Sunday 24 February 2013

Snowdrops, Swine and Seductive Sorceresses

The banks of the lanes around here are absolutely strewn with snowdrops at present.  It is the most lovely sight, the carpets of white aping snow yet heralding the buds of spring within our grasp.  One thing I have learnt this week is that the snowdrop may indeed be 'holy moly' which I thought was a made-up phrase used by Batman, but actually refers to a herb used by Odysseus to resist the charms of the subject of today's post, Circe.

Circe (1891) John William Waterhouse
Once upon a time, in the midst of a dark forest dwelt a beautiful sorceress by the name of Circe.  She was the daughter of Helios, the God of the Sun and an Oceanid, Perse, and her siblings included the keeper of the Golden Fleece and the mother of the Minotaur.  Circe murdered her husband and was cast out to live alone on an island, where she practiced witchcraft, turning her enemies (or anyone she perceived to be her enemy) into animals.  Her mansion was guarded by tame beasts, lions and wolves, victims of her magic.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Victorians and Edwardians used the image of Circe in their art.  The figure of a beautiful witch is a loaded image, at once both dangerous, alluring, attractive and repellent.  Could you resist her?  What would be the consequences, and would they be worth it?  Look at Waterhouse's vision of her above: her astonishing beauty is barely covered by the mist of blue fabric as she raises her wand, but look at her feet.  There huddles a little dark pig, snoozing peacefully.  When Odysseus' men went to her mansion for a feast, she turned them into swine.  Only Odysseus, protected by the holy herb moly managed to resist her potion.

Circe (1911-14) John William Waterhouse
Waterhouse produced three images of Circe, similar to his obsession with the Lady of Shalott and Ophelia.  I think there is a similarity between the mood of his Shalott images and the picture of Circe above.  She seems to be surrounded by beautiful things, but a sadness, a loneliness pervades the scene.  Different from other images of Circe, she is not engaged in any magic, just in contemplating her life, which is not altogether happy.  She is often described as weaving, again reminiscent of the Lady of Shalott, but also reflects Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who stayed at her loom while her husband was away,spending a year in the bed of Circe.

Circe Resplendens (1913) Margaret Murray-Cookesely
Many images of Circe are just an excuse to show a beautiful sorceress, barely dressed, which was common shorthand for women of dubious moral character.  When Odysseus returns to free his men from their swine-hood, he is warned that the tricksy Circe will offer to take him to bed, but to remain on his guard as her treachery extends even to there.  Odysseus and Circe form an alliance and she even gives him direction to get through difficult waters on his journeys.  However, this isn't the only story connected to the Goddess...

Circe Invidiosa (1892) J W Waterhouse
Waterhouse's other image of Circe shows her pouring a potion into the water, in a chilling explosion of jewel-blues and liquid emerald greens.  The Sea God Glaucus asked Circe to make the beautiful nymph Scylla fall in love with him, but Circe fell in love with the Sea God herself. When she tried to win the affection of Glaucus, he said that trees would grow on the ocean floor before he would love her and in her anger, Circe poured her potion into the sea where Scylla swam, but it transformed the nymph into a hideous monster with six heads.

Circe and Scylla (1886) John Melhuish Strudwick
The sepia tones have a calm, warm appearance to this chilling tale, as the sorceress passively hands her evil over to the water, which for the briefest moment cloud, but then clears to the mirrored surface that lures the beautiful Scylla.  In the background, the nymph is about to plunge into the shiny mirror that will rob her of her beauty, but our gaze is drawn to the statuesque, calm figure, wreaking vengeance for her thwarted desire.

The Wine of Circe (1863-69) Edward Burne-Jones
Turning back to the main legend connected to Circe, the image by Burne-Jones (for which Rossetti wrote a sonnet) shows past and future lovers/victims of Circe's power in the form of the big cats in the foreground and the ships in the background.  The bevy of sunflowers reflect Circe's father, the Sun God, and the dark plant in the top right is possibly a plant of the Ciraea, or enchanter's nightshade, genus.  I like how Circe is bent over by the narrowness of the image, but also by her own wickedness.  She adopts the familiar 'bent crone' stance of a witch, but her beauty and brilliance is at odds with this.

