Ba,  Sirene, Owl




A little owl (Athene noctua - tytonidæ (Stri-giformes)), the symbol of the Athenian people


A SIREN IS PRESENTED AS A BIRD WITH A HUMAN HEAD. The earliest examples come, as with more symbols, from Egypt and in connection with the death cult. A bird with a human head symbolized there the soul, Ba or Baw of the dead and from there also the terrifying character that the siren can have in later interpretations.

Examples of sirens are found on Greek vases from the sixth century BC and it seems that the figure then spread almost exclusively in the Greek cultural area. On Greek tombstones they are presented as musicians and this is in line with the Homeric singing sirens.

Sirens appear in the chapter about the passage of Scylla and Charibdis in the Odyssey and they enchanted passing sailors with their singing so that they suffer shipwreck. Odysseus let himself be tied to the mast to be able to hear their singing, but he ordered his crew to close their ears with wax and not to loosen it, even if he ordered it. In this way he safely passed the Strait of Messina. The story becomes even more dramatic when one considers that with these Homeric sirens the whimpering souls from the

sailors drowned there can be meant who, because the ritual required by the Egyptian view that they would have had to reunite with their bodies had not been performed, could not find peace. Even more beautiful than the apparent jealousy of the sirens on their living colleague that they also want to destroy.

A connection between the Sirens and Sicily was later made by Ovid (43 BC - 17 AD) in his Metamorphoses, but he maintains a completely different and more profane view of the nature of these beings. Sicily was the place where Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, was robbed by Pluto. At the robbery, Proserpina had been accompanied by the Sirens, the daughters of the river god Achelaus, and therefore no souls at all from the Egyptian point of view. Ovid then continues: But how did the daughters or Achelous come to have feathers and claws like birds, while retaining their human faces? Was it because these skilful singers were among Proserpine's companions, when she was gathering the spring flowers? And after seeking her in the world, they prayed that they might fly across the waves on beating wings, so that the seas, too, might know of their anxiety. The gods consented, and suddenly they saw their limbs covered with golden plumage. But in case those melodies that fell so sweetly on the ear should be silenced, if the maidens lost their tongues, and their rich gift or song denied expression, they retained the features of young girls, and kept their human voices. [1]


Because of their singing and their association with the sea, sirens are often confused in the Middle Ages with mermaids who are represented as a woman with a fish tail. [2] This figure, however, has a different origin.

No research has been done into the popularity of the figure in Greek and Roman visual art. The figure is rare in heraldry, presumably always referring to an eagle with a king's head. In heraldry the figure is called harpy, a qualification that is also known as a nasty female. [3] The arms of Nuremberg and the arms of East Friesland are well known.

On the other hand, the siren in the East seems to have retained the meaning of a soul symbol and the figure means a bird from Paradise, i.e. a soul incorporated in Paradise. In Islamic iconography, the siren occurs under different names and in different forms. "In Islamic tradition at least four different names are used: murg-i ādamī," anqā, zāġsār and bahrī." In the last term we may find the Egyptian Ba. The bodies of these beings differ and they sometimes also wear different types of headdresses. The first two are both feared and admired and can be both friendly and hostile to people. They all live in remote and inaccessible areas. [4]

All in all, the sirens are a good example of the semantic shift (= change of meaning) that a symbol can undergo over time.

It may be interesting in this context to examine how the owl is interpreted in popular belief. In appearance, an owl is very much like a Ba, especially because of the remarkably 'human' face. Add to that the silent flight and the preference for hunting at dusk and it is obvious that an owl was also experienced as a spirit in the Egyptian sense. In this sense the owl can be found in the Arabic popular belief. Here it was believed that the soul of the deceased in the form of a bird, usually an owl, floats around the body to which he has belonged. The 'soul bird' casts out wailing complaints and if it concerns the body of someone who has been murdered and who has not yet been avenged, then in his shouting one hears the cry for the murderer's blood. [5] In Europe, owls were often seen as, of course, angry, ghosts, and dead owls were nailed to barn doors. [6] In medieval European iconography, however, the soul does not resemble an owl, siren or Ba, but is represented as a miniature person fleeing the body of the dying person. The owl, siren and Ba have thus retained their wickedness in European culture but have lost their character of soul.


Soul represented as a little human being leaving the body

Two hovering angels being ready with shrouds


The hypothesis that an owl is essentially the appearance in real life of a siren or Ba and would therefore be the soul of a deceased person raises the question of the meaning of the owl of Athens. Thus one may wonder whose soul is meant by that. Would this be about the "spirit" of the Athenian people ?


Sirens in art


The Baw (souls) of Ani and his wife.

Papyrus Ani.  Egypt,  1300 B.C. ca.. (British Museum Ms. 10.470. Part 7.)




