Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial "What Song The Sirens Sang, Or What Name Achilles Assumed"

Sir Thomas Browne

"What Song The Sirens Sang, Or What Name Achilles Assumed"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Sir Thomas Browne, a learned seventeenth century gentleman, an advocate of the sciences, and a philosopher who questioned accepted religious beliefs, wrote the fivechapter tract titled Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial upon the discovery of some ancient burial receptacles containing skeletal remains from the Roman era of British history. Noting that the bones remain while the identity, the features, and the deeds of their possessors are obliterated from the records of men and that time carelessly erases most of history, occasionally leaving the name of one man or the good deeds of another whose name is not recalled, Browne suggests that man's true hope for perpetuation lies in the Christian belief in immortality of the soul. It is more difficult, the philosopher states, to conjecture the history of those bones than to prove the song the Sirens sang to Odysseus or the name assumed by Achilles when he hid among the women to avoid serving in the Trojan War. The passage begins:

What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and counselors, might admit a wide solution. . . .