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The Sound of Sirens: Siren Stelae in Classical Attic Cemeteries

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posted on 2021-11-14, 09:43 authored by Oldfield, Alex

The aim of this thesis is to look at how and why the siren is featured in Classical Attic cemeteries and how its mythical characteristics lead to its appropriateness in such a context. The exact origins of the siren are unknown, although it has been suggested that they stem from the folk tales of sailors at sea, or shared ideas from other cultures. Despite such unknown variables, the siren figure that is considered in this thesis is that found in Greek mythology, frequently remembered for her encounter with Odysseus on his journey home from Troy and ability to enchant sailors with her irresistible song. Typically combining the features of a bird’s body and a woman’s head, the creature known as the siren can also be seen in ancient depictions on vases, jewellery boxes and female toilette objects. During the Classical Period (479-323BC) the bird-women hybrid sirens are used as a decorative feature on top of funerary stelae in Attic cemeteries. The siren can be seen in two different forms in the funerary context, specifically in relation to their placement and representation on stelae: relief images of the creatures in the roof sima of the upper register of the tombstone, and sculpted in the round perched on top. The presence of the siren in this context can provide a constant mourner as well as inviting the viewer to grieve for the deceased.  The first chapter details the siren’s character and role in early ancient literature and art, specifically relating to their mythological corpus. Discussion will focus on the evolution of their character and their appearance over time, as well as identifying distinguishing features which make the siren a unique figure. It is also necessary in this section to establish a distinction between the siren and the mythological harpy who combines the similar bird-woman features to make up a very different creature (particularly evident in a commonly misnamed Lycian sarcophagus, the ‘Harpy tomb’.) The second chapter outlines the timeframe of the use and presence of funerary stelae featuring sirens in Attic cemeteries, predominantly found in the Kerameikos, with references to the legislation which may have affected them. This section covers examples of the presence of sirens in this context including, but not exclusive to, images in relief depicted in the roof sima, along with other figures, as well as the limited freestanding sculptures of sirens seen perched above stelae. I will also analyse the ‘traditional’ view of the sirens as ‘soul birds’ as suggested by various scholars, particularly those from the early 1900s. The final chapter looks at the appropriateness of the siren in a funerary context and attempts to identify the reasons why they were used for such a purpose. In order to answer these questions, it is important to look at the reception of these pieces by mourners and passers-by alike and the possible relationship between those that view the sculpture in such a setting and the piece itself.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Burton, Diana