As The Innamorati is set in the mid-1500's of Renaissance Italy, I knew that there would be historical changes in the images and meanings of the Siren from antiquity to the Renaissance. I was counting on it, actually, knowing that in Italy at least, there has been a continuous tradition of the Siren and that all her variations--from the earliest to the Renaissance versions of the Siren would continue to exist side by side. Italian culture is such that even now, satyrs and saints sit down at the same table to dine and rather than replacing one idea with another, both operate in a kind of friendly joust. (Most of the time, anyway.) The multifaceted interpretation of the Siren is what made Erminia possible in the narrative -- she is at once an ancient creature and a contemporary to her Renaissance neighbors without any anachronisms. She is quite like the Commedia masks as well -- evoking the ancient traditions and cults of the Greek and Roman dramas while transforming just enough through the centuries to remain in current fashion. I would like recommend reading all of Siegfried de Rachewiltz's De Sirenibus -- there are so many insights into the Siren that I just can't add here. Also, I was aware that once I was full of enough content and ideas for Erminia, I stopped taking notes and just read.
Notes from De Sirenibus IV:
Medieval Sirens: Translation problems by the early Greek Church Fathers: saw the Sirens as a type of mournful ostrich (??) sometimes a jackal, an evil ghost, or night owls with mournful voices..."they are certain demons, cruel and wild ghosts...for the Greeks say that the Sirens have sweet voices, but are deceitful beings." Alexandrian translators seem to want to connect the Homeric Siren to other much older themes of lament such as the destruction and capture of Jerusalem by Saladin: "The Siren wails among the people for the killing of orphans, the peacock in the rushes laments the young dead." St. Jerome (A.D. 340-420) in his Latin translations of the Bible also took liberties with Hebrew demonology. And while he amended the transposing of Siren over female ostriches, he did put the Sirens in their Babylonean "hideouts of voluptuousness" alongside the dragons, the howling ostriches and other shaggy creatures. " In the end, however, after consulting bestiaries, he decided to lift a description of a basilisk, the deadly crested serpent. (68-69)
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 160--c.215) Pagan Wisdom and Christian Interpretations: Clement endeavored to explain the Christine doctrine to his followers in images that were known to them -- and he used Greek myth and literature: "Come, I shall show you the Logos, and the mysteries of the Logos, and I shall explain them to you in images that are known to you. " His interpretations are daring metaphors. Here the Sirens are the voice of Greek wisdom: "It seems to me most of those who themselves Christians resemble the companions of Odysseus, for they approach the Logos without a feeling for a more refined culture: they sail past not past the Sirens, but past the rhythm and the melody of Greek culture, they seal their ears with a refusal of learning, because they know they would not find the way home, if once they listened to the Greek wisdom." Odysseus for Clement, is the man tied to the mast of faith while hearing the wisdom of the pagan world.(70)
And Clement continues -- comparing the Siren's song to the voice of God: "Their song is so powerful that those who hear it are drawn to them almost against their will. The voice of God in the Scriptures forces those who hear to believe it and to obey without proof, just as the voice of the Sirens compels one to follow it almost against their will. " But, having made the comparisons between Christians and the journey of Odysseus, Clement also preaches hell and brimstone from the pulpit, (and quoting from Homer for the benefit of the congregation who would otherwise never have read it) returns the Sirens to "she strangles man, distracts him from the truth, takes his life. She is a trap, an abyss, a pit, a devouring monster. She is an island of destruction, heaped with bones and corpses. On her sits an attractive wench, Lust, and delights with her worldly music...She praises you sailor, calls you honored. but let her feed upon the dead: A wind from heaven comes to your aid, sail past pleasure, sail past song, it causes death." For Clement, the example of the Siren would also become the lure of heresy a warning for those who dabbled too deeply in pagan writings. (71-72)
The Sirens voice and the poet are linked in the concern over the influence of pagan literature and music. The poet Boethius (480-524) railing against the "sweet lie of poetry" in the antiquities, calling the Muses (and by extension the Sirens) "mereticulas" (prostitutes) -- a sort of internal battle between voices. Boethius calls the Sirens of elegiac poetry "scenicas meretriculas" -- showy prostitutes. The Siren song gains corporeality, transferring the Siren from song/bird to the female body, signifying the dangers of excess and lust. (80)
Boccaccio (1313-1375) creates the first draft of The Genealogy -- a compilation of mythology from ancient to contemporary sources compiled into a general poem and fifteen books and was written in Latin. He establishes Demogorgon as the original pagan god, then goes through the all progeny and descendants which fills about 12 books. Book XIV contains a defense of poetry. It is a massive attempt to reduce all of classical mythology into a system, and it revealed Boccaccio's admiration for the erudition of past scholars and no doubt his desire to be counted among them. (162-163)
Boccaccio's description of the Sirens is a wonderfully weird combination of the scholarship of the ancients (who provided allegorical significance to the Sirens) and a Calabrian "scholar" Leonzio Pilato, who in addition to translating the Odyssey was also a primary source of oral traditions concerning ancient folklore. In the end Boccaccio pulls from all of these varied sources to create an image of the Siren that is an uneasy mixture of bits of scholarship and popular folklore from the ancients to the early Renaissance and which place her firmly in the harlot's camp. (165)
Petrarch's (1304-1374) poetry offers a re-purification of the Sirens returning her to role of Muse. Petrarch, influenced by a neo-Platonic inheritance and emerging tradition of courtly love, creates a new poetic avatar in the Siren. The Siren returns as a celestial muse and fate in the character of Laura-Amor, the subject of Petrarch's poem. (Sonnet: 61) "When Love inclines her beautiful eyes toward earth/collects her straying breath into a sigh with her own hands, then frees them in her song so clear/angelic, gentle, and divine.") The Siren's voice, rather than sending him heavenward, draws him back to earth. Though the poet is so moved by the sound of her voice that he is willing to die right there and then, Laura the Siren is paradoxically not an agent of death, nor even transcendence...but rather embodies that divine power which holds him captive in earthly existence. (Sadly, Petrarch would later in his life renounce women after Laura's death and would regard the Sirens in their Christianized rather than Platonic versions.)
One of my favorite poets of the Italian Renaissance -- Aretino Pietro, who was something of a wild whore-mongering poet and who penned the infamous "I Modi" (The Ways -- a depiction of 16 pornographic illustrated poems which are terrific) decided to write something rather splendid in collection of love poems to another's man's wife named Angela Serena. All of the images revolve around the angelic Siren and the neo-Platonic ideal of her place in the harmony of the music of the spheres. Most famously, is the illustration at the top by Titan of one of the stanza -- the shaggy-headed shepherd staring at the Siren, seated on her cloud, surrounded by stars recapturing the theme of the fallen body longing for transcendental love of perfection represented by the Siren which will redeem it from the flesh. --a rustic moth yearning for a star." (156-157)
Art: V. Mottez, "Ulysses and the Sirens," Tintoretto, Illustration of Pietro Aretino's Stanza Six of The Siren".