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Circe and Odysseus

Tales beyond belief

The Myth of Circe and Odysseus

Across the grey seas sailed Odysseus and his men, until they had left the Land of the Cyclopes far behind. Before long they came to an island floating in the sea. Round about it was a wall of bronze, and its cliffs ran sheer up from the water.

Here lived Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. For a month the ships of Odysseus rested there, and Odysseus and his men feasted with Aeolus and his sons and daughters, and were treated as honoured guests. When Odysseus said he must again sail on his homeward way, Aeolus gave him a parting gift. This gift was a great leather bag, inside which Aeolus placed all the winds that he ruled, except the wind of the west. Securely he fastened the mouth of the bag with a silver thong and laid it in the hold of the ship in which Odysseus sailed. Then Aeolus bade the West Wind blow gently and softly, and carry the ships safely home to Ithaca.

For nine days and nine nights they sailed smoothly on, gently guided by the soft West Wind, until the hills and woods of Ithaca were in sight, and they could see the people tending the beacon fires to drive wild beasts away from their flocks.

When home was so near, Odysseus felt that he need no longer stay awake day and night, tending, with his own hands, the sail, and guiding the ships. He was very weary, and when sleep made his eyes heavy he gave up his place at the sail to another, and lay down and soundly slept.

While he slept his men grumbled together. 'Many are the rich treasures Odysseus brings home with him,' said they. 'He has riches of every kind from Troy, while we who also fought for Greece have nothing. And now Aeolus has given him a gift. The leather bag is certainly full of gold and silver.'

Thus they talked, till their greed made thieves of them, and they brought up the leather bag from the hold to steal the treasures which they thought were hidden within.

Quickly they loosened the silver thong, and, with a mighty gust, all the winds rushed out, and swept in a hurricane across the waves, driving the ships before them.

When they saw their own homeland fading away into a little blue speck on the wind-swept sea, the men of Odysseus wept for their own folly. The sound of their weeping and the roar of the terrible gale awoke Odysseus. When he knew what had befallen, his heart failed him, and he longed to throw himself into the waves and put an end to his life. But soon his courage came back, and when the storm drove the ships close to the floating island with its bronze walls, he made his men go ashore to get fresh water, and to eat and drink. When he himself had had bread and wine, he went to the palace of Aeolus. Here he found Aeolus feasting with his wife and children.

In great surprise at seeing him, Aeolus said, 'How hast thou come hither, Odysseus? What evil hath hindered thy safe voyage? Surely I gave thee every help to take thee safely to thine own country and thy home?'

Then answered Odysseus: 'The evil deeds of my own men have brought me this harm. They set free the winds while I slept.'

And he begged Aeolus to help him, and to let him sail homeward in safety once more. But Aeolus would not listen.

'Get thee hence!' he cried in anger. 'A very wicked man must thou be, else this evil could not have befallen thee. I will not help thee. Get thee forth!'

Sadder and more heavy at heart than when they landed, Odysseus and his men once more embarked in their ships and left the island. The winds blew fiercely against them, and soon they were utterly worn out and heartsick with toiling at their long, heavy oars.

For six nights and days they struggled on. On the seventh day they reached an island where lived a race of giants. Thankfully, after all their toil, the warriors saw before them a fair harbour. Its entrance was narrow, and steep cliffs ran up on either side of it, but its water was smooth as a pond, with never a little wave to ruffle it. Into this haven all the ships were steered, save the ship of Odysseus. His ship he moored outside the harbour, and fastened the hawser to a rock. Then he with some of his men climbed a crag, from which they could look down on the island. No men or oxen were to be seen, but they saw smoke curling up above the trees.

Three of his men Odysseus sent inland to see what manner of people dwelt there. They went along the track beaten by the wheels that brought wood down from the hills into the town, and presently they came near the town from whence had risen the smoke. Just outside they came on a maiden drawing water from a crystal clear spring. She told the men, when they asked, that she was a princess, daughter of the king of the island, and she showed them the way to her father's palace.

Into the palace she led them, and there they found the queen of the island. She was a huge, fat woman, as big as the peak of a mountain. So horrible was her appearance that when they looked at her they felt sick with fear and disgust.

As soon as she saw the three men she called to her husband. At once he rushed in, seized hold of a man, and, like a hungry lion, began to devour him. The other two men fled to the ships, but the cannibal giant raised a great warcry, and all the other giants hurried out at the sound. They ran to the cliffs, and there broke off huge rocks which they cast at the ships. Smashed like eggshells, the ships sank under the water, and the noise of crashing timbers and the cries of dying men filled the air. Like men spearing fishes the giants seized the men as they floated on the waters of the harbour, and took them home to devour.

While the haven that had seemed so peaceful was full of those terrible sights and sounds, Odysseus drew his sharp sword, cut his hawser, and bade his ship's company row with all their might. With one accord they dashed their oars into the water, and the ship flew forth from the great dark cliffs of the island out to the open sea. But the ship of Odysseus was the only one that escaped. The other ships were lost there, one and all.

Sad at heart were Odysseus and his men because of the friends who were gone, yet they were glad as men saved from a dreadful death.

Ere long they reached another island, where dwelt a great enchantress, Circe of the Golden Tresses.

The ship of Odysseus put into a sheltering haven and Odysseus and his men went ashore. For two days and two nights they lay by the sea-beach, worn out with weariness and sorrow.

When the third day dawned, Odysseus took his spear and sharp sword and climbed to the top of a craggy hill above the harbour. From thence he could see the blue smoke curling up above the thick woods, in which stood the palace of Circe. Having seen this he turned back to tell his men what he had seen, and as he came down the path from the hilltop, there came from his pasture in the woodland, to drink at the river, a tall, antlered stag. Odysseus watched him, and as he came out of the river he cast his spear at him, and slew him with one blow.

Then he made a rope of twisted slips of willow, and with it slung the great beast across his back. Walking heavily under his load, he carried the stag to where his ship's company, sad and worn, lay by the sea.

'Take heart, my friends,' said he, 'we are not yet going to die. Look at the food I have brought, and let us eat and drink.'

The men roused themselves to gaze with wonder and delight at the noble stag which Odysseus had cast down on the sea-beach. They prepared a meal of its flesh, and all day they feasted on it and on the sweet wine from their ship. When darkness fell, they lay down to sleep by the sea, and slept until rosy dawn.

When Odysseus awoke, he said to his men Hear my words, my friends. We know not where the sun rises nor where it sets, and all I know of this land is what I saw yesterday from the hill I climbed. All round it lies the sea, and from the thick woods in its midst I saw the smoke curling upwards. So, all round us, we have sea and skies, and a land we do not know.'

When the men heard this, they sobbed aloud, for the terrors they had endured had robbed them of their courage.

But Odysseus was brave as before. He divided his men into two companies. One company he himself commanded. His kinsman, Eurylochus, commanded the other. They then drew lots who should explore the island. The lot fell to Eurylochus, and he set out with two-and-twenty men.

In the thick of the forest Eurylochus found the palace of Circe, built of polished stone. A great cleared space lay in front of the palace, and backwards and forwards in this clearing roamed mountain-bred wolves and tawny lions, whom Circe herself had bewitched.

Like dogs that fawn on their master when he comes home, these wild beasts fawned on Eurylochus and his men, wagging their long tails and jumping up on them. At the outer door of the palace the men stood, frightened at these strange and terrible creatures, and from within they heard a silvery voice singing a song so sweet that it stole men's hearts away. It was Circe who sang, singing as she weaved a web of wonderful beauty.

Then the man who of all the men of Odysseus was the one most dear to him, said to the others, 'Let us cry aloud to this woman who is weaving, and who sings so sweet a song.'

