Long associated with judgement and truth, the muses are said to have presided over contests and courtrooms in Greek myth. There are even stories of muses entering contests themselves, though it seems a bad idea to challenge the ladies of the high arts.
All myths involving humans competing with gods offer a sharp lesson in the dangers of hubris. Thamyris was a talented singer and cithara player who boasted he could out-sing the muses, and asked to prove it in a singing contest. He was, of course, defeated by the nine sisters, and as punishment for his hubris and unearned entitlement, they took back his abilities to sing, write lyric poetry and play the cithara. The muses can give divine inspiration and creative prowess just as easily as they can take it away if it is abused.
Contests between mortals and gods are never a good idea. The power imbalance is too great. But a much more fair and interesting match can be found carved into a marble sarcophagus over 1800 years old, featuring the muses and those bewitching sea nymphs of myth, the sirens.
The sirens were, by all accounts, nymphs with lovely faces and birdlike feathers or scales like fish. They lived in caves where ships passed and drew sailors into the watery depths with their irresistible song. Homer’s Odyssey recounts the journey of Odysseus’ homecoming after the Trojan war, and in order to return home, he needed to sail through the sirens’ lair unharmed. So, he turned to the sea witch Circe for advice.
Circe advised Odysseus to stop his sailors’ ears with wax so they would not hear the mesmerizing voices of the sirens, keeping them safe from harm. But Odysseus, who was made of wiles and curiosity and a will that could not be tempered, insisted he wanted to hear the siren song.
Bemused by his confidence, Circe suggested that he have his sailors tie him to the prow of the ship, so that he would not be able to dive into the sea upon hearing the spellbinding song of the sirens.
“Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing,” the sirens sang to the king of Ithaca, as his ship passed through the craggy rocks. And though he was indeed great and glorious, even wily Odysseus was seduced by fawning and flattery.
The sirens promised Odysseus that his fame would live on forever, that he could spend his days dwelling on the glories of his past. Weak in the face of temptation, he struggled against the ropes, begging his sailors to free him.
Be they feathered or scaled, in rivers or islands or rocky ocean shores, the voices of the sirens call you to sink into the glory of the past, to become stagnant and bloated on your past endeavors. They are the foil of the muses, sisters known for their songs and their promise of glory, but they only lead their victims down a path of darkness.
When the sirens proposed a singing contest with the muses, it was short-lived. The muses sang a song of progression and inspiration, of creativity and divinity. The sirens sang a luring melody of false promises, thinly veiled destruction.
The lesson is clear: all who hear the siren song must resist the temptation to sink into the past, and instead follow the divine voices of those who call you to move forward.