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CIRCE

Circe is the witch living in the island of Aeaea, who was visited by the crew of heroes called the Argonauts and the Trojan War hero Odysseus. Circe was a powerful witch who, with the help of herbs, muttering incantations, or praying to her gods, could turn men into animals or create unsubstantial images of beasts. She was able to darken the heavens by hiding the moon or the sun behind clouds, and destroy her enemies with poisonous juices, calling to her aid Nyx (Night), Chaos or Hecate, goddess of the crossroads. In her presence and because of her enchantments the woods could move, the ground rumble and the trees around her turn white.

But as witchcraft may make a victim also of him or her who practices it, the nights of Circe could be wasted in fear because of the uncontrolled visions which filled her house. And so, for example, the walls and chambers of her palace could seem to be bathing in blood, while fire could seem to devour her magic herbs. That is why it was a relief for her when daylight came and she could bathe and clean her garments forgetting the scaring nightly visions.

If these were visions, those who came to her abode could hallucinate as much as she did, and if not, her world was in fact transformed. For Circe is said to have been surrounded by all kinds of beasts which cannot be seen elsewhere, having an appearance which reminds of what earth produced out of primeval slime. And yet, when others came to the palace of Circe, they also saw many beasts, but of the regular kind, that is, such as lions, bears and wolves, which however, acted as domesticated animals showing their kindness by wagging their tails. Some say these were actually the drugged victims of Circe.

The witch Circe, whose hair resembled flames, lived in Aeaea, an island which could be located off the western or eastern coast of Italy, where she was brought by her father Helius. The name of this elusive island is what some call a palindrome, for it is the same when read backwards or forwards.

Some of those who visited Aeaea have told that Circe, who lived in a house made of stone in the middle of a clearing in a forest dell, used to sit on a throne wearing a purple robe and a golden veil. They said that her attendants were Nereids and Nymphs, whose only task to sort out the plants and flowers of Circe's herbarium, and put them in separate baskets.

Besides supervising them Circe, while singing beautifully, wove delicate and dazzling fabrics, which is one of the goddesses' favorite occupations. Others have said that Circe was attended by four maids, one who threw covers over the chairs, another who drew silver tables up to the chairs, placing golden baskets on them, another who mixed the wine, and a fourth who fetched water and lit up the fire to warm it.

Circe fell in love with Glaucus, brother of the Nereids, who some say had once been a mortal fisherman but afterwards became a sea-deity by chewing a plant. However Glaucus loved Scylla, who was a most beautiful young woman, and when she went to bathe in the sea, Circe, out of jealousy, poisoned the water with her magic drugs. This is how the beautiful girl became a monster with the face and breast of a woman but having in her flanks six heads and twelve feet of dogs, and a danger for ships passing the strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy.

It is in the neighbourhood of Circaeum, when the witch Circe was once gathering herbs, that she met Picus and instantly fell in love with him. This Picus, son of Cronos, was a demigod living on the Aventine hill. He also used powerful drugs and practiced clever incantations, being able to play many tricks. Circe loved him, but he, being in love with the singer Canens, daughter of Janus, refused her. Turning twice to the east and twice to the west while touching Picus thrice with her wand as she sang her charms, Circe turned him into a woodpecker.

And after this she populated the surroundings with many beasts, for Picus' friends coming to her and asking for the young man, were all transformed by her into animals of many shapes, while Canens, in grief for Picus' absence, melted away in tears and vanished.

The island of Circe was visited by the Argonauts, when they were escaping the Colchian fleet. Some say that Medea, who was with Jason and the Argonauts, wished to visit her aunt, but others have said that it was the ship "Argo" itself which instructed them to come to Circe and be purified for the assassination of Medea's brother Apsyrtus. Others say that Zeus himself was seized by wrath when he learned about the ruthless murder of Apsyrtus, and he ordered that the Argonauts should be cleansed by Circe. In any case Medea and the Argonauts could leave Aeaea purified by the witch.

It was in great despair and exhaustion that Odysseus and his crew arrived to Aeaea, for they had barely escaped the Cyclops Polyphemus and the cannibals in the land of the Laestrygonians. After resting on the beach for three days Odysseus, who had seen a wisp of smoke in the distance, divided his men in two groups and sent Eurylochus with twenty two men to explore the terrain.

When Eurylochus's party found Circe's house, the witch invited them to enter and all of them followed her except captain Eurylochus, for he, suspecting a trap, stayed outside. Those who came in Circe treated with a mixture of cheese, barley meal, and honey flavored with Pramnian wine, to which she added a powerful drug to make them forgetful of their native land. When they had eaten their meal she struck them with her wand, and driving them off, put them in the pig sties, for they now looked like swine and grunted exactly like pigs, though their minds were unchanged.

When this happened Eurylochus hastened back to the beach and reported to Odysseus that his whole party had vanished. And when Odysseus decided to go to Circe's house there was no way to convince Eurylochus to make his way back to the house of the witch.

So Odysseus went by himself and in his way to Circe's he met Hermes who, while giving him an antidote (a plant called Moly with black root and white flower), which would rob Circe's drugs of its power, told him to oppose his sword to her wand, for she, fearing for her life, would shrink from him in terror and invite him to her bed. Hermes also advised Odysseus to accept Circe's favors while making her swear an oath not to try any more tricks, for otherwise, Hermes said, she could rob him of his courage and manhood.

That is how Odysseus could take Circe by surprise, and when she was threatened by him she remembered that Hermes had once told her of the arrival of this man to her island. And as Hermes had predicted she invited him to her bed:

"...so that in love and sleep we may learn to trust
one another." (Circe to Odysseus)

and then Odysseus persuaded her to free his comrades. Circe then smeared their pig heads with a salve and they became men again, some say even more handsome and taller than before. And from that moment there was friendship between Circe and Odysseus' crew, and charmed by the hospitality of the witch they stayed with her for a whole year.

When the year had passed and Odysseus beseeched her to keep her promise and send him home to Ithaca, Circe told him that before she could do that, he would have to make a journey to the Underworld and consult the soul of the seer Tiresias about the outcome of his wanderings.

And this was the first time a ship sailed to Hades, blown by the North Wind (Boreas), and Odysseus was given by Circe all the instructions necessary to reach the Underworld, where to beach his boat, and how to proceed in order to meet the souls of the dead.

Returning from Hades the ship of Odysseus put in at Aeaea once more, where the whole crew sat with Circe and feasted on a rich supply of meat and wine. At night Odysseus and Circe retired and, before his departure the day after, she described for him the dangers that still awaited, instructing him as how to avoid the SIRENS and still listen to their enchanting song, and warning him, among other things, about the rocks that are the abode of Scylla & Charybdis.

Circe, they say, had children by Odysseus, perhaps too many considering the time he spent in Aeaea, but goddesses, and even witches, may perform miracles.

When Telegonus, who others call son of Calypso, learned from his mother Circe that he was a son of Odysseus, he sailed in search of his father. Having come to Ithaca, he drove away some cattle, and when Odysseus defended them, Telegonus wounded him with a spear and Odysseus died of the wound. Telegonus bitterly lamented what he had done, but it is said that he was made immortal by Circe and sent to the Islands of the Blest together with Penelope.

Faunus was another child of Circe. This is the Half-goat god who was king of Latium and that is sometimes identified with Pan or with a Satyr. Some say he was a son of Picus & Canens, the daughter of Janus and the Nymph Venilia.

 

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