In 1900 John William Waterhouse painted Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, which shows the discovery of Orpheus’ decapitated head floating next to his lyre. Orpheus was given the lyre by the god Apollo and it was the Muses that taught him how to play. His gift for music enchanted all living things: wild beasts, trees and even stones. When his wife Eurydice died from a snake bite, grief-stricken Orpheus felt compelled to follow her into the underworld where he used his lyre to charm Pluto and Proserpina. (More about the painting in Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus and Don’t Look Back!)
Roughly eleven years later, Waterhouse painted The Charmer. The setting and the pose of both paintings is quite similar. Instead of looking down at a floating head, the lone female figure gazes down at the fish seemingly drawn to her song. The lyre in this painting is noticably different than the one in Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, but the title of this painting indicates an ability to charm that may be similar to Orpheus’ musical gift. Is the charm a supernatural one? Or is it the power of music itself?
The Homeric Hymn to Hermes describes how Hermes created the lyre and stole a number of Apollo’s cattle. When Apollo grew angry, Hermes played the lyre and it was so soothing to Apollo that he was willing to exchange the cattle for the instrument. The lyre is symbolic of Apollo, god of music. The instrument itself gives us the word lyric.
Waterhouse also included a lyre in The Siren, a striking work that combines sensuous beauty and danger.
In The Siren, Waterhouse shows how the music of the lyre can be the instrument of death. Although she is no longer playing or singing, the siren’s prey is now in a vulnerable position. Her music has achieved its purpose. The lure of the siren can not be resisted. Just ask Hylas.