There are many, many things I love to see in literature and narrative universes of any form of media. One of the things I’m particularly fond of is taking ancient mythology and giving it a fresh twist. To the detriment of Western media consumers, most of this mythology is largely coming from the Greek/Roman pantheon. While I would really love to see more influence from, say, African and Indian mythos, for example, because knowledge of the Greek and Roman pantheon is so prevalent, this mythology is easier to market. (Again, a flaw of over-saturation in the market.) Due to this, when Borderlands gives me a group of people called “sirens”, I automatically start filling in some of the blanks. But, thinking about it a little more closely, how similar are the sirens in the Borderlands universe to the songstresses from ye olde legends and myths? Spoiler warning for both Borderlands games under the cut.
The obvious comparison is in who comprises each group, and for both mythological sirens and these Pandoran sirens, their forces are comprised entirely of women. One of the differences from this simple angle is that mythological sirens are, assumedly, plentiful (or at least plentiful enough that many sailors in different seas met their demise via siren) while the group of Pandoran sirens is only ever comprised of six women or girls. When one siren dies, another is born to take her place; likewise, another siren cannot be born until one of the pre-existing sirens die. As of now, we know of four sirens in the game-verse—Lilith, Maya, Angel, and Commandant Steele. However, Angel and Steele have met their ends, so who their replacements could be is as much of a mystery as ever.
This gender selectivity is where the similarities stop, outside of a few coincidental similarities. What I find most interesting, though, is how the powers between the two are so radically different. Even when speaking in a general sense, when someone mentions a siren it almost always has to do with a melodic quality to one’s voice. Clearly this stems from mythological sirens luring sailors and other men to their death by singing bewitchingly alluring songs, either causing them to steer their ships into rocks or even going so far as to make the men simply lose their will to live, their souls being drawn to the underworld by song alone. Yet, while it would be more than easy to draw on that for the sirens of Pandora, nothing relating to voices (or even leading men to their death) comes into play; what these sirens from Borderlands do instead is warp reality.
For the sirens whose powers we do know (Lilith, Maya, and Angel), we know that they can manipulate another dimension to either warp, trap foes in a pocket of space, or bend technology to their whim. While this could certainly be used as a way to tie in the whole “leading men to their death” thing, I don’t believe that was intentional. Yes, their skills can be used to harm, but for being super-powerful magic women, these basic phasing skills—as in phasewalking, phaselock, and phaseshift—are much more defensive in theory than offensive. Not that singing is a particularly offensive strategy, but the sirens of Greek mythology didn’t have the choice to sing songs that wouldn’t lead to the listener’s eventual demise. This gives these sirens of Pandora a pretty incredible sense of agency: they could hide away, yet instead they choose to use their powers to bring themselves closer to what they want, whether that be treasure, answers, or freedom.
Though I don’t believe Gearbox intended any
connection between the two groups of sirens outside of the similarity I already mentioned, there are two instances where I believe the sirens really live up to their mythological potential. The first is the way the vault hunters operate on Pandora. In both Borderlands and Borderlands 2, the group of four vault hunters is guided by Angel, who speaks only of finding treasure and becoming a hero—until the second game, where she stops playing the guide and starts asking for actual help. In both these instances, and especially in the sequel, these “siren songs” of a sort lead our intrepid adventurers into situations that most would have died from—especially in the case of Borderlands 2, because the vault hunters were supposed to be murdered from the first moment they stepped on the wasteland of a planet. Secondly, and more interestingly in my opinion, is the ending to Borderlands 2, in which due to the efforts of two sirens—Lilith and Angel—Handsome Jack is led to his own death. Though Angel’s part is providing the catalyst (or more of a catalyst than Handsome Jack’s douchebaggery), Lilith has a much more unique role, one that the player can actually miss. When Handsome Jack is defeated, the player can actually allow Lilith the final blow. So, in this sense, it was the siren’s song of unlocking an unfathomable power that led Handsome Jack to the metaphorical rocks, but the siren herself that sent him to his death. Maybe that’s part of the reason that I find that choice much more fulfilling than killing Jack myself.
Although it’s true that these two groups of sirens don’t have much binding them together outside of their label, it’s still interesting to see which aspects of the powers and the mythology behind the name managed to carry over into this modern media, intentional or not. It’s necessary at sone point to not merely reuse the same character archetypes that an audience is used to, but to put a new spin on it at well. Borderlands‘ sirens may not lure people to their doom with their voices, but they still end up dealing death due to a power that no one is quite sure how it really works. Small tweaks like this add character as well as show the audience that you’re really thinking about what these archetypes could imply. Despite me still not necessarily believing all aspects of the Pandoran siren were intentional, they still show that a lot of thought went into this game’s own mythos. Who knows—in the future we may be talking about sirens bending not only the will of man, but the rules of reality as well.