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Circe the Beautiful Witch
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Circe ranks as one of the greatest witches from all story-telling. A beautiful enchantress, she likes nothing better than to turn men into pigs. (Some have seen her as a bit of a feminist). It is only when the wily Odysseus lands on her island that she finally meets her match.
(Many thanks to Helen Forte for permission to use her fabulous picture of Circe.)
One of our Greek Myths in the Trojan War series. As you may recall, Odysseus was on his way home from the war. He survived a nasty brush with a one eyed giant, the Cyclops, but not all of his men were so lucky. The Sea God Poseidon was angry with him, and destroyed all his ships except the one he was sailing in.
Read by Natasha. Duration 17 minutes .
Now he and his men sailed on across the wine dark sea, until once again they caught sight of an island. They slipped their boat into a snug little harbour, and there they slept for two whole days.
The following morning, Odysseus said they should explore the island and discover who lived there. At these words, his men grew afraid. They remembered the terrible Cyclops who had kept them prisoner in his cave, and had devoured some of their companions.
Odysseus divided his men into two groups, so that if one should get into trouble, the other could come and help. He was leader of one group, and Lord Eurylochus (Yuri-Locus) was the leader of the other. They drew straws to see which group should go and explore first, and as Eurylochus drew the short straw, he and his men had to set out and explore the woods.
After walking two or three hours, the men came to a clearing. They saw a little house surrounded by wild beasts – wolves, leopards, and lions. One of the leopards sprang towards Eurylochus. He thought that he was about to die, but instead of eating him, the leopard rubbed up against him like a cat and purred.
The window of the house was open, and inside a woman was singing. Her voice was mysterious but very beautiful, and the men felt themselves being drawn towards the house, for they all longed to see if the woman was as wonderful as her voice. They walked past the fierce looking beasts, who in fact were really quite tame. Inside they were greeted by tall and elegant woman, her black hair done up in braids. She did indeed look very lovely.
Her name was Circe (Sir-see) and she invited the men to sit down at her table and drink some of her soup. They readily agreed.
As they drank the soup, Eurylochus said: “When I drew the short straw I cursed my bad luck, but how wrong I was! Our hostess is not so terrible after all, eh men?”
But they did not realise that though she was beautiful, Circe was, in fact, a witch. She had slipped a magic potion into their soup, and when they had finished drinking it, she rapped the table with a magic wand and said, “Now you swine, be off to the pigsty where you belong.”
The men looked up astonished. “Madam. Did you just call us pigs?” asked Eurylochus. But Circe just laughed in reply, for the nose of Eurylochus was already growing into a pink snout, and his hands were becoming hairy trotters. In fact, all his men were swiftly turning into pigs. They tried to weep and cry out, but all they could do was to snort and squeal.
“Now do as I say,” cried Circe. “Pigs belong in the sty, not in my Kitchen. Be off with you!” And off they trotted to their new home.
When the men did not return to the ship, Odysseus grew worried, and he decided to go and search for them. He set out across the island in the direction of the smoke he had seen from the cottage. While he was walking through the woods, he met a young man – more of a boy whose beard was still soft and downy on his face.
“Stranger – what are you doing here?” asked the young man.
“I’m going in search of my men who are lost,” said Odysseus.
“No doubt they are guests of the lovely Circe. You won’t find them in her house, but outside in the pigsty. For beautiful though she is, she is really a witch and she turns men into beasts. And if you step inside her house, she will turn you into a pig too.”
“My men – turned into pigs !” exclaimed Odysseus. “Is this how you treat guests on this island?”
The young man did not reply, but he took small plant out of his knapsack and handed it to Odysseus. Its stem was black and its flower as white as milk. “Eat this,” he said. “ It will make you safe against all magic tricks and potions. The name of this plant is molly. It is dangerous for mere mortals to pluck, for only gods can take it out of the ground safely.”
And when he spoke these words, Odysseus realised that this was no ordinary young man, but Hermes the messenger of the gods. And so he ate the molly plant and went on his way.
Soon he came to the house in the woods that was guarded by wild beasts. Circe’s lovely singing voice drifted out through the window, and Odysseus walked boldly past the beasts and into the house. Inside he was greeted by the beautiful witch, who told him to sit down and try some of her soup. While she was heating it, she slipped some magic potion into the broth, for she intended to turn Odysseus into a pig like the others. She gave the soup to him, and he drank it all down, and then she took out her wand and rapped the table with it.
“Now be off with you to the sty, pig-face” she cried.
But Odysseus did not turn into a pig. Instead, he leapt to his feet, drew his sword and rushed at Circe. She, terrified, let out a shriek and fell to his feet begging for mercy.
