Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XXX

Ulysses and the Sirens in Christian Allegorical Commentary…

     As usual, early and medieval Christian commentators preserved all the main outlines of the pagan allegorical interpretation of the Sirens and merely fitted them into the new Christian frame.  Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship becomes a figure for Christ upon the Cross; the sea remains the sea of passion and worldly temptation; but the ship is now the Church and the wax with which Odysseus-Christ stops up the ears of his sailors becomes the teaching of Scripture.

     These ideas were already conventional when Clement of Alexandria invoked them in his Protrepticus at the end of the second century A.D.:

Let us flee, comrades, let us flee from this wave.  It belches forth fire [i.e., from hell-mouth]; it is an island of wickedness heaped with bones and corpses, and she who sings therein is pleasure, a harlot in the bloom of youth, delighting in her vulgar music:

Hither, renowned Odysseus, great glory of all the Achaeans:  Bring thy ship to the land, that a song divine may entrance thee. [Od. XII, 184-185]

She praises thee, sailor, she calls thee renowned in song; the harlot would make the glory of the Greeks her own.  Leave her to roam among the corpses; a heavenly wind comes to thine aid.  Pass by pleasure; she beguiles…Sail past the song; it works death.  Only resolve, and thou has vanquished destruction; bound to the wood of the cross thou shalt live freed from all corruption. The Word of God shall be thy pilot, and the Holy Spirit shall bring thee to anchor in the harbours of heaven. (Protrept. xii)

Gathered together in this passage are all of those images and themes that had been repeatedly sounded by the pagan commentators of classical antiquity:  the sea-voyage as the proving-ground of the soul which tries to avoid shipwreck on the shoals of carnality while buffeted by the storms of the passions; the Sirens of flattery and pleasure; the Logos as helmsman of the soul; the soul’s return to safe-harbour in heaven; the beguiling but vulgar melody of the world as opposed to the divine music of the realm above.  As usual, Clement has borrowed, and peremptorily “Christianized”, these venerable allegorical commonplaces.

     Throughout the Middle Ages, the Christian interpretation of the myth of Odysseus and the Sirens remained fundamentally unchanged;  in his early-sixth-century Mythologiae, for example, bishop Fulgentius’ moralization might well have come straight from the handbooks of the ancient Platonist and Stoic commentators:

The Sirens’ name means “attractors”, for most men are attracted in various ways by the enticement of love, either by a song, or a pretty face, or a way of acting—for some are loved for the beauty of their faces and some for their lewd habits.  Those whom Ulysses’ companions pass by with their ears blocked, he himself passes bound.  Ulysses’ name is the Greek olonxenos, that is, “stranger to all”, and since wisdom is a stranger to all the things of this world, it is ingeniously called “Ulysses”.  Thus he both hears and sees—that is, perceives and judges—the Sirens (that is, the enticements of pleasure), and yet passes by.  And because they are heard, they are dead, for in the senses of the wise man every passion dies away.  They are flying things because they quickly penetrate the minds of lovers, and they have chickens’ feet because the passion of lust scatters all that it grasps, and finally that is why they are called “Sirens”, so sirene is in Greek, “draw, attract”. (Mythologiae, ii, 8)

   In the twelfth century, shortly before the writing of the Roman de la Rose, the Sirens continued to be an obligatory theme of both mythographers and theologians. The anonymous Third Vatican Mythographer interprets Ulysses as a holy pilgrim, “for wisdom makes men pilgrims among all terrestrial things”.  The Sirens represent carnal pleasures, and the ears of the mariners are stopped with the “precepts of salvation” so that they do not hear the modulationes carnis.  Tied to the mast, Ulysses hears these melodies, but he is restrained by virtue from their enjoyment, so that he moves toward his home in eternal blessedness.

      For Honorius of Autun, Ulysses is the wise man tied to the Cross of Christ, and the island of the Sirens is the delight of the mind in worldly things.  Honorius goes on to distinguish each of the three sirenic temptresses according to the music they perform:  she who sings is avarice; she who plays the pipe, boasting; she who plucks the lyre, lechery.  These, says Honorious, reflect the three temptations of Adam (the world, the flesh, and the devil).

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