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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Mar. 2003

Parthenope, Ulysses
 
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.'Come here,' they sang, 'renowned Ulysses, 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.'

They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made 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. 

The Odyssey (trans. Samuel Butler)

Like most of my generation, I got my classical education from the venerable Classic Comics. I grew up thinking that most of that ancient Greek stuff happened—well, over in Greece somewhere. Little did I know that the episode of the Sirens took place in these waters. There are tiny rocks sticking up out of the water on the Amalfi side of the Sorrentine peninsula named for those very Sirens that tempted Ulysses. One of the Sirens, Parthenope, threw herself into the sea out of despair over what she believed to be her lack of allure, and her body washed up on the coast a few miles away at the spot where mythology says the city of Neapolis (Naples) was founded. Actually, that would be the city of Parthenope, which then became Neapolis; indeed, modern Neapolitans still refer to themselves commonly as "Parthenopeans". 
 

I have found what I understand is the only piece of ancient sculpture in Naples depicting the siren, Parthenope. It is a small bust, and is located on the premises of the Municipio, the City Hall. It was recovered from  the site of the original Greek acropolis of the city of Neapolis, on the height across from today's Piazza Cavour. That location is not currently an active archaeological site, and it has been covered with centuries of construction, most recently various departments of the University of Naples Medical  School. On the historic map of the city (click here) you would start at #37 and walk up the hill (towards the top of the map).

(There is also a modern statue of Parthenope in Naples.)

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