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The Silence of the Sirens in Lycophron’s "Alexandra"

Kathleen Kidder

University of Cincinnati

In Lycophron’s Alexandra, we possess an extended representation of a female voice, that of the prophetess Cassandra. Her prophecies concerning the aftermath of the Trojan War present a radical reinterpretation of the Greek literary and historical tradition, one that reflects both her Trojan and female perspective (McNelis and Sens 2016). Her truth thus lies at the heart of the work, even though her words are filtered by two male voices: the author Lycophron and the messenger who reports her words (Lowe 2004; Kossaifi 2009). This messenger likens her mode of speech to three feminine models: the Sphinx (7; 1465), the Sibyl (1464-65), and the Sirens (1463). Of these three, the Sirens occupy a significant place in the poem, the very center (712-36), where Lycophron includes a digression about the Sirens’ deaths and subsequent burials in Italy. While, as Sistakou 2012 notes, this digression contributes to the overall macabre atmosphere of the poem, the Sirens bear particular relevance to the issue of truth. Their divine omniscience (cf. Od. 12.189-91) mirrors the prophetic knowledge of Cassandra. Elucidating this parallel between the Sirens and Cassandra, this paper will demonstrate how the Sirens symbolize Cassandra’s conception of truth, one that, I argue, is focused on hidden and inner essences. Rather than appearing as the femme fatales of myth, the Sirens of the Alexandra become hidden in death and in turn integrated into the environment and culture of Italy. In this way, the Sirens attain a truth-value and permanence, albeit with the suppression of their voice.

After briefly summarizing the literary and iconographical tradition of the Sirens, this paper will analyze Cassandra’s treatment of the Sirens. While the first two references (653; 670-72) are brief, at 712-36 Cassandra describes their suicide as caused by Odysseus, identifying both the name and final resting place in Italy for each of the three Sirens (Parthenope, Leucosia, and Ligeia). Since Cassandra typically eschews denoting figures with proper names (Sistakou 2009), the choice to name the Sirens is striking, and, as I argue, indicates the Sirens’ thematic significance as symbols of Cassandra’s reconfiguration of truth. To assess the Sirens’ relationship to truth, I take into consideration two elements of their representation in the Alexandra: their musicality and their association with bodies of water. The Sirens’ ability to sing enchanting songs derives from their “melodious mother” (713), while their descent from the river god Achelous (712) grants them associations with water and thus the physical world.

Their suicide, however, reconfigures this relationship to their parents. In death, the Sirens lose the songs of their mother, instead becoming assimilated with the landscape in Italy and associated with the rivers there, as would befit their patrilineal descent. At the same time, the deceased Sirens embody a link between the mythical past and the historical present. Parthenope, in particular, receives a torch race in her honor established by a commander of the Athenian navy, whom the scholiast identifies as the Athenian Diotimus (732-36; Σ ad loc; Hornblower 2015). In emphasizing the Sirens’ connection to the physical and contemporary world, specifically Italy, Lycophron, through Cassandra, demonstrates how a traditionally deleterious monster can be reinterpreted as a beneficial and productive force.

Yet the fact that the Sirens’ integration into society comes only with their deaths is significant for our conception of the ancient female voice and its truth. The female voice works better when concealed or in death. For Cassandra herself, the human analogue to the Sirens, the same situation applies. In life, she lacks the power to persuade others (1451-58), but as a recipient of a cult at Daunia after her death (1126-40), she can protect other women from marriage. Thus, together the Sirens and Cassandra attest to the paradox of the female voice in the Alexandra. Despite its ability to know an inner truth, the female voice is ultimately subordinated to the males who record it.

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