Mermaid/siren

Discussion in 'English Only' started by pieanne, Jul 16, 2007.

  1. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    Hello, all! :)

    I have been wondering about the difference (or about whether there is a difference) between a mermaid & a siren (the one that sings, not the one that howls)...

    I'm familiar with the singing merlaids ("Mermaids singing" by M. Connelly, and in Harry Potter 6 the merpeople sing at Dumbledore's funeral), but there's also quite a number of hits in Google for "siren ('s) song)...

    Maybe a "mermaid" is always half fish, half woman, but "siren" can be used metaphorically for a beautiful woman who attracts men?
     
  2. Arrius

    Arrius Senior Member

    Spain
    English, UK
    Siren is the same, just not used as frequently. This is possibly because the Hans Christian Andersen fairy story "The Little Mermaid" was translated this way because it more closely resembles the Danish title. The form siren except in mythology has now largely been relegated to the acoustic warning device you mention with its warlike connotations.
     
  3. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    Are the sirens as dangerous as the mermaids, when they sing?
     
  4. SaritaMija

    SaritaMija Senior Member

    Minnesota, USA
    English-United States
    The 10th century encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up Sirens had the form of sparrows, below they were women, or, alternatively, that they were little birds with women's faces. Birds were chosen because of their characteristic, beautiful voices. However, later in history Sirens were sometimes also depicted as beautiful women (whose bodies, not only their voices, are seductive), or even as mermaids (half woman, half fish). The fact that in some languages (such as Spanish, French, Italian, Polish or Portuguese) the word for mermaid is Siren, Sirène, Sirena, Syrena or Sereia adds to this confusion. In English however, "Siren" does not commonly denote "mermaid".

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren

    hope that helps
     
  5. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    But in the Odyssey (8/7th century BC), Ulysses meets mermaids... (women ending in a fish tail)

    I wonder what's the origin of both words...
     
  6. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    I'd say that my impression in AE, with no real study on the matter, is that a mermaid has a positive image and a siren a negative one. In other words, sirens are evil mermaids that lure men to their deaths with their singing. Mermaids are those lovely creatures that appear in underwater attractions and Disney animated films. :)

    I'm saying this out of total ignorance other than collected impressions over the years from children's stories, films, books, and television, but I'd say that's the general impression of the two words.

    To my recollection, we say that Ulysses met the Sirens, not mermaids, who attempted to lure his ship onto the rocks by singing to his sailors. It's a fading memory, though.
     
  7. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
  8. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    Homer didn't describe the form of the creatures very clearly, but I believe they were understood at the time to be half-woman half-bird. There was no suggestion that they were piscean at that time, this was a later attribution.

    The word siren probably means binder, the Greeks borrowed this word and its etymology is not very clear. This meaning is appropriate to the story as the sirens used their magical song to draw in mariners as if they were tied with cords. You might say they were spellbound by the sirens' song.

    So there is no connection between the meanings of the words siren and mermaid. Mermaid literally means sea maid in Middle English. We still use a word connected to "mer" in English today: mere, meaning lake. Of course it shares roots with most European language words for sea, lake, etc.
     
  9. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    But Ulysses was sailing... Wouldn't these creatures he met be more likely half fish than half birds?
     
  10. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    The sirens were on an island, they were not restricted to being aquatic in any way, and indeed they were not, in the original story, or in the mythology of the time. Homer himself did not say they were half anything, it's just that a siren was half-bird in those times, the half-fish attribution appeared much later.
     
  11. Arrius

    Arrius Senior Member

    Spain
    English, UK
    Aren't we getting a bit mixed up with the harpies (a word that has gone into English for a particularly nasty kind of female)? As matching mole has said, siren contains the idea of binding, taking captive. It is thought to come from the Greek word for rope seira and has nothing to do with Germanic sea, See or sjø. Besides French mer there is German Meer for sea (both connected with Latin marum) which explains mermaid.
     
  12. Teafrog

    Teafrog Senior Member

    London
    UK English (& rusty French…)
    It appears he came across the sirene, the poor chap!
    "Next where the sirens dwell you plow the seas; Their song is death, and makes destruction please." --Pope.

    "Without any real study on the matter, that's a really good guess! I cheated, and went to dict.com :p. It looks as if "sirens" are classical/mythological badies as per this definition and "mermaids" are cute little things (almost), as per this definition (in BE, at least).
    Legend and myth here. :)
     
  13. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    No, we are not. Sirens were traditionally represented as part-bird (the parts varied) because the bird form is symbolic of the siren's song.

    Harpies in the Odyssey were elemental, in the form of whirlwinds, they were not pictured in part-bird form until a considerable time later, and in the intervening period were often imagined as women.

    The harpy is the snatcher, as the siren is the binder.
     
  14. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    Wow! You are amazing!Thank you!

    I filed all those links into my favourites...

    And yes, the harpies are half bird/half woman, so maybe people have been mixing them?
     
