Circe’s Isle

Psst… Hey, you. Come here. You looking for some potions? I know somebody that can help. Just read on…

Circe. “Who is she?” You may ask. Her name rings a bell. She was a Titaness, an early goddess, predecessor of the Olympian pantheon of gods like Zeus. She possessed the gifts of sorcery and potion crafting and could make love potions and happiness elixirs. But be careful around her because she is one impetuous trollop.

Circe. John William Waterhouse: The Sorceress

Picture it: Sicily, 9022 B.C. Circe, who is also the daughter of the Sun who sees all that happens during the day, finds out that the goddess Venus is having a love affair behind her husband Vulcan’s back. She starts gossiping with all the other gods about this and Vulcan finds out. So, Vulcan, god of forging, crafts a trap and catches Venus and her paramour Mars, god of war, in a net hanging upside down. This totally embarrasses the Olympian Venus. So, she decides to get revenge. Being the goddess of love, Venus fills Circe with an insatiable lust for men making her fall in love with every man she meets, especially married men.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse, 1910
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse, 1910

If you have heard of Scylla of Scylla and the Charybdis fame, or even of the common woodpecker, then you are already familiar with Circe’s work. Of course, she was in The Odyssey, too, as the seducer of Odysseus’ men until Hermes helped Odysseus escape her island by freeing him from Circe’s trance that had trapped him in a long love affair with the sorceress. But I digress…

Now, I do not know what Circe looked like, but to avoid her spite, I would venture to guess she was no less radiant and soft-white than the full moon at its brightest in the darkest of night with ruby red lips and cheeks blushed like blossoming roses. But it would have mattered no less if she were a vision of beauty or a withered old hag for her skills in sorcery were so masterful that she could will her way however she pleased with just a potion or spell.

So, how did Venus’s curse come into play here? Circe was subject to fall in love often with just about every handsome boy she ever met. Trouble was, these boys usually came to her in search of love potions for the girls they adored elsewhere. And that was the case with the virgin girl Scylla and Glaucus, the male mermaid god who loved her.

Glaucus and Scylla "Glaucus et Scylla" de Jacques Dumont dit Le Romain. Huile sur toile vers 1720~1780

In short, Scylla was a virgin princess who refused all suitors and wanted only to play with the sea nymphs on the shores of her father’s kingdom. Glaucus, a once-mortal human who had turned into an immortal mermaid, fell in love with her and, wanting her love, sought Circe for help. When Glaucus arrived at Circe’s isle asking for a love potion to woo Scylla, Circe offered her own love instead. Why try to convince a stubborn girl who wants nothing to do with love or men? Circe said. Glaucus stood fast in his intent to win over Scylla. So, spurning Circe’s desires, Glaucus rejected her and thusly inspired her ire.

John William Waterhouse: Circe Invidiosa: Jealous Circe

Circe’s bitterness then literally poisoned Scylla’s favorite watering hole, which was a small pool of spring water located on a cliff overlooking the Strait of Messina, a narrow passage of sea between Italy and Sicily, where Scylla used to hide away and play. When Scylla stepped into it the next day, she became transfixed. From the waist down – that portion of her that was submerged under water – her body began to change. A pack of hell hounds appeared where her loins once burned. A storm appeared and the mermaid god came to the scene. He cursed at Circe, making Circe’s rage grow, causing the rest of Scylla to turn to stone and be melded into the monstrous rockface which now looms over the sea where she once frolicked and played. Scylla, in perpetual anger over this curse, terrorized and killed any and all ships that ever sailed too close to her jutting reach.

Scylla and Glaucus as Circe's poison begins to transform Scylla, by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1636
Scylla and Glaucus as Circe’s poison begins to transform Scylla, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1636

Another time, a man named Picus came to Circe. Picus was a kingly fellow, newly and blissfully married. Boar hunting in a forest one day, he was spotted by Circe who was out picking herbs for her potions. He became the object of Circe’s Venus-inspired love, futilely unrequited. Picus, just like the mermaid-god, rebuffed Circe’s advances and declared his love for his new wife.

Picus was turned into a woodpecker, the Picidae – simply and straightaway. Even the red crown he donned as king was turned into the red crown seen on the woodpecker today. In his anger over this curse, he furiously head butts hard wood trees to cause damage and disturb the peace so cruelly taken from him.

Oh yes, so where was Circe’s island? If you so wish to find her, you shall find out now. Ovid places it within the visible horizon off the western Italian coastal city of Caieta, which is located along the shore between Rome and Naples. Good luck, and, oh yes, please, let her love you.

Circe by Frederick Stuart Church, 1910
Circe by Frederick Stuart Church, 1910

Categories: Mythology

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3 replies

  1. I knew just enough about Scylla and the Charybdis. Your story on Scylla is fascinating and makes me appreciate more Greek mythology.


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