Apologetics, Columns, Features, Pastorate, Theology
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Siren Songs, Odysseus, and Us

What is the most important “voice” in your life? Who do you listen to most intently? What words have the most influence over choices you make throughout the day?

Perhaps it’s the voice of your heart, how you feel about something at any moment. “If it feels right, I’ll do it” is the functional philosophy of the world. Or perhaps it’s the voice of social media that drives your decision making and your priorities in a day? You jump into Facebook or Twitter and something is triggered in you. Based on that trigger, emotions are felt, and certain conduct follows. In an election year, perhaps the voice of politics has your allegiance. You find yourself hanging on every word coming out of the news talk shows and virtual Democratic and Republican conventions taking place. Or perhaps concerns about the economy have you listening non-stop to financial news as you wonder anxiously about your ability to pay the bills.

SIREN SONGS OF THE WORLD

If we let them, these voices can become like the Siren Song in The Odyssey. You may recall Homer’s epic poem featuring the Greek hero Odysseus as he journeys back to Ithaca over a ten-year period following the Trojan War. In Book XII, Circe gave Odysseus several prophecies regarding his future. She first warned him about the Sirens:

First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.

The allure of the Sirens proved too strong for many men as we are given an awful picture of “a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.” Enchanting voices leading men to utter ruin. But even with this dreadful picture, Circe knows how tempting it will be for Odysseus to listen to the Siren’s song. Therefore, she gives detailed instructions on how to withstand the deceptive beauty of the Sirens: wax for the crew’s ears and Odysseus fastened tightly to the mast of the ship. And when he begs to be set free so he can run headlong into the trap, bind him still tighter.

Having heard this prophesy and others, Odysseus thought it wise to inform his crew members of the danger ahead as they continued their journey home:

Then, being much troubled in mind, I said to my men, “My friends, it is not right that one or two of us alone should know the prophecies that Circe has made me, I will therefore tell you about them, so that whether we live or die we may do so with our eyes open. First, she said we were to keep clear of the Sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers; but she said I might hear them myself so long as no one else did. Therefore, take me and bind me to the crosspiece halfway up the mast; bind me as I stand upright, with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away, and lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself. If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.”

Before they knew it, Odysseus and the crew were in earshot of the Sirens:

I had hardly finished telling everything to the men before we reached the island of the two Sirens, for the wind had been very favourable. Then all of a sudden it fell dead calm; there was not a breath of wind nor a ripple upon the water, so the men furled the sails and stowed them; then taking to their oars they whitened the water with the foam they raised in rowing. Meanwhile I look a large wheel of wax and cut it up small with my sword. Then I kneaded the wax in my strong hands till it became soft, which it soon did between the kneading and the rays of the sun-god son of Hyperion. Then I stopped the ears of all my men, and they bound me hands and feet to the mast as I stood upright on the cross piece; but they went on rowing themselves. When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing.

An ominous calm surrounded the sailors. It was as if the Sirens wanted nothing distracting the men from hearing their voices loud and clear. They wanted their prey’s undivided attention. Having it, what did they sing?

“Come here,” they sang, “renowned Odysseus, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song—and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.” 

The Sirens engaged in tricks as old as the devil: flattery, peer pressure, and deception. And all this wickedness cloaked in the façade of irresistible delight.

They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made signs by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens’ voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me.

Thankfully for Odysseus, they were prepared for the onslaught. The wax worked and the crew was loyal to their captain for as he tried to persuade them to untie him, they obediently bound Odysseus “with still stronger bonds.”

A METAPHOR FOR THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 

The world is full of Siren songs—enchanting voices that don’t appear to present any real danger. They allure us with flattery, peer pressure, and deception of all kinds. These “songs” sing false promises of fame or wealth or power or peace. We listen to them to our certain peril. Indeed, when we rush headlong into the way of these Sirens, we join a heap of dead bodies rotting away “under the sweetness of their song.”

There is more metaphorical material in this poem. Notice the realism of Circe. She knows something of human nature. We are easily tempted, and some temptations are very powerful. Given this, she explains to Odysseus what he must do to withstand the Sirens. He needs a loyal crew and a mast upon which to be bound.

As Christians, we have a loyal crew and a mast: the church and the Word of God. Indeed, our loyal crew is the brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing everything they can to help us stay firmly bound to the mast of the Scriptures. We labor and strive with one another for the faith of the gospel against all the false gospels of the world. In manifold ways we remind one another of the foundational truth of Hebrews 1:1-4:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

There is no greater voice than the voice of Jesus. Only his voice, heard in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is an utterly true voice. All other voices will ultimately lead to the shipwreck of our faith (Cf., 1 Timothy 1:19). This is why God’s voice broke out of the cloud and declared, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7).

The voices of the world are singing tyrants. What we need is a singing Savior. And this we have in Jesus. Consider the astonishing song of God over his people in Zephaniah 3:17:

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

This heavenly song will lead not to death but to life; not to shipwreck but to safe harbor. It is a song more beautiful than anything the world could ever sing. Can you hear it?

Equipped with a loyal crew and firmly bound to the mast of God’s Word, let us listen intently to the voice of Jesus and follow his song all the way home.

Filed under: Apologetics, Columns, Features, Pastorate, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

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