So they called to her, and Circe came forth and opened the shining doors, and, shedding the beauty of her wonderful face on them, she gently bade them enter. Heedlessly they followed her, all but Eurylochus, who, remembering the giant's fair daughter, feared she might betray them.

Into her palace hall she led them, and made them sit on the high seats there. Then she gave them cheese, and barley-meal, and fragrant yellow honey and rich wine, and with their food and wine she mixed harmful drugs that made them utterly forget their own country. Then she smote them with her magic wand, and in one moment they were turned into swine. Four-footed, bristly, and snouted were they, and yet with their own minds inside their ugly bodies, and she penned them into pig-sties, and flung them acorns and other food fit only for pigs.

Long and fearfully Eurylochus waited outside the door of the palace, but when his companions did not return he went back to the ship.

At first he was so full of grief that he could not speak a word, nor tell his story. At length he was able to tell what had befallen. When Odysseus heard how his men had entered the palace but never returned, he flung over his shoulder his silver-studded sword with its great blade of bronze, slung on his bow, and bade Eurylochus lead him by the way he had come.

But, clinging to his knees, Eurylochus in great fear begged Odysseus to leave him behind.

'I know that thou thyself shalt return no more,' he said, 'nor bring back any one of thy men.'

'Stay here, then, by the ship, eating and drinking,' said Odysseus scornfully. 'As for me, I go.'

All alone he went up from the seashore, through the green woods to the enchanted palace.

As he drew near, a fair lad bearing a golden wand came to meet him. Hermes was his name, and he was the messenger of the gods.

Taking Odysseus by the hand, he gently told him how Circe had bewitched his men and turned them into swine, and how Circe would try to serve Odysseus in the same way that she had served them. She would give him food mixed with evil drugs, and when he had eaten she would smite him with her magic wand, and send him grunting to a sty.

'But I will save thee,' said Hermes, 'and prevent Circe from doing thee harm.'

With that he gave Odysseus a strange plant, black at the root, but with a flower as white as milk. Moly, he called it, and it was so hard to dig that mere men were scarcely able to dig it. He told Odysseus that if he carried the Moly with him, Circe would not be able to enchant him.

'When Circe smites thee with her long wand,' said he, 'even then draw thy sharp sword and spring on her as if thou wouldst slay her. Then she will shrink away in fear, and ever after she will treat thee kindly. Only thou must make her promise that she will plan no more mischief against thee.'

Then Hermes of the golden wand went away through the trees, and Odysseus held on his way to the palace.

At the gates of the palace he stood and called aloud. Soon the shining doors were swung open, and beautiful, wicked Circe, with her golden hair hanging round her false, fair face, came and led him in.

She made him sit on a carved chair, studded with silver, and brought him a golden cup full of her drugged wine.

When he had drunk of it, she smote him with her wand, and said, 'Go thy way now to the sty, and lie there with the rest of thy company.'

At that Odysseus did as Hermes had bidden, and, drawing his sharp sword, he rushed at Circe as if to slay her.

With a great cry, Circe slipped to the ground and clasped Odysseus round the knees.

'There is no man save one who is great enough to be proof against the charm which thou hast drunk,' she cried. 'Truly thou must be Odysseus of whom Hermes of the golden wand hath oft times told me. From Troy, in thy swift black ship, he said thou wouldst come. Sheathe thy sword, I pray thee, Odysseus, and let us be at peace.'

Then said Odysseus: 'How canst thou bid me be at peace with thee, Circe, when thou by thy wicked magic hast turned my men into swine? How can I trust thee?'

Then Circe solemnly promised to do Odysseus no harm, and to let him return in safety to his home.

Quickly her servants spread fair linen on the floor, and covered the chairs with covers of rich purple. Tables of silver they drew up near the chairs, and on them placed golden dishes full of tempting food, and silver bowls and golden cups full of sweet wine. They also made ready a warm bath for Odysseus, and when he had bathed they brought him a fair mantle and tunic. Then Circe made him sit on a beautiful chair, inlaid with silver, and with a footstool at his feet. A maid brought water in a golden ewer and poured it into a silver basin for him to wash his hands, and served him with every kind of dainty.

