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Sirens & Pomegranates

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Siren with pomegranate, 5th century BC, Getty Museum, Malibu.

Most people are familiar with the Greek mythological creature known as the Siren, usually via Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus, on his way back to Greece from the Trojan War, determines to hear the Sirens’ song as his ship passes by their island. Anyone who hears the song of the Sirens becomes captivated, and is destined never to return home. The only one who had successfully resisted the Sirens was Orpheus, who drowned out their song with his own music. Odysseus, for his part, has his crewmen stop up their ears with wax, so they won’t hear the Sirens. He then has the crew tie him to the mainmast, where he can listen to the Sirens’ song with ears unstopped, and yet not interrupt his voyage.

The Sirens were strange creatures, with the head of a woman and the body, wings and feet of a bird. They also had human hands according to some Greek representations. The Sirens were associated with the pomegranate, that extraordinary fruit of the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, has an intriguing bronze representation of a Siren, described here by Greek archaeologist Despoina Tsiafakis:

The Siren published here, a bronze askos in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, was presumably used to hold expensive scented oils. The name of the artist is unknown, though there is no doubt that the askos was made by a South Italian workshop. Features of the face and the head as well as the musculature of the figure of the male youth that serves as the handle date the Siren to the second quarter of the fifth century B.C. The piece is of great importance both because it is an early Classical bronze of fine quality and because it provides valuable insight into bronze-casting techniques….

… As human-headed birds, Sirens represent both chthonic and demonic powers, closely related to music and the world of the dead. Famous for their musical abilities, they used their skills to charm men and keep them away from home forever. With the exception of Orpheus and Odysseus, no moral heard the Sirens’ song and lived to tell about it….

Tsiafakis writes about the symbolism of the pomegranate, showing how the red fruit connects the Sirens with the underworld….

The rendering of the Getty Siren is in keeping with the iconography of Sirens in the Archaic and Classical periods. She holds a syrinx [Pan flute] in her right hand and a pomegranate in her left. As we have seen, pomegranates occur in association with two of the Greek bronze Sirens of the sixth century B.C., namely the Siren from the Peloponnese and the one from Crotone, but in both cases the fruit hangs around the neck as a necklace. Whether in the hand or around the neck, the pomegranate is a symbol closely related to the world this human-headed bird represents. Both the Siren and the pomegranate are connected with Persephone’s kingdom [the underworld], and Sirens were well-known as Hades’ musical birds. Plato relates that their home is the underworld, and they often occur on graves or funerary scenes….

The red juice of the pomegranate is suggestive of blood and the fruit itself is the symbol of Plouton [Pluto, or Hades] and Persephone. According to the myth, when Hades raped Kore [Persephone], he gave her some seeds of this fruit to eat, by which means he kept her one-third of the year with him in the underworld. Moreover the relation of the pomegranate with chthonic cult is indicated by its frequent presence as a votive offering in graves and its depiction on grave reliefs and in vase-painting. It is at once a symbol of death and of rebirth; its numerous seeds symbolize fertility and life. Pomegranates are very often represented in art, especially in South Italian tomb-painting, particularly in Campania and Lucania, together with other fruits, such as apples, as well as eggs – all symbols of the cult of the dead.

Despite their symbolic relation to the world of the dead and its deities, Sirens with pomegranates are not often depicted in Greek art. There are two known examples from Magna Graecia: the Getty and the Crotone Sirens; and two more from mainland Greece: the Peloponnesian Siren and a terra-cotta one from Boeotia. The latter has a clearly rendered red painted fruit hanging from a necklace around the neck and a polos [tall, cylindrical headdress] on the head. The provenance of the terra-cotta, combined with the fruit and polos, connect the Siren with Hera, as a chthonic goddess. According to Mueller, the goddesses who mostly wear poloi are Kore and Demeter; Hera usually has a polos decorated with palmettes and flowers, such as that on the Boeotian Siren. In contrast, the Getty Siren has a plain polos, such as that worn by Demeter and Persephone….

The fruit symbolizes life and death at the same time. Fascinating!

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