Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Once upon a time I was a siren.

Being a siren is not difficult; when a mommy and daddy siren loves each other very much . . . baby sirens come along. Humans find us ugly, because we are ugly. There is no way around what constant inbreeding has done to us, but Homer and the lying poets did not have to tell lies about us.

You might not have a good picture of a siren in your mind due to the failures of modern education. We are roughly human in shape, but horrifically ugly. Imagine the Little Mermaid on a very bad hair day and then make her the leper of the sea.

We are not monsters or at least we don’t mean to be. Better to say our behavior is monstrous. Older sirens pointed out that we were born with certain desires, disabilities, and one great gift. What else could we do?

But there, I am assuming you know what we do. A siren dreams greater dreams than any other beings under the heavens. Better still we know the ambitions of every living thing. And every living thing has a desire . . . an end point that it longs to attain. Once you become an adult siren, you suddenly find that the entire world is groaning with unrealized, and often unrealizable, desire.

This gift comes to female sirens when we grow up.

Rooting through the debris on the beach in the last moment before adulthood, I saw a small sand flea. Nothing new there, but suddenly I knew. My whole being was full of longing for growth, food; water . . . a sand flea paradise. My mouth opened involuntarily and I sang it all. You might have heard it, but stranger that flea heard it, or felt it, or whatever it is a thing as simple as a flea can do with longings.

It came toward me and a feeling of irritation rose in me. It thought I was what it wanted. Did I look like sand flea paradise? I killed it.

My grandmother heard my story that night and explained to me at long last what it meant to be a siren and also the source of our food supply. A siren longs for beauty, knows what beauty is, but lacks it. Involuntarily we sing and attract only to disappoint everything . . . sand fleas, unicorns, men. They all come and they all find out that we are not the Paradise for which they seek.

It sucked to be a siren, but a girl still had to live. All our fresh meat was people . . . and we caught them by attracting them to our island as they passed in their simple wooden ships. The poets, of course, blamed us and not the gods for the situation.

You ought to see our culture, for a moment, from my point of view. Men, and the sailors were almost all men, are much the same. They have deep longings, and those are beautiful, but then they have wants. What they need and what they want are two different things . . . and believe me this tension produces a song we sirens find distasteful. Sailors love it and come swimming towards us, eagerly.

Why do we kill them?

Mostly because we cannot live on sand fleas and there is not much else alive on our island. Our ancestors bought us mental peace from all the groaning desire of nature by putting us on as barren an island as they could find. I will not bother to say what we ate when we could not get sailors.

I think I would have killed them even if I had not been hungry. Their songs were always the same and they always came slobbering onto the beach looking for someone. The look they gave when they saw me, scorning what is for what they wanted, produced the fury. I knew what I looked like and the gods know I was as disappointed as each he always was.

A siren dies when at last we see ourselves. Philosophy is fatal to us, because the moment we know ourselves, we sing of our own desires. There is no surviving the song we sing to ourselves. If you think the death of the sailors sick, you have not considered what a siren can do to herself.

Then one day a ship passed and something new happened: most of the women locked onto a soul for dinner, but I could not seem to do it. I reached out and instead of grabbing a dream, felt like I was being grabbed.

Was there a siren for sirens?

It felt like it. My mouth opened, but nothing came out. My mind was filled with love and requited desires. Whoever he was, he was going someplace, but was already where he was going. I don’t know how to describe it, but he seemed at rest. He desired, but there was no groaning in it. His desires were all happy and his longing had no taint of misery.

I stumbled toward the water. The other sirens were watching their sailors come through the waves and the song was on them. They ignored me and I ignored them so we were even. I started swimming.

I got to the boat and for once blessing my iron sharp nails as I scrambled up the side. He was standing there. There could be no doubt, because peace radiated from him. He knew himself and was content.

Sirens are ugly. I know I mentioned that, but he did not seem to notice. He looked at me and loved me. He did not want anything from me, but the chance to give love.

“I am a monster,” this was all I could say.

“No, you are wicked,” was what he said.

“Kill me.”

“I will, but so that you can live again.”

I shuddered. What god or monster was this? He began to shine like Apollo, but his light was as joyous as that of Dionysus. My mouth opened and the last siren song came out, pouring out all the evils I had done, but also all the joy and beauty and love that I wanted. I painted a picture of paradise, but knew I was fit only for hell.

My claws began to scratch my breast, but he stopped me.

“Look at me,” he said.

I died looking at him, because he was so bright that it burned through my being and this was the greatest pleasure I had ever known.

I woke up. That is the most remarkable thing in this story. I saw a god or a man or both, sang my siren song, and lived again.

He looked at me and I sang. I sang about a journey that might last one thousand years, but the journey was no longer painful. I sang about completion and happiness. He smiled.

“Follow me,” he said. I noticed then that there were still some sailors left on that ship. He had other followers, it appeared. My sisters had made quick work of his false friends. That reminded me and I spoke, “What of the other sirens?”

“They do not hear my call.”

I looked down at my form. I still looked the same, but I was no longer unhappy. I thought I knew, but still asked, “Where are we going, my lord?”

“You know.” This was all he said.

He made my siren’s call true and now I live happily ever after.


This piece was inspired by a wonderful song written by a music group at Bakersfield Christian School.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift
More on: Christian Life

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles