Honeyed Song

by Colm Keady-Tabbal,

First you will reach the Sirens, who bewitch
all passersby. If anyone goes near them
in ignorance, and listens to their voices,
that man will never travel to his home,
and never make his wife and children happy
to have him back with them again. The Sirens
who sit there in their meadow will seduce him
with piercing songs. Around about them lie
great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones,
their skin all shrivelled up. Use wax to plug
your sailors’ ears as you row past, so they
are deaf to them. But if you wish to hear them,
your men must fasten you to your ship’s mast
by hand and foot, straight upright, with tight ropes.
So bound, you can enjoy the Sirens’ song. [1]

The twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey describes Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens, creatures who lure sailors to their death with their song. The Sirens dwell in a green meadow surrounded by rotting flesh of those who have succumbed to their sounds. It is the Sirens totalising knowledge of the past that poses the threat of forced regression; “their allurement is that of losing oneself in the past” [2]

Upon the advice of the goddess Circe, Odysseus plugs the ears of his ship’s crew with wax so they will not hear the sound. Odysseus instructs his crew to bind him to the mast of the ship so he may listen to the Sirens’ song while unable to act on the death drive it produces. Odysseus hears the song and the ship passes unharmed.

Some translations of the Odyssey describe the Sirens’ song as warbling men to death while others describe the sound as an instrument of distraction. In the former it is the sound’s material and vibrational quality that acts on the very physiology of the listener, in the latter the song functions in an ensemble of seduction that destroys the listener’s faculties of reason, leading to the rocky shore and their death.


Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song, poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy, and they go on their way with greater knowledge, since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know  whatever happens anywhere on earth. [1]

In binding himself to the mast of the ship Odysseus demonstrates a refusal to be moved through the technical mastery of his acoustic environment which involves the exercise of discipline over his own body and those around him. He demonstrates a now familiar technique of affect management in which music is used only to maintain emotional equilibrium and potential productivity. Odysseus creates a privileged point of audition that allows for the consumption of the Sirens song as stimulus in privatised acoustic space. 

To listen and be possessed by sound is to forego the possession of oneself. Something akin to a knowing that is non-identical and only legible in its displacement of recognisable  patterns with unfamiliar dissonance. To listen in this way exists as both a tactic of resistance and the potential condition of sound’s weaponization, an imposed state of subjugation that denies subjectivity by overwhelming the senses with vibrational matter. Odysseus produces, simultaneously the conditions of, and a strategy of resistance to the disciplinary character of music.

For Adorno and Horkheimer, Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens’ song impoverished all music that followed. The once fatal noise of the Sirens is rendered inconsequential when viewed from this objectively distanced position, banished to the realm of art as atmosphere, of music in the background. 

The bonds to which he has irremediably tied himself to practice, also keep the Sirens away from practice: their temptation is neutralized and becomes a mere object of contemplation—becomes art. The prisoner is present at a concert, an inactive eavesdropper like later concertgoers, and his spirited call for liberation fades like applause. This the enjoyment of art and manual labour break apart as the world of prehistory is left behind. The cultural material is in exact correlation to work done according to command; and both are grounded in the inescapable compulsion to social domination of nature. [2]

Odysseus’s inconsequential encounter demonstrates the successful abstraction of the Sirens affective labour, who’s newly carceral sonorities are reified and thus sterilised. The Siren’s song approaches the circumstance of  all music in its fragile relationship with noise (always on the brink), who’s organisational property might dissolve at any moment.

What is at stake in Odysseus’ inconsequential encounter with the Sirens? It seems to suggest  a kind of simulated intimacy, like ASMR, a whisper in the ear without the spit that accompanies it, or love without risk. Like the light music in the factory that distracts from the monotony of repetitive labour just enough to dispel the desire to resist, or the background sounds that provide the illusion of balance amidst precarity.

Might the ears of the crew filled with wax not also be some coerced resistance to the practices of listening demonstrated by Odysseus? What productive power might arise from failing to escape the Sirens song unscathed? To fail to master their song, to fail to escape unchanged? 

[1] The Odyssey, Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson

[2] The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer. Translated by John Cumming.

Colm Keady-Tabbal is an artist and writer based in Dublin. Their practice explores forms of knowledge produced through and about sound.

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