The commentary in german on this part of the facsimile reads


Im Bilde stehen die Baw, die „Seelen” des Ani und seiner Frau Tjutju, über dem Grab, das oben mit einer Hohlkehle abschließt. Vor dem Grabe befindet sich ein von Lotosblumen umrankter Tisch mit einem Libationsgefäß. Die Ba-Seele wird aufgrund ihrer unbeschränkten Bewegungsfreiheit (Himmelsflug) als Vogel aufgefaßt, der mit dem Kopf des Verstorbenen dargestellt wird. Hier wird die Vereinigung mit ihrem Ba auch für die Tjutju magisch vorweggenommen. Erst wenn der mumifizierte Körper durch die Zauberkraft des Rituals verklärt worden ist, kann sich der Ba wieder mit ihm vereinigen und damit die ganzheit der Persönlichkeit wieder begründen. Die Beischrift bezeichnet Anis Seele als:

b3 n Wśjr = Ba des Osiris.”  [7]


Assyrian man-bird between vultures 724-722 BC


Big Aryballos, decorated with a Siren.

Corinthian, from Nola (Italy) 600-575 B.C. (AntikenMuseum, Berlin.)


Tombstone of a lady

In front of the stone two servants with jewel-case and mirror. On the top two sirens playing the harp and the flute.

From Athens, beginning of the 4th cent. B.C. Marble.  (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin.)


Mandulis on the Kalabsha Temple, Sudan. 15 BC


Kinnara guarding the Kalpataru tree of life

Prambanan temple relief. Java. 850 AD ca


Kinnari are female heavenly beings represented half bird half (wo)man. They often play musical instruments

Kinnari playing the drum

Phat Tich temple Bac Ninh, dated 1057

Vietnam Historical Museum Inv. LSb 19785


Middle Age Spain

Middle Age France

Middle Age S. Maria de Tera, Spain


Captital with two sirens

From Fontenay Abbey. 12th century. Bourgogne, France


Seal of Nürnberg, 1243

Representing an eagle with a king’s head

 (probably of Roman King Conrad IV)


Achievement of Jean de Berry (1340-1416), Poitiers


Arms: Of France with a bordure engrailed Gules

Supporters: Two sirens


This achievement in Poitiers of which he was a count from 1369 until his death.


Achievement of Philip of Kleve, admiral of the Netherlands

Kroniek van Froissart. K.B. den Haag


This Froissart Chronicle originates from de Library of the Stadholder and is now in de Royal Library in The Hague. The coat of arms Kleve-Mark with the escutcheon in nombril point has been added much later and replaces a coat of arms we do’nt know.[8]

The sirens probably refer to the office of Admiral of the Netherlands of Philip (1485-1488).


Foto H.d.V. ‘98


The funeral shield of Enno I Cirksena (r. 1483-’91) preserved in the Landesmuseum of Emden, originaties from the Mariental monastery in Norden. It shows: Sable, a harpy between four stars Or, and for crest a fleur-de-lys Or. The legend reads: In the year of Our Lord 1491 on the 19th of February, the noble Lord Enno, knight and second count of Eastern Frisia passed away


The Bird of  Paradise Sirin

Russia, 1st half of 19th cent.  Coll. State Historical Museum, Moscow


Kinnara, Royal Palace, Bangkok

woman-bird its wings on its haunches



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 © Hubert de Vries 2006 Updated 2019-07-04




[1] Penguin translation, p. 130.

[2] As in the achievments of Josef Bonaparte and Joachim Murat for Sicily Nr 19. Due Sirene, che sostengono lo scudo delle armi della Corona. Una di esse porta il cornucopia, e l’ancora; e l’altra il cornucopia, ed un timone antico. represented ae mermaids.

[3]  The dictionary says: L. Harpyia, G. Harpula = mythical rapacious monsters, from. G. harpax = rapacious]  shrew, witch, vixen

[4]  More in Gierlichs, Joachim: Drache . Phönix . Doppeladler. Fabelwesen in der islamischen Kunst. Berlin, 1993, pp. 23-25.

[5]  Gattiker, Ernst & Luise: Die Vögel im Volksglauben. Wiesbaden, 1989, p. 342.

[6]  „Een valk of uil op de achterdeur gespijkerd, houdt de mussen van het koren.”  (A falcon or owl nailed on the backdoor  keeps the sparrows from the corn)  (Gelderse Volksalmanak voor 1845, p. 56.)

[7]  Papyrus Ani, BM 10.470. Vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe im Originalformat des Totenbuches aus dem Besitz des British Museum. Kommentar Edmund Dondelinger. Graz, 1978. Tafel 7 p. 58.