February 22, 2014

Circé



παρεξελθοῦσα· τίς ἂν θεὸν οὐκ ἐθέλοντα
ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδοιτ᾽ ἢ ἔνθ᾽ ἢ ἔνθα κιόντα;
« She escapes our sight effortlessly ; for who indeed may gaze upon an immortal who doesn't want to be seen ? » (Ulysses, X, 570)

Circe is one of my favourites literary characters. From a very young age, I was thrown into Ulysses, that I read in my own language before learning to understand it in its original greek. The Circe episode was the most terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It is both erotica and horror story.

Circe is born from a god and a sea-goddess, but she's more of a witch than a deity. The text calls her « polypharmakos », which means an expert in both remedies and poison. She lives on the island of Aeaea, where Odysseus and his companions row to safety. The scouting party sent by Odysseus arrives first at the house of Circe, who turns them all into swine – and it is left to their leader to enter the house, having received advice and a magic herb from Hermes, and to confront the witch. Being unable to transform him as well, Circe invites him to share her bed, which he does after having been promised that she won't hurt him.

Both two divine figures whom Odysseus had affairs with are devastatingly beautiful enchantresses, but unlike Calypso, an egocentric and manipulating goddess, Circe is actually quite gentle, and does what she can to help Odysseus find his way home. She is such a good hostess and lover that the men practically have to drag Odysseus out of the palace, a full year after they arrived.

In the text, Calypso is often seen as the one who advocates the idea of the powerful feminine, but I find myself disagreeing with that. For me, Circe is the true feminist in the Odyssey. She is the one who loves the best. She is not the desperate Penelope, who waits long years for her beloved husband to return, doing nothing but embroidery ; and she is not Calypso, whose power exists solely in the cruel domination of men she draws from her sexual talent. Circe is queen of her island, but accepts her defeat ; she renounces her little games for the company of Odysseus ; she obviously falls in love, but understands that she does not own him and has to let him go. So I choose to represent her after they all left, when she's alone again, in her lonely and beautiful kingdom. Her story is tragic, because she doesn't want to be alone, but she doesn't belong to the world of men. Her name means « bird of prey », one who flies in circles above the earth, and maybe it means that she is not made for the earth. So she surrounds herself with her plants and her tricks, trying to fill the emptiness. She is definitely a dangerous and lying woman, but she's also a compassionate one, and most of all, she's evolving. In that sense, she is the most complex woman in the book.

The model for this series in the beautiful Emma Hartigan.











2 comments:

  1. "And one kiss I had of her mouth,
    as I took the apple from her hand.
    But while I bit it, my brain whirled
    and my foot stumbled; and I felt
    my crashing fall through the tangled
    boughs beneath her feet, and saw the dead
    white faces that welcomed me in the pit."
    (DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI, The Orchard-Pit)

    Quoted by Julio Cortázar in his own story: "Circe"...

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