Textkit Logo

Sirens, Mermaids, and Gorgons, Oh My!

Here's where you can discuss all things Ancient Greek. Use this board to ask questions about grammar, discuss learning strategies, get translation help and more!

Sirens, Mermaids, and Gorgons, Oh My!

Postby Gregorius » Tue Aug 09, 2011 8:20 pm

I've been wondering about this for a while now, but my research hasn't turned up much. As an aspiring linguist, I find myself fascinated by the shift in meaning of words derived from Σείρηνες. The Sirens were always depicted in the classical era as either entirely human or half-bird in form. Yet somewhere between the age of classical Greece and what I would estimate to be the late Middle Ages, the Sirens became so thoroughly confused with what the Greeks themselves might've hypothetically called ιχθυονύμφαι that the modern word for "mermaid" in many European tongues (most notably, Romance) shows clear derivation from "Siren." We have Spanish and Italian "sirena," French "sirène," and Portuguese "sireia," to name some such cognates.

This is not the strangest example of semantic shift I've ever seen (for example, "silly" meant something like "blessed" in Old English), so I know this sort of thing happens regularly throughout linguistic history. Still, this particular case has my curiosity peaked. Was it the Sirens' mere proximity to the sea that caused the mythological merger, or was there something else at work here? When and how did the equivalence develop?

On a whim, I also looked up the modern Greek word for "mermaid," and it only added another twist to the tale (no pun intended). Lo and behold, at least according to the online dictionary at WordReference.Com, the word is "γοργόνα." This actually made me chuckle, 'cause the juxtaposition of Ariel and Medusa is highly amusing! Even if it turns out to be an example of convergent evolution, I can rest assured that I've chosen a very interesting field (linguistics) in which to pursue a Ph.D.!

On an equally interesting side note, I don't believe Hans Christian Andersen ever gave his heroine a name. I mention that only because I find mythological change almost as fascinating as linguistic change. It seems that some myths go through a succession of prestigious versions that far outshine concurrent alternatives, often to the point of causing retroactive amnesia in the popular mind. I suspect that, if you asked a random person in the street today what H.C.A. named the Little Mermaid, he/she would be very likely (depending somewhat on age) to say "Ariel" even though that was purely a Disney invention!
phpbb
User avatar
Gregorius
Textkit Neophyte
 
Posts: 52
Joined: Wed Sep 28, 2005 9:48 pm
Location: http://student.fgcu.edu/ghbontra/mainpage.htm

Re: Sirens, Mermaids, and Gorgons, Oh My!

Postby ragnar_deerslayer » Tue Aug 09, 2011 9:13 pm

Interesting. I seem to recall that "gorgon" is also confused with a bull-creature, from being printed on a coin whose reverse side held an image of the Cretan minotaur.

As far as change in folklore, the story of the Three Bears, as originally published by the British poet Robert Southey in 1837, featured an old crone instead of Goldilocks. The crone didn't become a young girl until a dozen years later, and her name wasn't Goldilocks until the 20th century.
Read my blog! --> Study Greek
ragnar_deerslayer
Textkit Neophyte
 
Posts: 36
Joined: Tue Feb 15, 2011 9:33 pm
Location: Northeast Georgia

Re: Sirens, Mermaids, and Gorgons, Oh My!

Postby Scribo » Wed Aug 10, 2011 8:08 pm

Pretty easy to answer question really, there's been lot's of stuff written on things like this, I'd break it down as follows:

1) Sirens originally had a pretty symbolic function, half bird things that carried off the souls of the dead (see Page on this)
2) Homer's Odyssey changed things even as the Greeks were becoming more urbanised, moving away slightly from folky traditions in favour of other ones and increased contact with other civilisations. Basically the Homeric version was too accessible and too poignant.
3) You're mistakenly positing an unbroken historical continuity from the archaic era until the middle ages and thus ignoring the Roman and (significant) Slavonic contributions.
User avatar
Scribo
Textkit Zealot
 
Posts: 732
Joined: Fri Feb 22, 2008 2:28 pm
Location: Between Ilias and Odysseia.

Re: Sirens, Mermaids, and Gorgons, Oh My!

Postby Gregorius » Thu Aug 11, 2011 4:50 am

Scribo wrote:1) Sirens originally had a pretty symbolic function,...


Couldn't the same be said for many other mythological beings? Symbolic importance is hardly unique to the Sirens.

Scribo wrote:2) Homer's Odyssey changed things even as the Greeks were becoming more urbanised, moving away slightly from folky traditions in favour of other ones and increased contact with other civilisations. Basically the Homeric version was too accessible and too poignant.


Not sure what you're getting at here. Are you saying Homer was the first to recast the Sirens as mermaids or the last to not describe them as such? Are you suggesting that the Sirens being interpreted as mermaids was due to external influence during the post-classical period?
phpbb
User avatar
Gregorius
Textkit Neophyte
 
Posts: 52
Joined: Wed Sep 28, 2005 9:48 pm
Location: http://student.fgcu.edu/ghbontra/mainpage.htm

Re: Sirens, Mermaids, and Gorgons, Oh My!

Postby Scribo » Thu Aug 11, 2011 7:17 pm

1) I meant to say that they had a specific symbol function originally, in carrying of souls and were always depicted as ornithokephalids. Homer was the first to depict them otherwise.

2) I mean that when talking about semantic shifts, think not always in terms of "shifts" but newcomers who are disconnected from previous little ideas and interpret due to their own norms or solely based on texts rather than an honest oral tradition.
User avatar
Scribo
Textkit Zealot
 
Posts: 732
Joined: Fri Feb 22, 2008 2:28 pm
Location: Between Ilias and Odysseia.


Return to Learning Greek

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: ariphron, Sofronios and 40 guests