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  • Circe in the arts

    Circe in the arts


    • The sorceress Circe is a figure from Greek mythology whose father was the sun (Helios) and whose mother was an ocean nymph. She appears in three separate stories. The best known is when Odysseus visits her island of Aeaea on the way back from the Trojan War and she changes most of his crew into swine. He forces her to return them to human shape, lives with her for a year and has a child called Telegonus by her. Her ability to change others into animals is further highlighted by the story of Picus, an Italian king whom she turns into a woodpecker for resisting her advances. Another story makes her fall in love with the sea-god Glaucus, who prefers the nymph Scylla to her. In revenge, Circe poisoned the water where her rival bathed and turned her into a monster.

      In the eyes of those from a later age, this behaviour made her notorious both as a magician and as a type of the sexually free woman. As such she has been frequently depicted in all the arts from the Renaissance down to modern times. Among women she has been portrayed more sympathetically.

      One of the most enduring literary themes connected with the figure of Circe was her ability to change men into animals. There was much speculation concerning how this could be, whether the human consciousness changed at the same time, and even whether it was a change for the better. In the first century CE, Plutarch took up the theme in a lively dialogue that was later to have several imitators. Contained in his Moralia is the Gryllus episode in which Circe allows Odysseus to interview a fellow Greek turned into a pig. There his interlocutor informs Odysseus that his present existence is preferable to the human. They then engage in a philosophical dialogue in which every human value is questioned and beasts are proved to be of superior wisdom and virtue.

      The Gryllus dialogue was taken up by another Italian writer, Giovan Battista Gelli, in his La Circe (1549). This is a series of ten philosophical and moral dialogues between Ulysses and the humans transformed into various animals, ranging from an oyster to an elephant, in which Circe sometimes joins. Most argue against changing back; only the last animal, a philosopher in its former existence, wants to. The English poet Edmund Spenser also makes reference to Plutarch's dialogue in the section of his Faerie Queene (1590) based on the Circe episode which appears at the end of Book II. Sir Guyon changes back the victims of Acrasia's erotic frenzy in the Bower of Bliss, most of whom are abashed at their fall from chivalric grace,



