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Source: Kongelige Bibliotek (Bestiaire (Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8)) Copyright 2003 Kongelige Bibliotek / Used by permission Manuscript description Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8, Folio 37r



Latin name: Sirena

Other names: Seraine, Sereine, Serena, Serina, Syrena

A deadly creature, half human, half bird or fish


General Attributes

The siren is a deadly creature, half human, half bird or fish. Early sources say the siren is human (always female) from the head to the navel, and bird from the waist down. Later sources say that the siren is fish from the waist down, like a mermaid. They usually have wings. In some cases sirens are described as having both bird's feet and a fish tail, as for example by Philippe de Thaon.

Sirens charm men with their beautiful singing. Sailors who are attracted to the singing fall asleep; the sirens then attack the men and tear their flesh. They sing when it is stormy but weep when the weather is fair.

The name siren (or syren) has also been used for a snake with wings; Isidore says that in Arabia there are winged snakes called sirens whose bite is followed by death before pain. This description seems to be a combination of that of the dipsa and the jaculus.


The story of the sirens shows that those who take delight in worldly pleasures will become the devil's prey.

Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 70): Pliny says that stories of the siren should not be given any credit, though he mentions that they supposedly live in India and attack men after charming them with song.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 11, 3:30-31): Sirens have wings and claws because Love flies and wounds; they stay in water because a wave created Venus. It is imagined that there were three sirens, part woman, part bird, that had wings and claws. One of them played the lute, another the flute, while the third sang; they charmed sailors to cause shipwreck. This in untrue [says Isidore]; they were actually prostitutes who led travellers into poverty. (Book 12, 4:29): Isidore mentions the siren serpent, which is so strong that its bite is followed by death before the pain of it is felt.

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): The siren is a monster of strange fashion, for from the waist up it is the most beautiful thing in the world, formed in the shape of a woman. The rest of the body is like a fish or a bird. So sweetly and beautifully does she sing that they who go sailing over the sea, as soon as they hear the song, cannot keep from going towards her. Entranced by the music, they fall asleep in their boat, and are killed by the siren before they can utter a cry. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): The mermaid is a sea beast wonderly shapen, and draweth shipmen to peril by sweetness of song. The Gloss on Is. xiii. saith that sirens are serpents with crests. And some men say, that they are fishes of the sea in likeness of women. Some men feign that there are three Sirens some-deal maidens, and some-deal fowls with claws and wings, and one of them singeth with voice, and another with a pipe, and the third with an harp, and they please so shipmen, with likeness of song, that they draw them to peril and to shipbreach, but the sooth is, that they were strong hores, that drew men that passed by them to poverty and to mischief. And Physiologus saith it is a beast of the sea, wonderly shapen as a maid from the navel upward and a fish from the navel downward, and this wonderful beast is glad and merry in tempest, and sad and heavy in fair weather. With sweetness of song this beast maketh shipmen to sleep, and when she seeth that they are asleep, she goeth into the ship, and ravisheth which she may take with her, and bringeth him into a dry place, and maketh him first lie by her, and if he will not or may not, then she slayeth him and eateth his flesh. Of such wonderful beasts it is written in the great Alexander's story. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


Siren illustrations are varied, and can often be confused with the mermaid. Sirens are always female, and usually have wings. Some are depicted as having a fish body from the waist down; others have a bird body. Some illustrations show the uncertainty of whether sirens are part fish or part bird by giving them attributes of both; the siren in Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 3466 8 (f. 37r) has a fish tail and stands on bird's feet. The join at the waist of woman and fish is often marked with a colored band or belt, making the creature look like a woman in a fish suit. The siren in Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4 (f. 40v) has wings but no arms, and has a pronounced tubular band around her waist. The siren and the onocentaur often appear together, sometimes in the same illustration, as in British Library, Sloane MS 278 (f. 47r) and J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig XV 3 (f. 78r). The siren is sometimes shown plying her trade, enticing sailors or pulling them out of their ship.

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