Words: Siren

The air strikes launched against Saddam Hussein sent the tabloids rushing for the cliche cupboard. Out tumbled the favourite warmongering phrases, as fresh as they were when a deadly hail of them had the enemy on the run during Operation Desert Storm. In a devastating blitz, "American bombers and warships unleashed up to 300 cruise missiles," reported the Sun's political editor. While in the Mirror we "unleashed a massive military attack on Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein" as "a devastating hail of cruise missiles spearheaded the onslaught". America and Britain, commented the Sun, "had no choice but to unleash their deadly attacks".

Despite the ultra-modern weaponry, the metaphors deployed are as low- tech as ever, involving the use of dogs and spears. Indeed, weren't the dogs of war already straining at the leash in Mark Antony's time, when, according to Shakespeare, he declared that Caesar's ghost was about to issue instructions to "let slip the dogs of war"?

The Sun reported how the sirens "echoed across Baghdad" before the first strike, in a false alarm that was "eerily reminiscent of the start of the Gulf War". Those old enough to remember their ominous wailing on 3 September, 1939 - also a false alarm - will no doubt have their own reminiscences. But the sirens' echo goes back far beyond Caesar's dogs, to the mythology of ancient Greece.

The first Sirens were the daughters of Phorcys the sea-god, or possibly the randy river-god Achelous; their unbearably sweet singing tempted mariners to alter course so as to hear them better, thus ending up on the rocks. (Odysseus confounded them with earplugs.) Later they were out- sung by Orpheus, and jumped into the sea, whereupon they were turned into rocks.

The mechanical version was invented in the 19th century, and was used for the benefit of sailors. It was put on their ships rather than on shore, so the parallel with the mythical ones isn't exact. The first said, "Come hither", the other, "Keep away". But no matter - both signalled the presence of danger. Later they were attached to cars until they gave way to an instrument called the klaxon, which emitted an effective note of indignation as if to say, "Out of my way, peasants", and was in turn supplanted by the electric horn.

The unpleasant noises produced by these various sirens could hardly be more unlike the singing of the flesh-and-blood originals (who were sometimes confused with a different animal, the mermaid). But it's nice to think that the old sirens live on in another metaphor, though not common in modern literature; a metaphor for a predatory woman, or femme fatale. They were also a metaphor for any sort of temptation, and always had a pretty hostile press, except, notably, from Milton, who called them "pledges of heaven's joy", and "sphere-born harmonious sisters", the one representing music, the other poetry.

One hates to imagine what he would have thought of the banshee scream that sends civilians diving for shelter.

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