Sunday, February 19, 2006
CIRCE:AN ETERNAL ENIGMA
At the very onset I must apologize to the shade of Ms. Virginia Woolf for writing on a woman without being the least qualified to do so: I am not a woman, I am not a feminist and I have never immersed myself in anthropology. Not that I am a misogynist but I have seldom come across an article on Circe written by a man or a woman who depicts her without horns and a broomstick.
It was in the early 1960s when Nirad Choudhury wrote an award winning non-fiction called the Continent of Circe that aroused my interest in this charming lady. Not that I understood much of what he wrote but I gathered from my English teacher, who always donned a three piece suit even in the torrid summer, that Circe was an enchanting woman in Homer’s Odyssey who made animals out of men and held them in captivity. Like other school boys in quest of esoteric knowledge I asked some of my forward looking seniors what Circe was all about and the inevitable reply was “Don’t waste your time on that bitch, read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ instead”. I was in junior high school then and the hormones of those pubescent days had stirred inquisitiveness in me to the opposite sex; what girls did in their spare time, what books they read at leisure, how they did their coiffures, who were their heroes etc: in short what was it to be a girl. Like many boys of my class I had a crush on my mother, which I later understood to be a quasi-fatal manifestation of Oedipus complex and I imagined Circe to have bountiful breasts, not necessarily pendulous, delightful to behold and more delightful to play with and the nipples oozing milk and honey. As years rolled by, Circe remained deep in my brain and on reading E.V.Riew’s translation [in Penguin Classics] of Odyssey; I once again forayed back in time to the magic moments of my childhood to pay homage to this fascinating enchantress.
Odyssey is the story of the Greek hero Odysseus who is homebound after the fall and sack of Troy. Next to the great Achilles he is the most charismatic of the Greeks and Homer describes him variously as the resourceful, of the nimble feet and the nimble wit, the sacker of cities, the favourite of Zeus or in other words he was the quintessential male: bold in spirit and daring, and master of stratagems. For those of us who hardly ever brought any prizes from the school games he was all that we wished to be. His travails across the sea, hopping from one island to another, surviving encounters with cannibals and standing up to the very wrath of gods were all heady wine to the awe struck neophyte.
Circe, Κϊρκη in Greek, is mentioned in book 10 [chapter 10] of the Odyssey and also in book 12. Odysseus and his crew land in Circe’s island Aeaea after narrowly escaping the cannibals of Laestrygonian land. Only a solitary ship remains of the mighty flotilla that left Troy. Homer introduces Circe as the beautiful goddess with a woman’s voice. She is the daughter of the Sun, sired on Perse, offspring of the Ocean. On the third day Odysseus sets off to reconnoiter the island when he descried smoke arising from Circe’s house which stood in a clearing of the forest of oak trees. The colour of the smoke is relevant; it is red, which prompts Odysseus to return and send a team to investigate the house. Why the smoke is red in colour, Homer does not explain but surely it has something to do with Circe’s enigma: sorcery.
Next day Odysseus divided his crew into two parties and by lottery it fell on the party led by Eurylochus to explore Circe’s house. Eurylochus and his team of twenty-two men approached Circe’s house which was built of stone and were surprised to see mountain-lions and wolves roaming freely about. But instead of attacking the men, the ferocious animals came fawning to them, wagging their tails like pet dogs greeting their masters. They heard Circe singing inside the house while she was working on the loom and the music must have been seductive.
One of them called out to her and Circe appeared at the door and invited them in. Only Eurylochus, the sceptic, suspected a trap and remained outside. Circe offered the visitors chairs to sit on and then prepared their victuals. To this she added a drug she had prepared and served her guests. The unwary Greeks devoured the food with relish and promptly lost all memory of their native land. Circe took a stick in her hand and goaded them to the pigsty: the men were all turned into swine with bristles and snouts; however they retained their human intelligence. Here lay double tragedy: a human mind in an animal’s body.
Eurylochus had observed everything from the outside and he rushed back to the ship and narrated his dismal story. Odysseus and the remaining members of the crew were deeply troubled by what they heard. Odysseus girding his mighty sword on his shoulder decided to visit Circe’s house to rescue his comrades but least knew how to do so. Here Providence or, as the Greeks say, Almighty Zeus helped him. On his way he met Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, walking the other way and looking a lot younger and attractive. [Incidentally Hermes is remembered in mythology for fathering a child on Aphrodite- Hermaphrodite, a child of dubious genitals.] Homer does not mention where Hermes was coming from but the description alludes that Hermes was heading back from Circe’s where he might have shared her bed.
Godsend Hermes cautions Odysseus about Circe’s bewitching powers and gives him a potent antidote: the herb ‘moly’ which is forbidden to a mortal to pluck but Hermes being a god is empowered to do so. Furthermore Hermes tells Odysseus that on escaping transmogrification he will be invited by Circe to share her bed which he must not refuse if he wishes to bring back his fallen comrades. But Circe will have one more trick up her sleeve; that on stripping him naked she will rob him of his courage and manhood. He must immediately unscabbard his sword and rush at Circe who will then fall at his knees and plead mercy. Odysseus should make her promise by the very gods of high Olympus not to play any more tricks and to liberate the captives from her bondage.