  15. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    No, they are not mixed up. In myth animal parts symbolize the qualities of mythical beings. Sirens and Harpies are both female mythological creatures that have attributes symbolized by birds, but for different reasons.

    The harpy is an air elemental, Homer thought of them as whirlwinds, and the wings of birds represent this; they are also "snatchers" (they snatched the food from the kings hands before he could eat) and the claws of birds represent this attribute. So this is why they are in part-bird form: claws and wings.

    The siren's method of "binding" is to draw in their victims by their song (their most famous attribute) and sweetness of song is symbolized by the songbird, hence, they are given various characteristics of the bird. Some say the legs of a bird, some say the head or upper parts of a bird.

    I think the real mix-up is between sirens and mermaids. Understandable, because in myth they are both thought of as sitting on rocks by the sea. However, the sirens could not have been mermaids because when Odysseus confounded them, they fell into the sea and drowned.
     
  16. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    As far as I can tell, the main difference is that ambulances do not have mermaids...
     
  17. Jessi B New Member

    English - U.S.A.
    si⋅ren   [sahy-ruhn]
    –noun
    1. Classical Mythology. one of several sea nymphs, part woman and part bird, who lure mariners to destruction by their seductive singing.

    mer⋅maid   [mur-meyd]
    –noun
    1. (in folklore) a female marine creature, having the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the tail of a fish.

    Har⋅py   [hahr-pee]
    –noun, plural -pies.
    1. Classical Mythology. a ravenous, filthy monster having a woman's head and a bird's body.

    Definitions from dictionary.com.
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2009
  18. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    In Harry Potter, mermaids were involved, weren't they? (merpeople, I think)
     
  19. Jessi B New Member

    English - U.S.A.
    Yeah, Harry Potter had mermaids, but I don't believe sirens were ever brought up. The mermaids did have beautiful voices, but only under the water, and the voices were not so beautiful and/or magical that people were drawn to them. Mermaids frequently had beautiful voices in mythology as well, but I believe this is only because singing has always been a big part of mythology. Almost all the mythical, woman-like creatures had beautiful singing voices. The sirens were made different by being able to draw sailors in with their voices.
     
  20. Arrius

    Arrius Senior Member

    Spain
    English, UK
    Then there are the freshwater sirens or Wassernixen such as Heinrich Heine's "Lorelei" who sat on a high rock combing her golden hair and lured the fishermen's boats on to the rocks. (Significantly, Lorelei, was also the name of Marilyn Monroe's character in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"). These are generally known in England as Wagner's Rhine maidens, though they were also thought to inhabit the streams of other countries under other names. In the Wiki articles their lower parts are tastefully concealed by the water, which solves the problem for the artist:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhine_maiden
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2009
  21. Book Devourer New Member

    English
    Okay, this is all very confusing. Mermaids, are supposed to be all cute and pretty and innocent, right? But i've heard that Mermaids eat human flesh, as in Pirates of the Caribbean.
     
  22. Copperknickers Senior Member

    Scotland - Scots and English
    They are often mixed up. But generally a siren is a female creature who sings to attract travellers, and a merperson is half human half fish. You will find a lot of variations of sirens but I've yet to see any variations on the basic appearance of a merperson, apart from superficial things like gills and the human half having fish skin.
     
  23. AutumnOwl

    AutumnOwl Senior Member

    Sweden
    Swedish - Sweden, Finnish
  24. eni8ma

    eni8ma Senior Member

    Australia
    English - Australia
    I think whether mermaids are good or bad depends on the author, and how they want to depict them.
     
  25. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php
    Siren
    mid-14c., "sea nymph who by her singing lures sailors to their destruction," from O.Fr. sereine, from L.L. Sirena, from L. Siren, from Gk. Seiren ["Odyssey," xii.39 ff.], perhaps lit. "binder," from seira "cord, rope." […] Figurative sense of "one who sings sweetly and charms" is recorded from 1580s.

    Mermaid
    late 14c., mermayde, lit. "maid of the sea," from M.E. mere "sea, lake" (see mere (n.)) + maid. O.E. had equivalent merewif (see wife). Tail-less in northern Europe; the fishy form is a medieval influence from classical sirens[…] Merman is a later formation (c.1600).

    PS I am reminded of a question in a philosophy exam: "If dragons and unicorns are fictitious, how do we know they are not the same?"
     
  26. Book Devourer New Member

    English
    Thanks, that helped! But what does that question mean, PaulQ?
     
  27. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    As I said, it is from a philosophy examination. The point is, if no one has ever seen a dragon and no one has ever seen a unicorn, how do we know they are not the same thing? It is something for philosophers to think and argue about. ;) (As far as I know, no one has ever seen a mermaid, so how do we know they have fishy tails?)
     
  28. Book Devourer New Member

    English
    I see! Well, I guess it's just all made up by the Greek people, and they decided mermaids had "fishy tails"! :)
     

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