generally to any deceitful woman. We read how the sirens with their entangling and luring, sang their listeners in thrall, compelling them to come closer. We were also fascinated that the word ‘siren’ came to be used for a warning device that made listeners do the opposite run away or duck for shelter- become safe. The use of the warning device was coined in 1879. This etymological knowledge of the word has helped in our interpretation of Margret Atwood’s poem which we read, annotated and discussed.

Siren Song

This is the one song everyone would like to learn:

the song that is irresistible:

the song that forces men

to leap overboard in squadrons

even though they see beached skulls

the song nobody knows

because anyone who had heard it

is dead, and the others can’t remember.

Shall I tell you the secret

and if I do, will you get me

out of this bird suit?

I don’t enjoy it here

squatting on this island

looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs

I don’t enjoy singing this trio,

fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,

to you, only to you.

Come closer. This song

is a cry for help:Help me!

Only you, only you can,

you are unique

at last. Alas

it is a boring song

but it works every time.

 Student discussion of the poem:




Below illuminated sirens:

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Harpy by Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme; Flandern, about 1350


At first we thought that the base element of harpy may be <harp>. I had already managed to link the voracious, winged and  shrieking harpy to the verbal sense to harp, to nag. Yet not so – pure folk etymologizing on my part. ‘To harp’  comes from Old English hearpian, yes with the instrument, so ‘harping’ in the sense of nagging and perseverating means to incessantly pluck at the same harp string! It is then not of the same root as those harpy hussies! ‘Harpy‘ we discovered comes from Greek Harpyia meaning snatchers and this perhaps may be connected to the Greek etymon harpazein to snatch which is in turn linked with the Proto Indo European root *rep that has led to Latin rapere meaning to snatch, seize and plunder. We were astonished to find that ‘rapid’ had its origins in this particular Latin root!



Fatal women- and there are many more of them in both myth and fairy tale. As for fate itself the Greeks referred to the godesses responsible as the Moirai (or Moirae)  those who represented time past, time present, time future. They represented man’s inevitable destiny.  Every person has their fate or lot assigned and their greek names means “parts.” “shares” or “alottted portions. Marina Warner reminds us of time past which is ‘already spun and wound onto the spindle’, time present which is ‘already drawn between the spinners fingers’:and time future which’ lies in the wool twined on the distaff, and which must still be drawn out by the fingers of the spinner onto the spindle, as the present is drawn into the past’ .These godesses were named:Klotho, whose name means “Spinner,” Lakhesis, whose name means “Apportioner of Lots”  and Atropos , name means “She who cannot be turned,” cut the thread of life. These classical Fates later metamorphose, according to Warner, into the’ fairies of stories where they continue their fateful and prophetic roles.’

Students have formed pairs recently as we have begun our new unit on religion with words that get at the the concepts. Students are currently investigating these words  and preparing to tell the ‘back story’ behind their word. Listen to the research by two students, still ongoing, on the morphology and etymology of fate. I am so impressed by the way the students are researching their chosen word. I have asked all students  to keep track of their thinking, and their hypothesis on a document so that when they are ready we can confer. When they feel they have adequate information, refined their hypothesis, they proceed to develop a matrix and identify any other base elements that have developed from the root. These ‘working notes’, as the students are calling their research, and the conversation below are revelatory in terms of what has been understood and what needs further thinking and clarification. I am impressed by the way this pair continues to work on this. I am impressed by their many questions : can <ne-> be a prefix? Is <-and> a suffix?  Watch and listen to their discussion with me below as they share their research and prepare to tell the story behind the word ‘fate’: a work in progress.