In the Odyssey, the Sirens sing a song so irresistible
that none can hear it and escape. Circe warns Odysseus of the
danger and tells him how to avoid it. He must plug up his mens'
ears with beeswax, and have himself tied to the mast, if he wishes
to hear it:
Square in your ship's path are Sirens, crying
As with the lethal text,
the implication is that the song has irresistible force. Unlike
ordinary language, it cannot be merely heard: it must also be
obeyed. Also like lethal texts, it is self-reflexive, in that
it is about itself:
beauty to bewitch men coasting by;
woe to the innocent who hears that sound!
He will not see his lady nor his children
in joy, crowding about him, home from sea;
the Sirens will sing his mind away
on their sweet meadow lolling. There are bones
of dead men rotting in a pile beside them
and flayed skins shrivel around the spot.
keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen's ears
with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest
should hear that song.
But if you wish to listen,
let the men tie you in the lugger, hand
and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast,
so you may hear those harpies' thrilling voices;
shout as you will, begging to be untied,
your crew must only twist more line around you
and keep their stroke up, till the singers fade. (Book 12, 41-58)
Sweet coupled airs we sing.
No lonely seafarer
Holds clear of entering
Our green mirror. (Book 12, 173-176)
The Odyssey is unique, however, in actually giving the
contents of the lethal text. None of the other works with lethal
texts do. They merely describe its outward form. (Apparently
the text isn't too dangerous in translation and without the original
It is perhaps worth mentioning that the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey
emits a shrill, siren-like sound when it first sees sunlight.
And like the Sirens, it is extraordinarily compelling. None
can see it and not be drawn to it. Like the Sirens, it too is
a lethal text.