Who is she? Where did she come from and what can she teach us?
Chances are that when you hear the word “coffee,” a particular green and white logo comes to mind, the image of a mysterious star-crowned woman with wavy locks flowing over her breasts and two fishtails encircling her body.
For many of us today, it’s nearly impossible to think about coffee without also thinking of her. That’s the power of the Starbucks Siren.
Inspired by a 16th-century Norse woodcut, Terry Heckler created the first Starbucks logo in 1971. The engraved image of a voluptuous two-tailed mermaid had captured the imagination of the Starbucks founders. Initially rendered in brown and white, the design went through several iterations before arriving at its current minimalist version.
The name Starbucks refers to the Pequod’s first mate in Moby Dick. According to the Starbucks company website, the founders chose this name because it evokes “the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders.” The Siren contributed to this concept by adding a mysterious otherworldly element from the nautical world.
If you’re under 40, you might not remember pre-Starbucks America. Before the 1990s, coffee was an inexpensive bohemian beverage and diner drink. Households and workplaces brewed Maxwell House or Folgers. Indistinguishable in taste, these brands ruled the coffee industry at the time, and few people had even heard of a café latté.
When Starbucks began expanding from its Seattle home, the company seduced people everywhere into a vast new world of coffee. The Starbucks Siren promised new variety, knowledge, convenience, and transcendent taste. By 2019, the Starbucks brand was valued at $11.8 billion, partly thanks to the captivating logo and the lovely creature within it.
Though seemingly lovely at first sight, Sirens are monsters from Greek mythology. As the immortal daughters of the river god Achelous and one of the nine Muses, the Sirens existed at the nexus of nature and music, like the entrancing rhythms of a raging river. They sang irresistible melodies that lured sailors to their doom. Mythological imagery like this resonates deep within the collective human subconscious.
In the modern world, we commonly use the word “siren” to describe powerful singers and sensuous women, and especially the two combined into a seductive songstress.
Even if we’re unfamiliar with its origins, this archetypal concept is embedded in our psyches. The Sirens’ two most famous myths feature the Ancient Greek seafaring heroes, Odysseus and Jason.
In Homer’s tale of The Odyssey, Odysseus must pass the Sirens’ island on his journey toward home after the Trojan War. Armed with knowledge from the sorcerous Circe, Odysseus commands his ship’s crew to seal their ears with beeswax and to lash him to the mainmast. This tactic would make him the first mortal to survive hearing Sirens’ song.
With their impossibly beautiful voices, the Sirens flatter Odysseus. They tell him that, as deities, they know what the Greeks endured during the Trojan War. Beckoning him to abandon his homeward quest, they promise him wisdom and comfort. By joining them, Odysseus could recount tales of glory and strife with those who could provide a level of understanding that his family could never offer. However, the wisdom they offer is the knowledge that following them is a fatal mistake.
Entranced by the Sirens’ voices, Odysseus struggles to break his bonds, begs for freedom, and orders his shipmates to untie him. However, following their captain’s previous commands, his loyal crew binds him even tighter to prevent him from diving to his doom.
At a psychological level, this story illustrates the impulse to abandon purpose for comfort. Just as the mind presents reasons to remain safe and steady rather than face challenges head-on, these mystical creatures promise solace through living in the past instead of forging ahead on the Hero’s Journey.
Decorating the Sirens’ island are the skeletons of men who have succumbed to their deadly music, men who had abandoned their quests and wasted away. A sobering reminder that excessive desire for comfort is dangerous to the soul.
The Argonautica describes another encounter with the Sirens. On their quest to obtain the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts also face the temptations of these monsters, but take a different tack.
Instead of practicing restraint, the great musician Orpheus greets the beasts with a tune of his own. He plays his lyre so loudly and passionately that it becomes the only sound the Argonauts can hear, drowning out the Sirens, and overpowering the song of death with the music of Life!
This story reminds us that the mind is a tricky beast, with its constant stream of words and images, few of which deserve our attention.
It’s easy to get distracted by thoughts that promise temporary comfort or illusory control. Giving too much heed to these temptations can cause us to lose sight of our values, dreams, commitments, and goals. In such moments, it helps to take a moment to identify what’s truly important and realign our actions with our intentions.
The ancient Greeks placed tremendous value on logos, the ability to reason. Warriors and philosophers perceived trance states, such as those induced by music, dance, and even orgasm, as threats to their sanity because they compromised logical thinking.
Sirens symbolize the temptation to abandon reason. No mortal who sees them ever lives to tell the tale, so no one can say what they look like.
Ancient Greek art depicts the Sirens as creatures with the heads of human women atop winged birdlike bodies. These bird-women represent the desire for the comfort of oblivion, abandonment of logos. If a mortal listens too long to their song, the Sirens whisk their soul off to the Underworld, leaving their dispirited body to waste away from neglect.
By Seventh Century AD, the Greek fear of reverie had given way to anxiety over sexual desire. The Sirens morphed into something like mermaids—beautiful women above the waist, scaly sea monsters below, embodying a sensual fantasy that cannot genuinely fulfill desire, a pursuit that cannot bear fruit.
The Christianized Medieval Siren represents the fear of women’s sexuality and creative power. In contrast to Greek philosophy, Christianity valued spiritual transcendence but demonized emotional passion and sexual pleasure. Instead of the land and air, the elements associated with the body and spirit, Sirens became creatures of the land and sea, suggesting concerns of the body and emotions.
In today’s world, a Siren’s song is anything that takes us off course. Alcohol, drugs, social media, and video games can all distract us from our goals. So too can relationships, work, sports, and music. But any of these things can also be a tool, weapon, or healing balm.
The archetype of the Siren is not an indictment on any particular activity, but a metaphysical way to notice when we drift off-course from our path into routinized unconscious living.
Your morning coffee ritual might bring you to life with the first cup, but after that, it can quickly become an addiction cycle that simply passes the time.
Sadly, Starbucks seems to embody this metaphor, having apparently succumbed to the song of its own Siren. Considering the company’s original vision, current resources, and the epic potential of its brand, Starbucks has deteriorated into a shadow of what’s possible.
Like the dispirited men who lost themselves on the Sirens’ island, the company that once transformed global coffee culture has become preternaturally bland. Nothing about the most famous coffee company in the world suggests excitement. Starbucks stores are consistently dull as dust. Their ads are generic, safe, and forgettable. Their one commercial I’ve seen celebrates the mundane in the form a montage of stock footage culminating in a freaking hashtag.
Like a third pot of coffee, Starbucks marketing campaigns add no value beyond occupying time and attention.
Imagine Starbucks ads that tap into this imaginative realm of myth and adventure.
What if Starbucks was not a mechanical stop on your way to work, but a port-stop on your daily adventure, where you go to ignite your passion and launch you forward?
What if every time you saw someone carrying a Starbucks cup, you heard the logo sing a beautiful but eerie melody? What if Starbucks baristas were your companions on your voyage? What if the Starbucks brand spoke to the hero within you instead of the comfort-seeker?
As wonderful as it would be for Starbucks to engage the human desire for adventure instead of comfort, we can do it without them. We are all on a Hero’s Journey. With a bit of imagination, a symbol you’ve seen a million times before can help you avoid the existential traps of depression, mindless routine, and cyclical thinking.
We don’t ever have to buy a cup of coffee to let the Siren raise our awareness of the thoughts that lead us away from meaningful living.