The year was 1891, and the Australian press was in uproar. The National Gallery of Victoria had just purchased the latest work by British pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse, an imaginative interpretation of The Odyssey, and critics were scandalized by the vision at hand. Unlike his contemporaries, whose depictions of Sirens from ancient Greek mythology were defined by feminine charm and bodily enticement, Waterhouse’s unveiling of Ulysses and the Sirens was less of an erotic fantasy than a harrowing nightmare.
Why, the critics wondered, had Waterhouse deviated from Homeric legend and depicted the Sirens as monstrous winged creatures? Why were they hovering ominously over the frightened crew instead of combing their golden hair on the sea shore? Above all, where was the seduction, the mystery, the intrigue that was driving the seafaring hero, Odysseus, to distraction? The horror of the scene was roundly written off by one angry Melbourne citizen, who complained that Ulysses resembled a criminal “exposed to the attacks of furious birds of prey.” Waterhouse’s adaptation, it was agreed, did not live up to the beautiful femme fatales of Romanticism that the public had come to expect.
But Waterhouse’s rendition wasn’t based on nothing. To fully understand the origins of the Sirens, we have to travel back to Ancient Greece, where, according to tradition, winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.
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