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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Odyssey Sirens 'were monk seals'
Monk seal
A monk seal's voice can travel much further than a human's
A German scientist claims to have found the Sirens of the Greek myth of Odysseus, who lured ships onto the rocks with their song: they are, in fact, monk seals.

Karl-Heinz Frommolt, head of the Achieve of Animal Sounds at the Humboldt Museum in Germany, believes he has identified the Sirens' lair on the Li Galli islands, off Sorrento on Italy's Amalfi coast. The island is known as Le Sirenuse, the Island of the Sirens.

His team identified a configuration of rocks which amplifies sound coming from the island. However, tests showed a human voice could not reach far enough out to sea - whereas a moaning monk seal's could.

"It could be monk seals, because the cries of seals are much louder than the song of humans," Dr Frommolt told BBC World Service's Science In Action programme.

"What we can say is that what we have here is a clear acoustic phenomenon, supporting the theory that the Odyssey was real - and not only a poem by Homer."

Acoustic phenomenon

In Homer's epic poem, Odysseus, a warrior king, tells of a land inhabited by wicked women who lured sailors to their death with their beautiful song.

Odysseus is warned: "There is no homecoming for the man who draws near them unawares and hears the Sirens' voices."

He is said to have heard their music a long way from the island. He saves his crew from death by filling their ears with wax - but, wanting to hear the song himself, he orders his men to tie him to the mast.

We have two large rocks, and they have very strong reflections - a natural acoustic amplifier
Dr Karl-Heinz Frommolt
Historians have long believed Odysseus would have heard the Sirens somewhere in the Li Galli islands area, hence their nickname.

Dr Frommolt believed that if there is any truth in this theory, the islands must have a type of acoustic phenomenon.

To test this, his team used a loudspeaker and transmitted artificial sounds. They then listened out at sea, as the sailors would have done.

"When we moved away from the loudspeaker, we would expect the noise to be lower in intensity - and that is a fact: at 300 metres it was less intense than at 200 metres," he said.

"But when our boat was positioned between the two rocks, at a still greater distance, of 400 metres, the signal became even louder."

Clear song

He explained that this was due to the "specific constellation" of the islands, which consists of two distinctive rocks, Castellucio and La Rotonda, and one long island, Gallo Grande.

"We have two large rocks, and they have very strong reflections - a natural acoustic amplifier," Dr Frommolt added.

He believes that Odysseus might have heard something before he could see the shore, and before he could notice who - or indeed what - was causing the noise.

The poem refers to the ship having "just come within call of the shore, when the Sirens became aware that a ship was bearing down upon them, and broke into their high, clear song".

However, a human singer cannot sing loud enough to be heard offshore - even with the amplification effect of the surrounding rocks.

Historians, however, are not amused - believing the value of the tale does not lie in a literal interpretation of what are mythical figures.

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