Odysseus and Circe

From Gerald R. Lucas

Several themes and scenes from book nine are paralleled in book ten. The theme of hospitality that began book nine also begins book ten on Aeolia, domain of the wind king Aeolus who takes pity on Odysseus and gives him a bag of winds, perhaps an appropriate gift for the tactician. Yet, just in site of home, his crew, another parallel of their imprudent natures, wait until Odysseus is asleep and let all the winds out of the bag, reminiscent of Pandora’s Box. Odysseus and crew are hurtled back to Aeolia where they once again seek Aeolus’ assistance. He banishes Odysseus from the island, an appropriate response to someone out of favor with the gods; perhaps this is a hint that the listeners of Phaeacia should take?

Circe by Wright Barker, 1889.

After a brief encounter with the cannibalistic Laistrygonians, a parallel to the cyclops though this time much more deadly, Odysseus and his remaining ship land on Aiaia, home of Circe. This time, after his recent encounters, Odysseus takes “counsel with myself,” suggesting his growing apprehension and distrust toward his crew, showing Odysseus perhaps at a low point on his journeys: trustful only of himself, growing more like the unsociable cyclops who are also fretful and distrusting of community. Instead of taking the initiative to lead the exploration of this island, he sends his crew ahead, perhaps a prudent move in light of his recent misadventures. Yet, his crew, led by Eurylokhos, are also distrustful of Odysseus, and show their trepidation through tears. To make his command seem fair, Odysseus lets them choose lots to see who will explore, and Eurylokhos and his platoon lose.

The crew encounters an open glade that parallels the Lotos Eaters: carnivores — wolves and mountain lions — lay passive, suggesting a Garden of Eden before the fall. These hunters are like tamed beasts in a circus, wanting only petting and tacit acknowledgment from their masters. It’s as if the beasts had partaken of the lotos and forgotten their fiercer natures; they have fed, in Odysseus’ words, on a “drug of evil” that caused them to become tame and without purpose. This fact should have been a hint to Odysseus’ men, yet only Eurylokhos is able to escape and report back to Odysseus.

This scene also foreshadows the sirens in book twelve: Circe sings with her “beguiling voice” to lure them men into her trap — “to make them lose / desire or thought of our dear father land.”[2] Not only that, but they seem to metamorphose into pigs, perhaps a representation of their true natures: beasts for slaughter, which they eventually turn out to be. One might also tease this metaphor out a bit more by suggesting the masculine principle that seems to guide much of the Odyssey is not altogether fair to the women of this world. Men are pigs, and women are something less — the property of pigs. Circe, then, becomes a witch because she does not conform to the cultural standard of the time: living by herself on an island, isolated from human community and and its cultural imperatives imposed on women.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

Well, it’s up to Odysseus now to take a leader’s responsibility to help his men by subduing the vile temptress. On his way to her lair, Odysseus claims to have met Hermes, who gives him the molü — a magic plant — to defeat her potion. Hermes also gives him the directive bed her: “she will cower and yield her bed— / a pleasure you must not decline.”[3] How about that: divine sanction for seduction; how can Odysseus refuse? Do this, warns Hermes, or be “unmanned by her as well”;[4] apparently, Odysseus is to give her what she needs. Armed with Hermes’ warning and amulet, Odysseus approaches Circe and drinks her potion, but Odysseus was ready for her “unholy drug”:

Without a word, I drew my sharpened sword
and in one bound held it against her throat.
She cried out, then slid under to take my knees,
catching her breath to say, in her distress:
[. . .]
“Hale must your heart be and you tempered will.
Odysseus then you are, O great contender,
[. . .]
Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.”[5]

Ugh, OK — only because Hermes told me to. It seems that Circe succumbs pretty easily, from a vile witch to having a “flawless bed of love.”[6] Are we to take Odysseus at his word, here? Remember, he is narrating this story, and he would not necessarily look good to his listeners if he told of her rape; she needs to be willing, it seems, in order for Odysseus to look the hero and impose his male order to Circe’s domain. Perhaps she is not such a threat after all?

So while Odysseus and Circe mingle in her bed, Odysseus’ men still languish in the pigs’ sty. After sex, Odysseus seems down, and Circe enquires “Why sit at table mute, Odysseus?” Isn’t that just like a man: he gets what he wants, then has nothing left to say. Turns out that he is thinking of the guys, like a good captain should, no? He doesn’t want to be here eating with Circe; he’d rather be down at the pub quaffing a few pints with the lads. With this, since Odysseus is now master, Circe at once turns his men from pigs back into men and allows them to dine with them as humans should. And being men, they could not help consenting.[7]

All expect Eurylokhos, who remains shrewdly dubious, enough that he challenges Odysseus. Yet, even Eurylokhos’ protests could not convince the men that Odysseus does not have their best intentions at heart:

Where now, poor remnants? is it devil’s work
you long for? Will you go to Circe’s hall?
Swine, wolves, and lions she will make us all,
beasts of her courtyard, bound by her enchantment.
Remember those the Cyclops held, remember
shipmates who made that visit with Odysseus!
The daring men! They die for his foolishness!

Eurylokhos seems to have a point, but the men do not listen to him, and Odysseus is ready to to kill him to silence his perfidy. Yet, despite Eurylokhos’ wisdom, the crew returns to thew hall of Circe, followed by the reluctant Eurylokhos.

While seemingly a minor insurrection, this episode suggests what Odysseus’ greatest weakness truly is: his responsibility to his community versus his own individual desires. At this point, Odysseus seems blind to this weakness, but events will unfold that seem to teach him that, unlike Achilles desire for personal fame in the Trojan War, Odysseus must sublimate his own desires in order to be an effective leader, husband, and father. Yet, before he can do this, he must overcome his own personal lotos.

Upon returning to Circe’s hall, she encourages the men to take their ease with her:

Circe by Frederick Stuart Church, 1910.

“Remain with me, and share my meat and wine;
restore behind your ribs those gallant hearts
that served you in the old days, when you sailed
from stony Ithaka. Now parched and spent,
your cruel wandering is all you think of,
never of joy, after so many blows.”
As we were men we could not help consenting.
So day by day we lingered, feasting long
on roasts and wine, until a year grew fat.[8]

They stay on Aiaia for the better part of a year, seeming to forget thoughts of home and duty. What does this remind us of? Yet, it seems that only the captain is caught in this trance, for Odysseus’ men must finally remind him of his duty: “Captain, shake off this trance, and think of home— / if home indeed awaits us, if we shall ever see your own well-timbered hall on Ithaka.”[9] With a “pang,” Odysseus is awakened from his dalliance, and tells Circe — in her flawless bed of love — that he must depart. While Odysseus relates her answer as very level-headed, she essentially tells him to go to hell — appealing to his adventurous nature, Circe tells Odysseus that he must venture into the underworld to hear the prophecy of the blind seer Tiresias, a journey from which she thinks he will not return (more on this later). Perhaps, even after his manly conquering of Circe, the latter was more victorious than Odysseus might lead us to believe.

Book Ten ends with the Elpinor episode, further suggesting the lesson that Odysseus has to learn in order to finally arrive safely home. But first, the epic hero must journey within himself in a archetypal descent to hell so that he can be reborn with a better knowledge of himself.

Notes

  1. Originally written on 09/13/2003 04:13:12 PM
  2. X.260–261
  3. X.334–335
  4. X.340
  5. X.361–378
  6. X.390
  7. X.452
  8. X.497–505
  9. X.521–522