In Ancient Greek mythology, the sirens are vaguely described by various sources but are usually interpreted as being large birds with the heads of women.
In the classic Ancient Greek legend The Odyssey attributed to Homer, the hero Odysseus’s ship is attacked by sirens who sing from the cliffs with the voices of women. The witch Circe had forewarned Odysseus and his crew to block their ears with wax so not to hear the siren’s song. Odysseus was tied to the mast as he insisted on hearing the sirens but safely tied, he couldn’t be taken from the ship. According to Circe, the sirens would fly down from three cliffs, attack crews and take men back to their roosts to feast on their victims.
The painting John William Waterhouse (1891) and depicts the sirens as described in ancient Greek mythology.
During the medieval period, the siren became confused with the mermaid and was often depicted in many Bestiaries as a half-fish, half-woman or a chimera of both with wings.
English artist William Petty was one of the first artist to depict the siren as a naked woman in Ulysses and the Sirens (1837) but a darker interpretation than later artists with Petty depicting the sirens an rocky isle atop the corpses of sailors lured to their deaths.
Following the tradition of William Petty, a second siren painting by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1900) The Siren depicts the Petty-style completely different interpretation of the siren. Here, the siren is a beautiful naked woman playing a lyre and sitting on the rocks to lure sailors into the ocean to drown before they reach her.
This transformation of the siren from the classical Greek version into the one we know today as the deadly seductress is a fascinating re-shaping of folklore and mythology over time.