      But one above the rest in speciall,
      That had an hog beene late, hight Grille by name,
      Repined greatly, and did him miscall,
      That had from hoggish forme him brought to naturall.
      But one above the rest in speciall,
      That had an hog beene late, hight Grille by name,
      Repined greatly, and did him miscall,
      That had from hoggish forme him brought to naturall.
      But one above the rest in speciall,
      That had an hog beene late, hight Grille by name,
      Repined greatly, and did him miscall,
      That had from hoggish forme him brought to naturall.
      But one above the rest in speciall,
      That had an hog beene late, hight Grille by name,
      Repined greatly, and did him miscall,
      That had from hoggish forme him brought to naturall.
      Asses in the town square, asses in the suburbs,
      Asses in the provinces, asses proud at court,
      Asses browsing in the meadows, military asses trooping,
      Asses tripping it at balls, asses in the theatre stalls.
      Asses in the town square, asses in the suburbs,
      Asses in the provinces, asses proud at court,
      Asses browsing in the meadows, military asses trooping,
      Asses tripping it at balls, asses in the theatre stalls.
      Asses in the town square, asses in the suburbs,
      Asses in the provinces, asses proud at court,
      Asses browsing in the meadows, military asses trooping,
      Asses tripping it at balls, asses in the theatre stalls.
      Asses in the town square, asses in the suburbs,
      Asses in the provinces, asses proud at court,
      Asses browsing in the meadows, military asses trooping,
      Asses tripping it at balls, asses in the theatre stalls.
      When Mortals from the path of Honour stray,
      And the strong passions over reason sway,
      What are they then but Brutes?
      ‘Tis vice alone that constitutes
      Th’enchanting wand and magic bowl,
      The exterior form of Man they wear,
      But are in fact both Wolf and Bear,
      The transformation’s in the Soul.
      When Mortals from the path of Honour stray,
      And the strong passions over reason sway,
      What are they then but Brutes?
      ‘Tis vice alone that constitutes
      Th’enchanting wand and magic bowl,
      The exterior form of Man they wear,
      But are in fact both Wolf and Bear,
      The transformation’s in the Soul.
      Head, face and members bristle into swine,
      Still cursed with sense, their mind remains alone.
      Head, face and members bristle into swine,
      Still cursed with sense, their mind remains alone.
      Head, face and members bristle into swine,
      Still cursed with sense, their mind remains alone.
      Head, face and members bristle into swine,
      Still cursed with sense, their mind remains alone.
      But any draught, pure water, natural wine,
      out of my cup, revealed them to themselves
      and to each other. Change? there was no change;
      only disguise gone from them unawares.
      But any draught, pure water, natural wine,
      out of my cup, revealed them to themselves
      and to each other. Change? there was no change;
      only disguise gone from them unawares.
      But any draught, pure water, natural wine,
      out of my cup, revealed them to themselves
      and to each other. Change? there was no change;
      only disguise gone from them unawares.
      But any draught, pure water, natural wine,
      out of my cup, revealed them to themselves
      and to each other. Change? there was no change;
      only disguise gone from them unawares.
      With twisted hands and thighs we rolled on burning sands,
      a hanging mess of hissing vipers glued in sun!...
      Farewell the brilliant voyage, ended! Prow and soul
      moored in the muddy port of the contented beast!
      O prodigal, much-traveled soul, is this your country?"
      With twisted hands and thighs we rolled on burning sands,
      a hanging mess of hissing vipers glued in sun!...
      Farewell the brilliant voyage, ended! Prow and soul
      moored in the muddy port of the contented beast!
      O prodigal, much-traveled soul, is this your country?"
      With twisted hands and thighs we rolled on burning sands,
      a hanging mess of hissing vipers glued in sun!...
      Farewell the brilliant voyage, ended! Prow and soul
      moored in the muddy port of the contented beast!
      O prodigal, much-traveled soul, is this your country?"
      A myriad vapours obscure the light,
      The stars of the night interrupt their course,
      Astonished rivers retreat to their source
      And even Death’s god trembles in the dark.
      A myriad vapours obscure the light,
      The stars of the night interrupt their course,
      Astonished rivers retreat to their source
      And even Death’s god trembles in the dark.
      A myriad vapours obscure the light,
      The stars of the night interrupt their course,
      Astonished rivers retreat to their source
      And even Death’s god trembles in the dark.
      A myriad vapours obscure the light,
      The stars of the night interrupt their course,
      Astonished rivers retreat to their source
      And even Death’s god trembles in the dark.
      A myriad vapours obscure the light,
      The stars of the night interrupt their course,
      Astonished rivers retreat to their source
      And even Death’s god trembles in the dark.
      The daughter of the Sun , whose charmed cup
      Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape
      And downward fell into a grovelling swine,
      The daughter of the Sun , whose charmed cup
      Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape
      And downward fell into a grovelling swine,
      The daughter of the Sun , whose charmed cup
      Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape
      And downward fell into a grovelling swine,
      The daughter of the Sun , whose charmed cup
      Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape
      And downward fell into a grovelling swine,
      • Alcina in the Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland, 1516, 1532) of Ludovico Ariosto, set at the time of Charlemagne. Among its many sub-plots is the episode in which the Saracen champion Ruggiero is taken captive by the sorceress and has to be freed from her magic island.
      • The lovers of Filidia in Il Tancredi (1632) by Ascanio Grandi (1567–1647) have been changed into monsters and are liberated by the virtuous Tancred.
      • Armida in Torquato Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1566-1575, published 1580) is a Saracen sorceress sent by the infernal senate to sow discord among the Crusaders camped before Jerusalem, where she succeeds in changing a party of them into animals. Planning to assassinate the hero, Rinaldo, she falls in love with him instead and creates an enchanted garden where she holds him a lovesick prisoner who has forgotten his former identity.
      • Acrasia in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, mentioned above, is a seductress of knights and holds them enchanted in her Bower of Bliss.
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