In Greek mythology they are called the Sirens, mythical seductresses of seafaring lore. These creatures of great beauty sit in the flowery meadow on small, rocky islands in the Mediterranean, somewhere off the coast of Italy. The Sirens are divine beings with the wings of birds and voices that can enchant any sailor. Ancient sources describe their “siren song”—a beautiful music that compulsively lures sailors toward the island, only to have their ships capsize on the rocks.
This is, perhaps, one of the best analogies I can give to describe the lure of pornography. We don’t intend to crash the ship of our lives on the rocky shore, but the siren song calls to us. For many men (and women), once pornography sinks its hooks into us, we forever feel the draw of it. It is like a compulsion.
How did ancient seafarers sail by the Sirens without being overcome by their songs? Two ancient myths give us a glimpse.
Odysseus: Bind Me to the Mast
Homer’s Odyssey tells of the adventures of Odysseus, one of the champions of the Trojan War. In the Odyssey he is counseled by the goddess Circe to beware of the Sirens. She warns him, “[The Sirens] 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.” At her insistence Odysseus plugs the ears of his fellow sailors with wax. And because he wants the pleasure of hearing the Sirens, he commands his men to bind him half-way up mast of the ship, standing upright. He tells them further, “If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.”
As Odysseus’ ship sails within an earshot of the islands, suddenly the wind falls into a dead calm. The Sirens see Odysseus coming and begin with their singing. “Come here,” they sing, “and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song.” They promise Odysseus divine foreknowledge of all that the gods and men will ever do. Odysseus is overcome by the song and demands that he be set free. His men bind him with stronger ropes until they are out of the Sirens’ range.
Orpheus: A More Beautiful Song
Apollonius of Rhodes also writes about the Sirens in Argonautica, his tale of Jason and the Argonauts’ voyage. Jason is warned about the Sirens from the centaur Chiron, and sure enough the sailors encounter them. As a fresh breeze wafts the ship they see the island. The Sirens watchful eye spots Jason’s ship and they send forth from their lips “a lily-like voice.” The sailors are overcome with desire and are ready to cast their ropes from the boat to the shore.
Suddenly one of the heroes, Orpheus, a man legendary for his gift of song, pulls out his stringed lyre and “rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens’ voice.”
Odysseus vs. Orpheus
Why all this talk of mythical creatures and musicians? Why dip into these ancient tales? I do this because they have a way of capturing the imagination. G.K. Chesterton said fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
What can overcome the siren song of pornography? On one hand we might be more like Odysseus. We want to enjoy the temptation. We like the pull, yet we know the danger of the rocky cliffs. So we place obstacles in our path, ways to keep us from jumping overboard. We install filters on our computers. We put personal boundaries in place. These boundaries save us from making poor choices, but they are nothing more than external measures that keep us from falling over the edge.
Then there are men like Jason who are wise to bring Orpheus along. They know the only thing that breaks the spell of sin is an even greater spell. They don’t look for stronger ropes. They bring along a more enchanting song.
I believe the Bible has both Odysseus- and Orpheus-mentalities, but more of the latter. In one sense Odysseus is commendable. He knows the danger of the siren song, so he makes diligent precautions to avoid making a deadly decision. We all need men like Odysseus’ shipmates, men who are willing to see through our mental fog caused by temptation, men who bind us fast and keep us from sinful choices, men who are willing to sit up with us at the midnight hour if we feel the draw of lust.
But the Bible promises God will not only change our outward behavior, but He will change our desires. We are promised that though we are not now delivered from the presence of our fleshly desires, we can be delivered from their power. How? Not just by keeping temptation at bay (which is commendable), but by keeping in step with the cravings, the desires, of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:16).
CS Lewis writes,
“The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. . . . Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness . . .”
Are you more like Odysseus or Orpheus? Both avoided shipwreck, but Odysseus did so kicking and screaming. He desired a taste of the siren song because he didn’t have an Orpheus on board.
What are your traveling companions like?
1. Some of us have none. We sail alone and so we crash into the rocky crags time and time again. We have no one to help us in the midst of temptation. We have no true friends who are willing to help us fight sin.
2. Some of us are aboard Odysseus’ ship. We have faithful companions who are willing to help put up barriers in our life to keep us from the “really bad stuff.” We have friends we can call when the temptation is the greatest.
3. Then some of us, perhaps very few of us, have traveling companions like Orpheus, friends who are able to remind us of greater pleasures, a more enchanting song. They are able to point us to Christ as our supreme pleasure and His promises as our supreme confidence. They know how to play the strings of our heart in such a way that we become godward again. They remind us of God’s promises which produce an anticipation of greater delight. They help us to see sin as the enemy of real pleasure, not the source of it, and then help us draw our thoughts to God’s “river of delights” (Psalm 36:8).
. . . .
God, help us to become more like Orpheus. Help us taste the honey-sweetness of your Word (Psalm 119:103). Make your decrees the theme of our song wherever we sojourn (Psalm 119:54). Open the eyes of our heart that we might see wonderful truths in your Word (Psalm 119:18). Morning by morning awaken us to hear your voice, then give us a tongue able to enchant weary sinners with your Greater Beauty (Isaiah 50:4).