Siren Songs

First and foremost, I am delighted to bring to the attention of regular readers (and anyone with nothing better to do) that I have launched an English-language blog within the Jerusalem Post Blogs Central framework; the address is http://cgis.jpost.com/Blogs/landau/. My Hebrew-language blog runs at  www.ifo.co.il.

Meanwhile, given the non-stop action in the markets and the non-stop bad news about the economy of virtually every country on earth, a detour into Greek mythology sounds a welcome proposition. And perhaps the most attractive sound in the Greek story book came from the Sirens. According to Wikipedia, “the Sirens (Greek singular: ?????? Seir?n; Greek plural: ???????? Seir?nes) were three dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses, who lived on an island … surrounded by cliffs and rocks. Seamen who sailed near were decoyed by the Sirens’ enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast. Although they lured mariners, the sirens were not sea deities…the term “siren song” refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result. Later writers have inferred that the Sirens were cannibals, based on Circe’s description of them “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.”

According to Homer, the siren song is a promise of wisdom and hidden truths because they know both the past and the future, coupled with a false promise that the listener will live to tell them. They sing, “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”

This description is more than sufficient to enable us to realise the bitter truth about these supposedly mythical creatures. Clearly, they were an ancient version of what we now today as investment advisors – people who claim to know the past and the future and are always selling something in a way that is hard to resist, ‘but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result”. However, instead of sending their enticing proposals by email, or even writing it out at all, the Sirens broadcast it over the air (and sea) waves by singing – with their targets being the wealthy merchants who were plying their trade travelling up and down the Greek coastline. The basic spiel hasn’t changed one iota: make an attractive presentation, preferably using seductive females, and you will be hard to resist, even if the victim strongly suspects that the outcome will be negative for him.

Hardly surprising then, that the sirens are most famously associated with Jason and the Argonauts. These were a group of investment bankers who had formed their own hedge fund company and were always looking for high-risk, high-return ventures. It seems, if the stories about them have not been embellished by aggressive PR of the Homeric sort, that they achieved an impressive track-record in what were then emerging markets around the Eastern Mediterranean. Odysseus and Orpheus seem to have been General Partners; in any event, Orpheus was the smarter and more solid one. When the Sirens tried to sell him their stuff, he drowned out their voices by singing his own rap compositions, whilst concentrating on spreadsheets of cashflow projections.

Odysseus always tried to be clever, so when the Sirens made their pitch to him, he ordered his staff to plug their ears (with MP3s or 4s, no doubt), leaving him the only one who could hear the presentation. However, he had himself handcuffed and ordered them to throw away the key – so that he couldn’t sign a buy order, or even make the transaction using his cellphone. Of course, when he heard their beautiful song, he really wanted to do a deal, but his assistants ignored his pleading – no doubt losing their bonus as a result.

Back to Wikipedia: ‘Some post-Homeric authors state that the Sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them, and that after Odysseus passed by they therefore flung themselves into the water and perished’. I rest my case: this is an exact description of the corporate culture of investment salesmen down the ages. When they can’t make a sale, they jump off the cliff or out the window. There have, however, been improvements over the eons. Nowadays, sirens-salespeople generally have golden parachutes so that, when they float gently to the ground, they can go and join another company and seek out new suckers to lure to almost certain loss.

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