Circe John Collier
Circe (1889) Wright Barker
Not all images of Circe give such complex narratives.  Much of the work of Victorian artists concentrated on the more luxuriant, debauched nature of the glamorous witch.  Like Lilith, a depraved woman with accessories of such richness has an attraction unlike anything else.  John Collier pairs her with a tiger, huge and glorious, and Barker shows a collection of beautiful beasts at the command of this elegant woman.  Barker's picture has some disquieting aspects beautifully rendered: One of her unfortunate victim is only a skin on her floor, warming her feet as she descends.  Also, look at her scarf, swirling up behind her, it looks almost like dark wings.

Circe (1860) Charles Gumery
Circe Edgar Bertram MacKennal

I'm getting quite a passion for sculpture, although it is hard to talk about it using only two dimensional images.  Possibly one of these days I will make a little film about one of the wonderful sculptures I have seen of late, and walk around it with you so we can appreciate all angles.  Circe is definitely a woman who has a lot of appreciable angles.  In Gumery's sculpture, she stands proud with wand and accoutrements of magic casually strewn around her.  MacKennal's sorceress is a far more formidable creature in shining night-black, her arms outstretched in a mock-embrace of deadly magic.  I find the appeal/repel of Circe works especially well in MacKennal's vision as you feel compelled to touch that slick, shiny surface, the tactile, smooth curves inviting you in, yet her power, actively imagined in her gesture, should be enough to drive you away.

Circe (1904) Gustave Mossa
There is an aspect of Circe that is rarely explore in art, here reflected in Mossa's rendering of the subject.  No matter how powerful her magic, she achieves nothing ultimately except her own self-destruction by her evil.  The expression on her face in Mossa's 1904 work is one of boredom and resignation.  Her expectation of people is not high, she expects them to be pigs and so that is what she turns them into, fulfilling her own pessimistic prophecy.  Look at the hand to the right, almost clawing into the pig expressing the tension absent from her face.

In Mossa's work, I feel that Circe is almost in contemporary dress, her hair piled up in Edwardian style.  There is a modern hint to the tale, but one artist went further...

Circe the Temptress (1881) Charles Hermans
Hermans shows a modern Circe, resplendent and shining, challenging us with her dark gaze as a helpless victim slumps behind her.  His wine has spilt in front of him, looking like blood on the tablecloth, the potion already taking effect.  Possibly the story Hermans tells is more straightforward than that; she is a woman that has the power to make men act like animals, like fools.  There is something in her powerful, astonishing beauty that will crush all hope of her ever finding an equal.  She will reduce men to beasts, either consciously or unconsciously and they will be damned because they cannot control themselves in her presence.

 The Temptress that faces us expects to be disappointed in us.  No matter how beautiful she is, we fear her because deep down we know she is right.


  1. "Circe Invidiosa" is my favorite. "Invidiosa" means "jealous". I love the intensity of this piece. You can feel her intent coming off her in waves, mirrored by the wavelets at her feet. I also love that most of the depictions of Circe show her dark-haired. Mwahahahahahhh!

  2. What a lovely post - you are an excellent writer! I love the Odyssey and Circe is perhaps my favourite character, for she is quite complex; you don't know whether to be scared or feel pity for her. Waterhouse's depictions of Circe are a favourite of mine (I have done a post on them here: Thankyou for introducing me to that beautiful version by Charles Hermans - rather unusual yet really stunning!

  3. Thank you for your comments. Obviously the Waterhouses are stunning, but I am a convert to Hermans. She is stunning!

  4. Excellent post, Kirsty. They were selling Circe Invidiosa bookmarks at the RA during their Waterhouse exhibition, which are treasurable items. Like you, I love the MacKennal sculpture. I have emailed you a picture of Alfred Drury's version of the subject. Since that photo was taken she's been taken indoors and restored, which I suppose is a good thing, but she's a much-missed bit of Leeds' street scene.

  5. Fab post ~ fantastic images :)

  6. Thank you Simon, I shall pop her on the Stunner's Boudoir on Facebook if anyone fancies a look. Really, the amount of nudity that goes on in my inbox is quite scandalous!

  7. Waterhouse's "Circe Invidiosa" is one of my all-time favorite paintings, for both the composition and the gorgeous greens and blues. Where can I learn more about Wright Barker? I've never seen that painting before, and a quick google search yields little information.

  8. As a witchy (but less crabby and murderous) lady, I've always liked depictions of Circe... I'd like to accumulate a nice collection of Circe-themed prints, but I'm running out of hanging-space in my apartment. This one is not a specifically-Circe witch, but Mr. Martinez seems certainly inspired by various depictions of Circe and other witches in this depiction... And he's a modern artist that I actually like.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx