“There was a time when divine Calypso kept me within her arching caverns and would have had me to be her husband, and another time subtle Circe confined me in her palace and would have had me for husband also. Yet neither of them could win the heart within me.” Odysseus says to King Alcinous.
The thing that I like about Circe is how self-sufficient she is. She has her own house which she manages to her liking, she is surrounded by her books and potions and she turns rude guests into animals. She manages this while still letting Odysseus believe that he was the one who dumps her and that she is the one who is not good enough to win his heart – thus keeping his heroic ego intact.
Like Calypso, Circe is also “a goddess with braided hair, with human speech and with strange powers”. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun-god and Perse, Oceanus’ daughter. Odysseus and his men brings the ship to the shore of her island, disembark and for two days and nights lay there “eating out our hearts with sorrow and weariness,” Odysseus says.
On the third day, Odysseus takes his weapons and hastens up to a vantage-point, hoping to see some human handiwork or to catch the sound of some human speech. “I climbed a commanding crag, and from where I stood had a glimpse of smoke rising from the ground. There were gleams of fire through the smoke, and at sight of this I wondered inwardly whether to go and look. But as I pondered, it seemed a wiser thing to return first to my vessel on the beach, give my men a meal and then send them out to spy.”
Later, Odysseus divides his crew into two companies, and gives each its own leader. He captains one and Eurylochus the other. Then they shake the lots in a bronze helmet, and the lot that leaps out was that of Eurylochus. So he goes on his way with twenty-two men with him. In the glades they found the palace of Circe, built of smooth stones on open ground. Outside, there were lions and mountain wolves that she had bewitched by giving them magic drugs.
From the outer doors, the men can hear Circe singing with her beautiful voice “delicate, gleaming, delectable, as a goddess’ handiwork needs must be – a goddess or a woman, moving to and fro at her wide web and singing a lovely song that the whole floor re-echoes with.”
Then the peeping men made themselves heard and Circe invites them in. The all enter except for Eurylochus. After playing the role of a good hostes, Circe turns the men into pigs. “And now the men had the form of swine – the snout and grunt and bristles; only their minds were left unchanged. They shed tears as they were shut in.” However, Circe is not going to let them starve. She still feeds them.
Eurylochus comes back to tell the others what happened. Odysseus gets his sword and bow, and asks him to guide him back by the same path. But Eurylochus is too scared. So Odysseus allows him to stay on the ship while he goes to see the woman.
“And with that,” Odysseus says, “I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Circe’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; … He seized my hand and spoke thus to me : ‘Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know?” Hermes helps Odysseus by giving him a magic herb. “She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point. When Circe strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest.” In short: trick her, threaten her and sleep with her.
Later, after Odysseus follows all Hermes’ advice, he is treated by Circe’s hospitality. “She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating, and I sat with my thoughts elsewhere and my mind unquiet.” Odysseus says, because “what man of righteous thoughts could bring himself to taste food or drink before winning liberty for his friends and seeing the men before his eyes?”
Circe then releases Odysseus’ men and send them all off on their way. Perhaps noticing that since they arrive they have done nothing but eating her food and demand things from her.
I will leave the story there. But this is what we can learn from Circe. She lives alone happily and makes herself a wonderful home. Of course, men comes and go and she could have had them as her husband/companion. But she has standards. Odysseus’ men are noisy and greedy so she turns them into swines. Even then she still treats them kindly by giving them food and letting them live. Odysseus only manages to get close to her with Hermes’ help, but even then she quickly realises that she is giving Odysseus much more than what he could ever offer her in return. So she says “… is your mind then set on further perils, fresh feats of war?” and sends him on his way.
This post originally appears on www.martinifisher.com as part 3 of the Charm of the Enchantress series