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The Odyssey offers this description of Sirens from wise Circe:

The Sirens bewitch everybody who approaches them. There is no homecoming for the man who draws near them unawares...For with their high clear song the Sirens bewitch him, as they sit there in a meadow piled high with the mouldering skeletons of men, whose withered skin still hangs upon their bones

But all the other depictions of Sirens - including Odysseus' actual later adventure with them - shows that they lure people at sea, on a ship. If that's the case, why does Circe say they are "in a meadow"? There are no meadows at sea.

Please note that the easy explanation (the inland meadow is where they bring their victims from the sea) doesn't fly - pun intended - since Circe specifically says they are already in a meadow when are doing the bewitching: "Sirens bewitch him, as they sit there in a meadow"

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  • Possibly two different versions of the myth made it into the story without being straightened out. Possibly the sirens could lure from land when Circe knew them, but ships started to give a wider berth as it becomes known.
    – Mary
    Feb 1, 2023 at 1:16
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  • Spagirl is right. I don't know why you can't picture a meadow near the shore.
    – cmw
    Feb 1, 2023 at 4:57

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The Odyssey has two passages about the Sirens. First, Circe’s warning to Odysseus (as related by Odysseus to the Phaeacians), some of which was quoted in the question:

“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one 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.”

Homer. Odyssey 12.39–54. Translated by Samuel Butler (1900). Perseus Digital Library.

† “Green field” here is Butler’s translation of λειμῶνι, which Liddell & Scott gloss as “any moist, grassy place, meadow”. ‡ The Greek here is ἱστοπέδῃ, “a piece of wood set in the keel to which the mast was bound” (Liddell & Scott) but perhaps Butler thought that half-way up the mast was a more dramatic position for Odysseus to be bound.

Second, Odysseus’s narrative of the encounter (again, as told to the Phaeacians):

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 half way 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.’

I had hardly finished telling everything to the men before we reached the island of the two Sirens, for the wind had been very favorable. 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 crosspiece; 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.

Odyssey 12.153–183.

So the Sirens sit on a grassy or flowery meadow on an island, surrounded by the bones of their victims, and Odysseus’s companions had to steer the ship close to the shore before Odysseus could hear the singing. Therefore Homer asks us to imagine a scene something like this (but with fewer Sirens and more skeletons):

A landscape of a rocky shore. To the left, a calm sea stretches away to a spectacular sunset, with a distant sailing ship. To the right, craggy rocks, a snow-capped peak, trees, and a grassy meadow running down to the shore. On the meadow are seven or eight women in long dresses, and two braziers on tripods.
Thomas Moran (1900). Ulysses and the Sirens.

It can be difficult, however, to imagine the scene as described by Homer, because of two very different traditional depictions of Sirens in art: first, as birds with the heads of women (below left: red-figured stamnos in the British Museum, catalog 1843,1103.31), and second, as mermaids (below right: Herbert James Draper (1909), Ulysses and the Sirens).

From the catalog description: “Odysseus, wreathed and bearded, is fastened against the bottom of the mast, facing the stern, with his arms behind his back lashed to it. His head is thrown back, looking upwards towards the Sirens. On each side of the scene a rocky promontory projects over the sea, with a Siren standing on the top. The Sirens are represented as birds with woman's heads, their hair looped up with a dotted stephane, a single tress hanging beside the ear (parotis): their lips are parted as though singing.” The forward part of a ship. At the left, Odysseus, tied somewhat loosely to the mast, stares wildly at three nude women at the right who are climbing out of the sea, one with a fish tail, the other two with legs. In the middle two men with caps over their ears pull on oars.

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