|John William Waterhouse. Public Domain|
The goddess Circe, daughter of Helios the sun god and an ocean nymph, appears in a lot of poems, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Aeneid and the Argonautica, some ancient Greek plays and at least one novel, by Madeleine Miller, which I read and reviewed here. https://suebursztynski.blogspot.com/2018/05/just-finished-reading-circe-by.html She is the sister of Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur, and Aeetes, king of Colchis and father of Medea, who turned up on Circe’s island Aeaea, on her way back to Greece with her lover Jason.
She is best known, though, for her appearance in the Odyssey. Her home Aeaea is full of wild beasts, wolves and lions, who, as Odysseus and his crew discover, are transformed sailors who had visited the island and made the mistake of accepting Circe’s hospitality. (In the Miller novel, it’s punishment for a group of sailors who had raped her.)
Odysseus, on his way back from Troy, stops by the island and allows some of his men shore leave. Led by the ship’s first mate, Eurylochus, they explore and find themselves being greeted by a beautiful woman, Circe, who is singing at her loom. She offers them dinner, which is drugged. Eurylochus is suspicious and stays outside the house, where he sees Circe turn his shipmates into pigs and hurries back to warn Odysseus. Luckily, Odysseus has some help from a few gods, including Hermes, the trickster god, who gives him a magical herb called moly, which will keep him safe from transformation.
I’m sure quite a lot of women will feel that it wouldn’t have been too far a stretch between the sailors and pigdom, especially when you consider their behaviour in the rest of the Odyssey. Still, they are Odysseus’s lads and he isn’t going to abandon them.
So, he marches up to the house, accepts the offer of dinner and, much to Circe’s dismay, isn’t affected by her magic, due to the moly. He threatens her, then sleeps with her on her promise not to harm him and to turn back all those enchanted sailors, including his men.
Odysseus stays with her for a while, long enough to father three sons, including the one who will eventually kill him. At this point, Circe gives him information and advice so he can get home safely. One of the places he must go is past Scylla’s rock, where six of his men are seized and eaten. The irony is that the monster Scylla is there in the first place because Circe turned her into one, over a man, for goodness’ sake!
Circe eventually marries Odysseus’s son Telemachus, after Odysseus’s death. I suppose we could say she more or less lives happily ever after, which is more than can be said for Odysseus, or, for that matter, his men, who are all dead by the time he gets home to his Penelope.
Stick around for my next post, on Monday, which is D is for Daedalus!