Odyssey: Circe's Magic

At the opening of this story, you will see a reference to the Laestrygonian king Antiphates. Earlier on their journey, Odysseus and his men had the misfortune to visit the land of the Laestrygonians, giant cannibals who ate some of Odysseus's men and destroyed eleven of his twelve ships; it was because the Laestrygonians that Odysseus and his men now have only a single ship.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Odyssey unit. Story source: Homer's Odyssey, translated into English by Tony Kline. (2004).

The Magic Spell

At this, their hearts sank, remembering Laestrygonian Antiphates, and the fierce violence of the man-eating Cyclops. They groaned aloud, and wept great tears. But all their lamentation did no good.

I split my armed comrades into two groups, each with its own leader. I took command of one, and the other was led by noble Eurylochus. Then we shook lots in a bronze helmet, and brave Eurylochus’s lot leapt out. Off he went with twenty-two tearful men, leaving us behind with our grief.

They found Circe’s house of polished stone, in a clearing in the forest glades. Round it wolves and mountain lions prowled, bewitched by Circe with her magic drugs. Instead of rushing to attack my men, they rose on their hind legs and wagged their tails. Like dogs fawning round their master, back from a feast, bringing them the titbits they enjoy, the wolves and sharp-clawed lions fawned round my men, while they seeing these dread creatures were gripped by fear.

They stood there at the gate of the goddess with lovely tresses, and they could hear Circe’s sweet voice singing inside, as she went to and fro in front of a vast divine tapestry, weaving the finely-made, lovely, shining work of the goddesses.

Then Polites, the dearest and most trusted of my friends, a man of initiative, spoke: “Friends, a woman, a goddess perhaps, is singing sweetly within, walking to and fro in front of a great tapestry, and the whole place echoes. Let’s call out to her, now.”

At that, they shouted, and called to her, and Circe came to open the shining doors, and invite them to enter: and so they innocently followed her inside.

Eurylochus alone, suspecting it was a trap, stayed behind.

She ushered the rest in, and seated them on stools and chairs, and mixed them a brew of yellow honey and Pramnian wine, with cheese and barley meal. But she mixed in wicked drugs, as well, so they might wholly forget their native land. When they had drunk the brew she gave them, she touched them with her wand, and herded them into the pigsties.  Now they had the shape and bristly hide, the features and voice of pigs, but their minds were unaltered from before. There they wept in their pens, and Circe gave them acorns, beech mast, and cornel fruit to eat, such as pigs feed on as they churn the mud.

But Eurylochus ran back to the swift black ship, to convey the news of his friends and their sad fate. Much as he wished to, he could not speak a word, his heart was so full of anguish, and his eyes filled with tears, and his mind with sorrow. Only when we questioned him, amazed, did he manage to say what had happened to his friends.

Help from Hermes

“We went through the woods, noble Odysseus, as you ordered. In a clearing in the forest glades we found a fine palace built of cut stone. Someone inside, a woman or a goddess, was singing in a clear voice as she walked to and fro, in front of a huge tapestry. The men shouted and called to her, and she came to open the shining doors, and invited them to enter: and so they innocently followed her inside. But I, suspecting it was a trap, stayed behind. Then they all disappeared, and no one emerged again, though I sat a long time watching.”

At Eurylochus’ words, I slung my great bronze silver-embossed sword over my shoulders, and my bow as well, and told him to take me there by the selfsame road. But he clutched at me with his hands, and clasped my knees, and spoke winged words, through his tears: “Favourite of Zeus, leave me here: don’t force me to return unwillingly. I know you and our comrades will never come back. Let us escape quickly with those who are still here, and we may still evade the day of evil.”

I replied: “Eurylochus, by all means stay here by the black ship’s hull, eating and drinking, but I, bound by necessity, will go.”

With this I climbed away from the ship and the shore. But as I walked through the sacred grove, towards the great house of Circe, a goddess skilled in magic potions, Hermes of the Golden Wand, in the likeness of a young man at that charming age when down first covers the cheeks, met me as I approached. He clasped me by the hand and spoke to me:

“Wretched man, where are you off to, wandering the hills of an unknown island all alone? Your friends are penned in Circe’s house, pigs in close-set sties. Have you come to free them? I tell you, you won’t return, you’ll end up like the rest. But I will save you and keep you free from harm. You must take a powerful herb with you, and go to Circe’s house, and it will ward off the day of evil. I will tell you all Circe’s fatal wiles. She will mix a drink for you, blending drugs with the food, but even so she will fail to enchant you: the powerful herb I will give you will prevent it. Let me tell you the rest. When Circe strikes you with her length of wand, draw your sharp sword and rush at her, as if you intend to kill her. She will be seized with fear. Then she’ll invite you to her bed, and don’t refuse the goddess’ favours, if you want her to free your men, and care for you too. But make her swear a solemn oath by the blessed gods that she won’t try to harm you with her mischief, lest when you are naked she robs you of courage and manhood.”

(1000 words)

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