Tuesday 22 January 2013

Silencing the Sirens - A lesson from Greek mythology about resisting temptation

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous and devious creatures, portrayed as femmes fatales who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.

Odysseus was curious as to what the Sirens sang to him, so, on Circe's advice, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast.

He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he would beg.

When he heard their beautiful singing, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they bound him tighter and would not release him until they had passed out of earshot.

In Argonautica, Jason had been warned by Chiron that Orpheus would be necessary in his journey. When Orpheus heard the Sirens’ voices, he drew out his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their voices.

By the fourth century, when pagan beliefs were vanquished by Christianity, belief in literal sirens was discouraged but Sirens continued to be used as a symbol for the dangerous temptation embodied by women regularly throughout Christian art of the medieval era.

Odysseus and Orpheus both demonstrate valid approaches to temptation.

Odysseus did not trust either himself or his men to withstand it so blocked out its source (earplugs) and arranged things so he was unable to respond even though he found it overwhelming. He also enlisted his men’s help, so that when his own resistance failed him, they were able to keep him out of harm’s way.

Jesus metaphorically points to a similar approach when he calls his disciples to cut out of their lives those things which cause them to sin. Joseph also took this route with Potiphar’s wife, running from the house to escape temptation.

Orpheus on the other hand countered temptation by playing music better than that of the Sirens themselves. He drowned out the overwhelming desire by diverting Jason’s men’s attentions with something even more desirable.

There is a popular Christian song which underlines just this approach.

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in his wonderful face, And the things on earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of his glory and grace’.

Filling our minds with thoughts of Jesus – his character, power and beauty – makes all other passions fade into darkness in comparison.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus himself, who ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin’ (4:15), ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame’ because of ‘the joy set before him’ (12:2).

In other words, even in Gethsemenae and on the path to the cross, he reminded himself of what his death and resurrection was going to achieve in saving sinners and the joy of it drove him on through the rejection and pain. He was doing it for us.

So, as the writer of Hebrews encourages us, ‘Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (4:16)

And we have God’s promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (one of the first five memory verses in the Navigators’ memory pack) that God provides a way out with every temptation:

‘No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.’

That way of escape might be blocking out the tempting perception or arranging friends to look out for us – like Odysseus - or drowning it out with the sheer joy of a greater godly passion – like Orpheus - for God himself and the joy of serving him.

Either way, we can be confident with every temptation we face, that there is an accessible way through, by God's grace.


  1. Sounds like you're struggling with some severe temptation yourself, mate. Take it to the Lord in prayer.

    1. Thanks for your concern Sigmund. Are you advocating prayer rather than psychotherapy then?


    2. Psychotherapy is merely talking to someone about your temptations. Talking to a sympathetic soul always helps, whatever the problem we are facing. Even though they cannot offer "solutions", the simple matter of communicating our feelings to a third party is in itself helpful. I am sure you know this, as a doctor.

      Prayer is nothing more than psychotherapy with benefits. It is psychotherapy, PLUS we get answers and solutions from our Lord. These solutions may be a long time coming, and may come in ways we do not anticipate, but they WILL come if we seek the Lord in earnest.

      It does not necessarily mean we will lose the desire, but we will have the strength to resist and do the right thing. As our Lord said, "My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness". Many godly people have been tempted. You are not alone. Indeed, Jesus himself was tempted just as all men are (this means he faced sexual temptation as well), as you have rightly noted in your blog post.


    3. "Thanks for your concern Sigmund".

      Dear Peter,

      You sound sarcastic. But my concern is sincere, I assure you. Very often when we are beset by some problem ourselves, we project that onto others - here in the guise of a discourse directed at your readers. Hence my deduction that you yourself struggle with the temptations outlined in your blog post above.

      It is nothing to be ashamed of. Millions of men worldwide face the same struggle every day. I know I did, and still do. I am married to a good christian woman, who takes excellent care of me and our children, but she is not very demonstrative or physically affectionate. So when I was going through a rough patch at work, and was depressed and low, it was the most natural thing for me to turn to an attractive vivacious and affectionate colleague who I knew could give me everything my wife was not capable of. I loved my wife, but I found myself loving this other woman as well, and wanting her sexually. It was a sin I committed in my heart, but I did conquer it through daily prayer and the Lord's grace. I also took up a new position in a different city, away from the person I had feelings for, so that I would not face constant temptation.

      I still struggle, but at least I am being faithful to my life partner by the grace of God. I continue to seek the Lord's grace and mercy in this area of my weakness. You should too, if this is the temptation that besets you. The Lord understands. After all, we are his children.

      Btw, I did undergo "psychotherapy" (I suppose you could call it that) at one point. But the counsel of humans is nothing like the wisdom of God. I felt those I spoke to were judging and despising my weakness, instead of understanding and empathising. This is why I say to take it to the Lord in prayer. He understands and empathises, and will help us stay strong.

  2. Reminds me of what Jesus said to his disciples in Garden of Gethsemane "Pray so that you do not fall into temptation". Great post.


    1. Yes, we should pray without ceasing.

      That is why our Lord said, in HIS prayer, "And lead us not into temptation".


  3. Your blog post is rather insulting to women. It makes it sound as though the wicked women, the "sirens", are using all their wiles to ensnare devout christian men who are doing their best to stay away and resist. Temptation is a two-way thing. It is not just women who tempt, there are loads of wicked men out there, often in positions of power, who make advances to weak-willed and vulnerable women who find themselves unable to resist.

    1. This is about Greek mythology. It is not to insult women.Try looking it up next time.


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