“Please great lord. Do not take such offence. It was just my strange sense of humour. It comes from living alone for so long, here in the woods, with nothing but wild beasts for company. It is many years since I have seen a strong brave man like you. Come, let me kiss you…’
Odysseus let the beautiful witch kiss him, but all the time he was watching to see that she did not try any more of her tricks. She called her servant-girls and commanded them to prepare a bath for their visitor. They brought hot and cold water and mixed the bath until it was just right. And when Odysseus had bathed and rested, he found that they had prepared a delicious meal for him.
“Come. Why do you look so sad?” asked Circe. “Let us eat together and wash the food down with honeyed wine.”
“How can a leader eat?” asked Odysseus, “When he knows that his companions are living outside in the muddy pigsty?”
And when he spoke these words, Circe knew that it was no use pretending any longer that she was anything other than a witch. She went out to the pigsty and rubbed a magic ointment into the animals. Then she waved her wand and they began to change back into men, only younger and better looking than they were before. And then they began to weep, for what they had been through was truly terrible.
When they had recovered , Odysseus went back to the ship to fetch the rest of his men. They were all united at Circe’s house and sat down to a wonderful feast of celebration.
The Greeks stayed with with witch Circe for an entire month – and she didn’t try any more of her magic tricks on them. One morning Odysseus spoke to her, “Oh Beautiful enchantress – too long have we enjoyed your hospitality. We must continue our journey to our home on the rocky island of Ithaca. But unfortunately, we are completely lost. We do not know these seas. Can you direct us by the safest route?”
And Circe replied, “Lord Odysseus. If it were up to me, I would keep you here always – but I understand that you must be on your way to your home and your lovely wife, Queen Penelope. There is no safe route for you and your men to return home. For when you leave here, you must pass through a narrow straight between the rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis. Both are are perilous – for Scylla is a many armed monster who yelps like a dog. If you sail close to her cliffs, she will reach down and grab some of your men and shove them into her mouth. But if you sail too close to the whirlpool of Charybdis, your entire boat will be sunk down to the bottom of the sea and all of you will drown. It is a terrible choice to make but you are a leader – so plot your course as you see best. Next, if the gods permit you to pass through that dire strait, you will come to the Island of the Sun where the great sun god, Lord Apollo, keeps his herd of sacred cows. Do as I say – steer clear of the Island and do not land there. Nothing and nobody escapes the eyes of Apollo as he looks down from the sky. If you value your lives, avoid his island!”
And so Odysseus and his men said farewell to the lovely Circe and sailed on their way. After three days, just as she had foretold, they reached the narrow passage that she had described. Up on the cliffs they could hear the monster Scylla, yelping like a dog that has been left tied up for too long. As they drew nearer, they could hear the terrible gurgling sound of the whirlpool, Charybdis.
“This is indeed a terrible choice”, thought Odysseus. “But is the lesser evil is to lose some of my men, than for all of us to drown. Therefore, I must chart my course closer to the cliffs than the whirlpool.’
He did not tell his men about Scylla, in case they lost heart and put down their oars. All his mens’ eyes were on the dreadful whirlpool, gurgling like a cauldron The men rowed as hard they could, but as they passed beneath Scylla, she reached down to the ship. Odysseus fought her with his spear, desperately trying to stab at her arms, but he could not prevent her snatching up six of his men. The others rowed on, crying for their companions.
Once they passed through the strait, they saw the Island of the Sun, just as Circe had predicted.
‘Thank heavens for land!” cried the men. But Odysseus tried to tell them it was no good. The must not land, but sail on – for Circe had warned him of terrible danger should they set foot on the island belonging to the great sun god, Lord Apollo.
“Are you a slave-driver?” cried out Lord Eurylochus. “In your rush to reach home, you deny us all rest. We are still grieving for our six lost companions. You cannot order us to sail on. We will surely die of sadness and exhaustion.’
And seeing that the men meant rebellion, Odysseus allowed the ship to land with great misgiving in his heart. They found that the island was covered in green fields, and that fat cattle were grazing. The men waited for Odysseus to fall asleep and then they killed two cows and ate roast meat on the beach. But when the sun rose in the morning, bright Apollo saw what they had done, and said to Zeus, who is Lord of all the gods.
“Great Lord – I am wronged. Those rascals and ruffians who crew the ship of that tricky Greek, Odysseus, have killed the scared cattle that bring joy to my heart. If you will not punish them, I shall go down to the land of the dead and light up the gloomy underworld. No more shall I shine in the skies above the world.”
And when Zeus heard these words. he replied, “It is indeed a crime to take what rightly belongs the gods. When these men set sail tomorrow, I shall hit their boat with a burning thunderbolt.’
The next day, Odysseus told his men to set sail. When they were out out at sea, the sun disappeared behind a black cloud. The dark skies filled with lightening and an electric flash shot down from the hand of Lord Zeus and hit their boat, ripping it into two. All the men fell into the raging sea. Odysseus clung for his life to the broken mast of the ship, and somehow survived the storm. The sun shone once again on the now calm waters, and Odysseus saw land. Using his last strength, he swam into the shore and staggered onto the beach, where he fell down, exhausted.