The Songs of the Sirens and Their Mediums: Historical Knowledge and Medial Aspects of the Transformation of a Myth

The antique myth of the Sirens stems from two lines of tradition that reflect the two diametrically opposed problems of listening. One tradition traces the overwhelming power of the sirens’ song to conquer the emotions and will of the listener. This tradition also enumerates the different types of technical aids (wax, chains, the lyre) that allowed for the safe passage of the heroes Odysseus and Orpheus past the island of the sirens. The central texts from antiquity in this tradition are Homer’s Odyssey and the story of the Argonauts. On the other hand, the Platonic and Pythagorean line of tradition tells the story of Pythagoras, who, having been given special power by the gods, was able to investigate the harmony of the spheres via the Sirens’ song. In the story of Odysseus, the song of the sirens penetrates the listener, threatening his autonomy. The story of Pythagoras, however, deals with the art of listening to that which lies on the margins of the audible as a condition for receiving new knowledge. The ability to listen to the song of the sirens is perceived, on the one hand, negatively, as a danger to the listener, while on the other hand it is understood positively, as an asset to the listener. If one takes both lines of tradition under consideration, the siren myth of antiquity shows us the condition of listening as it pertains to knowledge – yet it also points to its inherent dangers.

In the last few decades, following the interpretations of Homeric sirens by Adorno/Horkheimer and Maurice Blanchot, important works in literary studies have emerged that deal with the function and meaning of the sirens in literature. Less attention has been paid, however, to the tradition of the Argonauts and there has been only sparse commentary on the notion of the harmony of the spheres. The sirens play an important role not only in literature, but also in modern sciences, in particular in Hermann von Helmholz’ doctrine of Tonempfindungen (1863). The sirens of the Pythagorean tradition are denoted here as technical objects that serve the production of artificial tones. With his “double siren,” Helmholz wanted to solve the “old puzzle [...] that Pythagoras posed to mankind” on the basis of a theory of hearing. This theory itself is based on Helmholtz’ notion of the “grounds of consonance.” Here, the art of listening to that which lies on the margins of the audible plays a central role.

My project pursues the correlation between literary, aesthetic, and scientific knowledge about listening with regard to the two lines of tradition of the Siren myth. My thesis is that the myth of the Sirens is currently undergoing a process of updating in modern European literature, in the realms of both the history of knowledge and media history. In terms of the history of knowledge, this process of updating is taking place via a literary debate with regard to the emergence of new experimental scientific knowledge in the psychology and physiology of hearing. Here, the connection to the Siren episodes in James Joyce’s Ulysses is particularly revealing. In literary texts, furthermore, the Sirens have become figures for reflection on the possibilities and the dangers of different media (e.g., voice, writing, telephone) vis-à-vis the radical changes in media in the first half of the twentieth century. Here, the embodied nature of the voice and its effect on the cognitive functions and emotions of the listener/hearer (as in the Homeric tradition) play an important role, as does the question of the possible differences between noise and sound/tone (Pythagorean tradition).