Ulysses and the Sirens

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John William Waterhouse


, Victorian Romanticist painter and draftsman

Ulysses and the Sirens

c. 1891

Oil on canvas

National Gallery of Victoria

Melbourne | Australia

Ulysses and the Sirens originates from Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. Ulysses, knowing of the sirens' musical way of entrancing sailors to come to them, only so that they can kill them, orders all his men to cover their ears as not to be carried away by the sirens beautiful song. Ulysses himself, wanting to hear, tells his men to tie him to the mast and not to release him no matter what he tells them. When the ship approaches the sirens' island, their song floats across the water. Ulysses is overtaken by it and struggles desperately, begging his men to release him.
        Waterhouse uses this myth to create an inspirational and compelling composition. The Sirens, as birds, flock around the ship singing with there melodic voices, the men gazing at them with awe. Ulysses himself, arms and legs tense, leans towards the mythical creatures with curious longing. The ship itself is beautifully designed with the oars protruding out of lions' heads on the sides, deep rich red sails, and its arching prow. On either side of the ship, the tall mountains force them down their path. Waterhouse painted other images from the Odyssey including Penelope and the Suitors, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, and one entitled simply The Siren.

-- Kara Ross

Further references:
  • An electronic text (etext) version of Homer's The Odyssey.

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