Thus forewarned and forearmed, Odysseus reached Circe’s house and called out to her. As foretold by Hermes, Odysseus is entertained by Circe and offered a wholesome repast which the antidote moly renders harmless. Circe is astounded and she recalls a prophecy that one Odysseus returning from Troy will be proof against her ministrations. She now invites Odysseus to share her bed and understand each other better during the intimacy. Odysseus sees through Circe’s plan and as urged by Hermes rushes at her with his naked sword ready to strike. A terrified Circe falls on her knees and pleads mercy to which Odysseus agrees provided she promises not to play any more tricks and to release her captives to which she promptly consents. Circe is now a changed woman, she uses her stick and herbal paste to make the captive swine humans once again and there is a happy reunion of the crew of Eurylochus and the remaining men.
Odysseus spends one whole year in Circe’s company; Homer says ‘as noted by the change of seasons’. Odysseus the champion at Troy is treated majestically by Circe and sleeps with her during his stay at Aeaea. After a year he is reminded by his crew to return to their native Ithaca. And Odysseus sought Circe’s help for his onward journey. Circe does not hesitate to render help; she is not annoyed nor is she sad but wishes well of Odysseus and his tempest-tossed crew.
Homer’s book on Circe raises many questions the primal one being ‘was she really a witch? Witchcraft as we understand today was unknown to the ancient Greeks. A woman dabbling in decoctions and concoctions was said to possess magical powers, the power to rejuvenate the old and infirm and also bewitch unsuspecting humans. The appearance of Hermes as he passes Odysseus is that of a young boy when the beard first darkens the face. Homer does not tell us whether Hermes ate at Circe’s table or he also bedded her but as Hermes cautions Odysseus about Circe’s guiles, it may be understood that Hermes had his carnal knowledge of her.
Odysseus first has a feel of the supra-natural on seeing red smoke billowing from Circe’s house. Why the smoke was red, remains unanswered. Could it mean to symbolize something definitely Primaeval? Odysseus was no novice to blood, having fought at Troy and partaken in its sacking. Or Odysseus thought it had something to do with ‘katamene’, the blood issuing from the female without violence and said to possess mystic properties which the ancients in their innocence understood so poorly. Homer the master story-teller does not elaborate.
Why should Circe ensnare humans and turn them into animals remains a mystery. She was a goddess, a lot more powerful than any mortal and had nothing to fear from anyone. She lived in a lonely island and had only three maids for company and was totally destitute of any masculine
attention. However to those whom she was pleased to offer her sexual favours, Odysseus for example and possibly Hermes too, she bestowed an invigorating youth. It is quite possible to believe that she found most men unworthy of her bed, or to say it in plain terms, unfit to fertilize her and produce an offspring of her choice. Homer does not mention it but some other Greek playwrights tell of a son of Circe by Odysseus.
Let us look at it from another angle. Circe symbolizes the eternal woman, created at the very beginning of life, ever vigilant and ever patient, waiting and watching, relentlessly, over the shifting sands of time, like some silver crested mountain, to produce the perfect ovum which on mating will form the Super Male, the ultimate conqueror and benefactor of the Universe. What else can explain her mischievous propensity to turn men into swine or to castrate those who escaped her first attempt at bewitchment? She was searching for the perfect man, the alpha male of modern terminology, whose seed would fecundate her to produce a Son she was hoping for all these millennia.
Homer was indeed in love with this beautiful woman and like all men he was unable to understand the woman he loved. His infatuation is evident when he fails to give us any idea what Circe looked like: the shape of her head , the colour of her hair, the angle of her nose, the rondure of her breasts, the flatness of her abdomen, the music of her voice, the serenity of her eyes or the silkiness of her alabaster thighs. He gives himself away when he makes Circe do a redoubtable about turn, from being viciously evil to being simply divine and benevolent. Odysseus was no novice to the charms of a woman and had spent ten years in the tumult of a camp; he had partaken in the sack of Troy where the vanquished women were taken as war trophies. Yet he was destined by Providence to guard against the wiles of a woman who chose her bed-mates with maturity and caution. He was born to the gore and to the wanderlust as Circe was born to produce the unimpeachable offspring. Circe later on advises Odysseus to make the dangerous journey to the under-word ‘Hades’, from whose bourne no traveller returns, to seek out the soul of the prophet Tieresias and to know his destiny. She knew the answer to Odysseus’ questions yet she sent him on an arduous journey. She wanted him to see for himself the outcome of war: its total futility, its misery and its rapacity. For Circe indeed was immortal; she belonged to the past, she is in the present and she will be in the future. She understood that the male principle will, throughout its tenure on earth, be bent upon destruction of the species whereas she, the very epitome of the female principle, will be called upon to produce the perfect man who will be the repository of empyreal wisdom, [LOGOS in Greek] and our saviour. Her womb will be given the pride of place: it shall nurture and nourish Him who will recall humankind to sanity and prevent the world from utter destruction.