Tag Archives: Ulysses and the Sirens

Magic And Miracles (2)

I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.

Return of the Hellenes devotees (photo not credited)

Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.

Asatru Fellowship procession (photo by Eran Livni)

Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.

Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique- Ingres (1827)

I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.

Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
athena inspires odysseus for vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they  genuine, or  are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.

The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.

The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.

Mythology on Canvas (Part 13)

Herbert James Draper is perhaps the most realistic of the Pre-Raphaelites in his technique and composition. I will start off with a painting which I used in my very first post.

Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909

Ulysses and the Sirens is taken out of The Odyssey by Homer. As his ship passes the island on which the sirens live, Ulysses (Roman variation of the Greek Odysseus) commands his men to stop their ears with wax so that they would not be bewitched by the song of the sirens. These dangerous spirits are known to lure sailors to death on the rocks by their song. Ulysses himself wants to hear their singing, so he has his men lash him to the mast of the ship. Thus bound, he will be unable to endanger his crew while in an irrational state. Since his men cannot hear the dangerous melody, they do not steer the ship on a catastrophic course.

 In the interesting composition shown above, the sirens are seen climbing aboard the boat rather than singing from shore. These figures are interestingly posed. The intensity of the drama, however, is on the faces of the men. Those who cannot hear look visibly alarmed and even angry while their captain has a crazed expression on his face. Notice the vacancy in his eyes. To complete the effect, the water adds an almost subliminal element of vividness and motion.

More next week.