Sirens chanting in Auvergne- Velay: A story of exegetical pilgrimage on the via podiensis

Avital Heyman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Migrating from Greek mythology to scripture and ecclesiastical writing, sirens are best known for the perils they put on the road of Odysseus, and conversely, on that of the crucified Christ and on that of the pilgrim, two significations that Odysseus, the eternal voyageur tied to the mast, came to symbolize in the Middle Ages. Long acknowledged in past scholarship, the siren motif was perceived of as a multi-layered image, whose negative Homeric connotations suited an even vaster range of destructive meanings, moral, social and political. More than sheer misogyny, the hybrid sirens represent violation of social order, mainly that of the manly world. It is therefore no coincidence to find them dwelling in the biblical debauched town of Babylon, and in the land of Edom, destined to be destroyed, alongside hybrid centaurs, both in the Septuagint and in the Vulgate. These beasts gained much popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and embody the ultimate significance of evil in the medieval bestiary, as well as in a wide-ranging exegetical literature. This development may stand for the immense dispersion of the siren motif in Romanesque sculpture. Meant at an edifying purpose, sirens associated with urban destruction, lust, and avarice, signify the menace of sin they seduce humanity to fall into. The virtuous Christian, recognizing the long-enduring classical motif in its new Christian context should take the paradigm of Odysseus in his Christological typology, and restrain from evil. Though constituting a rather popular motif of Romanesque sculpture in general, sirens seem to inhabit many of the churches of the Auvergne and the Velay regions of France, along pilgrimage shrines, located lengthwise the Via Podiensis and crosswise routes, thus forming a marked feature of the local imagery. More than sheer enthusiasm for the antique, as past scholarship would have it, sirens seem to have chanted a very specific local chant in Auvergne-Velay. Constituting a major motif, which testifies to a profound understanding of their contextual implications, they represent a multifaceted image, denoting didactic, apotropaic, liturgical, social, and political messages. The context of pilgrimage and pilgrimage roads seems to have constituted a perfect setting for this multitude of sirens. The Via Podiensis was known as particularly uninviting. The mountainous topography, infested with thieves and brigands, provided lucrative opportunities of ambushing pilgrims on their way. It is the purpose of this paper to uncover the versatile imports of the siren antique motif in Romanesque Auvergne-Velay, by pointing out their meticulous perplexing delineation in the context of actual hardships pilgrims and congregants endured within pilgrimage shrines and roads. The first part of this paper will survey the range of allegorical significances of sirens from Homer to Jerome and to medieval exegeses, followed by a description of sirens in Auvergne-Velay. Then, I would like to suggest a new reading of the particular rendering of sirens in the small church of Pont-du-Château and in the pilgrimage church of Notre-Dame of Orcival, which may bear a local historical significance, resulting from the conflicting situations of pilgrims, on their way to worship the celestial realm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-115
Number of pages47
JournalAd Limina
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Adam of St-Victor
  • Allegory
  • Alleyras
  • Antoing
  • Auvergne
  • Auzon
  • Avarice
  • Babylon
  • Beasts
  • Besse-en-Chandesse
  • Bestiary
  • Brioude
  • Centaur
  • Chamalières-sur-Loire
  • Chanteuges
  • Children of Israel
  • Christian morals
  • Clermont-Ferrand
  • Combronde
  • Demons
  • Exegesis
  • Exorcism
  • Fathers of the Church
  • Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin
  • Feudal Lords and Warriors
  • Fix-St-Geneys
  • Good and Evil
  • Haute-Loire
  • Homer
  • Honorius of Autun
  • Hybrid Creatures
  • Iliad
  • Isaiah
  • Jerome
  • La Chaise-Dieu
  • Laity and Church
  • Le Monsatier-St-Chaffre
  • Le Puy-en-Velay
  • Massif Central
  • Monsters
  • Notre-Dame de Orcival
  • Odysseus
  • Peasantry
  • Philippe de Thaün
  • Pilgrim Badges
  • Pilgrimage
  • Pont-du-Château
  • Porche du For
  • Puy-de-Dôme
  • Riom-ès-Montagnes
  • Ritual
  • Road Tolls
  • Romanesque Sculpture
  • Scripture
  • Septuagint
  • Shepherds
  • Sin
  • Siren
  • St- Pal-de-Mons
  • St-Etienne-Lardeyrol
  • St-Julien-Chapteuil
  • St-Michel d'Aiguilhe
  • St-Paul-de-Tartas
  • Throne of Wisdom
  • Topography
  • Troy
  • Velay
  • Via Podiensis
  • Virgin Mary
  • Virtues and Vices
  • Viscounts of Polignac
  • Voie Regordane
  • Vulgate
  • Werner of St-Blaise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Religious studies
  • Philosophy
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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