But Odysseus could not eat. His mind was full of care, and he thought sadly of his friends who were even then penned like swine in a sty.

'Why art thou so sad and silent, Odysseus?' asked Circe. 'Why wilt thou not eat? Art thou afraid that I will deceive thee and harm thee? Nay, thou hast no cause for fear, for I have sworn I will do thee no hurt.'

Odysseus answered: 'How can I be happy, and eat and drink, when I have not yet freed my dear friends? If thou wilt set them free, then indeed shall I know that thou wilt keep the promise thou hast made.'

Then Circe went through the great hall to the sty where the bewitched men were imprisoned. She opened the doors of the sty and waved her wand, and when the swine came out she touched each one with a charm that made its bristles and pig's body and face disappear. And they became men again, and looked even handsomer and stronger than before.

When they saw Odysseus, they ran to him and took his hands, and wept for joy. And even Circe's hard heart was melted at their gladness, and tears came into her eyes.

Then Circe asked Odysseus to bring up his men from the seashore, that they might all feast together. Down by the ship he found them sorrowing, because they feared they should see him no more. So dearly did they love Odysseus that they were as glad when they saw him safe and well, as they would have been had they themselves safely returned to their own homeland. When he told them to draw the ship on shore, and hide their goods in the sea-caves, and come and feast in Circe's palace, they gladly obeyed.

Eurylochus alone, who did not wish to go, tried to prevent the others from going. 'Wretched men that we are!' he cried, Odysseus is always foolhardy, and always leading us into danger. It was he who put us into the power of the Cyclopes, and now he leads us to the enchantress, Circe, who will surely turn us all into swine, or wolves or lions to guard her palace.'

So angry was Odysseus at these words, that he laid his hand on his sword, and would have cut off the head of Eurylochus. But the other men of his company pleaded for mercy for him.

'Leave Eurylochus here to guard the ship,' said they, 'but lead us to the palace of Circe.'

And Eurylochus, ashamed, did not stay by the ship, but went with the others.

When they reached the palace, Circe provided warm baths and rich clothes for the tired and hungry men, and made them a great feast.

And when Odysseus saw them all safe and happy, he, too, was happy, and ate of the banquet that Circe had made for him.

For a whole year Odysseus and his men stayed in the palace, feasting and resting. But when a year was gone, and the long summer days had returned once more, his men came to Odysseus and said:

'Surely it is high time for us to think of our own homes, and our own dear land. Are we to stay here evermore?'

That night Odysseus said to Circe  'Circe, thou didst promise to let me return to my own country. My men and I long with a great homesickness to see our land again. Wilt thou let us go?'

Said Circe: 'Thou shalt stay no longer in my house against thy will, Odysseus.'

So when some days had passed, and when Circe had told Odysseus of many dangers he would meet on his homeward voyage, and warned him how best to escape from them, Odysseus said farewell to the sorceress.

'If thou or thy men do what I have warned them not to do,' she said, 'ruin will come upon thy ship, and on thy men. And thou, Odysseus, even though thou shouldest thyself escape, shalt return to Ithaca late, and in evil plight, and with the loss of all thy company.'

When dawn was turning the tops of the trees on the enchanted island into gold, Odysseus and his men got on board their ship. They thrust their oars deep into the grey sea-water, but soon they ceased to row, for Circe sent a kindly wind to fill the sails and carry Odysseus safely home.

As the ship flew swiftly through the water, like a bird that swims through the waves, Circe of the golden hair walked up from the shore, through the green woods, to the enchanted palace.

Sad was her heart at the parting, and mayhap she grieved for the evil she had wrought.

The Legend and Myth about Circe and Odysseus

The Myth of Circe and Odysseus
The story of Circe and Odysseus is featured in the book entitled 'The Odyssey' by Jeanie Lang published in London in 1920 by T.C. And E.C.Jack.

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