The forest was a beautiful place. It was full of great oaks, which grew so thick together that the sun could scarcely shine through their branches. The king was fond of riding, and liked to hunt in this forest; but he would have been wiser if he had taken his recreation somewhere else; for he had a dangerous neighbor that often frequented this place.
This was Circe, the famous enchantress. Very dreadful stories were told of her. She lived in a marble palace not so very far from the palace of King Picus, and she and the maids or nymphs who attended her, spent a great deal of their time roaming in the royal forest, searching for the poisonous plants which they used in their enchantments.
One day, at the very hour that King Picus was hunting in the forest, it happened that Circe and a few of her nymphs were among the oaks, looking for a plant from whose root Circe knew how to make a very powerful drug. They saw the king and his guards, and kept themselves concealed among the trees.
King Picus suddenly thought he saw a wild boar run in among the bushes. As the place was such a tangle of thorn-trees and thick-growing shrubs and prickly vines, that the king could not go any farther on horseback, he dismounted, intending to follow the beast on foot. He did not know that the wild boar was only a shadow, which Circe, by her enchantments, had caused him to see.
Circe, herself, was in the thicket, and before King Picus could get away, she touched him with her wand, changing him into a little purple woodpecker. His crown became a crest of feathers, and his gold buckle, a yellow ring encircling his neck.
When King Picus did not come back, his guards rode in all directions, looking for him. At last they saw Circe, and knowing how many wicked things she had already done, they feared she was the cause of the king's disappearance. They would have killed her on the spot with their javelins, but it suddenly grew so dark that they could see nothing, while a strong wind began to blow, and the great oak branches creaked overhead. Then, under cover of the darkness which she had called down, Circe struck the guards, in turn, with her wand, changing them from brave young men into different kinds of wild beasts. Here, far away from home and friends, they were obliged to live in the king's forest, sleeping under bushes and eating roots and berries. The little purple woodpecker beat his tattoo over their heads, but they did not know that this bird was really King Picus.
Ulysses at Circe's Palace
Not long after the time when King Picus and his guards met with such a sad misfortune in the oak forest, a ship sailed into the harbor near Circe's palace. In this ship were King Ulysses and his men - the same men who had let loose the winds which King aeolus had bound for them in a bag. Since the adventure with the bag of winds, they had met with some terrible hardships, and were reduced in number. They drew their galley up on the shore, and then lay down to sleep under the trees near by; for they were exhausted with hard rowing in the hot sun. Finding the place very comfortable, they remained there for two days.
On the third day they found that their supply of provisions was entirely gone. The men began to complain, and to blame King Ulysses, although they knew very well that they would all have been safe at home long ago, if they, themselves, had not meddled with the bag of winds.
It was plain that they must go farther inland if they wished to find any game; but not one of them cared to venture far from the place where the galley lay, as they did not know what dangers they might encounter.
At last, as none of the men were willing to go, King Ulysses himself took his hunting spear and started out alone. As he disappeared behind the trees, the men whispered to one another that this was quite right. Let him take the risk of exploring the island. Had they not spent their strength in rowing?
King Ulysses went to a high place, where he could look out over the entire island. He saw a slender column of black smoke going up from the midst of a dense thicket in the centre of the island. He believed that this indicated some human habitation, where his ship's company might hope for hospitality. He went quickly back to the ship with the news, and on his way succeeded in killing a fat buck, which made a good supper for himself and his men. His followers began to think that they had not such a bad leader, after all.
When the supper was over, Ulysses told about the smoke he had seen. It was agreed that the whole company should be divided into two parts, half the men in each, with a leader; that they should then draw lots; and that those to whom the lot fell should go to see what was to be found at the place where the smoke had been seen.
So Ulysses counted off the men, of whom there were forty-four in all. Over twenty-two of them he set his friend Eurylochus; the other twenty-two he commanded himself. Then he and Eurylochus shook pebbles in a bronze helmet, and the pebble of Eurylochus bounded from the helmet first. Eurylochus was willing to go, but the men he commanded thought themselves most cruelly used. They preferred to stay near the ship and wait for Ulysses to bring them another fat buck.
Early the next morning, when Eurylochus and his twenty-two men reached the thicket, they found a glade in the midst of it. In the glade stood a beautiful palace, built of white marble blocks which were so highly polished that they shone in the morning sun like diamonds.
As the party came near the palace, hundreds of wild beasts - lions and panthers, bears and wolves - sprang up from every point and came toward them. The men expected to be torn to pieces, but what was their surprise to see these savage creatures approach them in the most friendly way. The lions rubbed against them caressingly, and the wolves wagged their tails, like house-dogs. Upon this, the men plucked up their courage and went boldly up to the palace doors. Then they heard the whirring of a loom and the voice of a woman singing. These were such sounds as they might have heard in their own homes. So with growing confidence they shouted loudly, to let the people within the palace know that some one was there.
Presently a woman with beautiful golden hair opened the great doors wide and invited them to enter. Eurylochus, fearing that some trap might be laid for them, remained outside, but all the others went into the palace.
Each of the twenty-two men had lost all fear now. They were ushered into rooms more beautiful than any they had ever seen before, where tapestries of the richest colors hung on the walls and embroideries of exquisite fineness covered the couches and the chairs. Everything was as luxurious as possible. These chance travellers were treated like guests of honor. They were invited to seat themselves on the embroidered chairs, and were served with wine by four pretty maids. The wine had a most remarkable flavor, but the men were sure that this was nothing to what was coming, for now and then delightful whiffs reached them from the kitchen, where they had no doubt an appetizing repast was being prepared. All these things were exactly what they liked. Nothing could have suited them better. They were not sorry now that the lot had fallen to them, and as they drank their wine, they began to nudge one another and to laugh with pleasure at the thought of what Ulysses and the rest of the crew had lost.
Then, all at once, the gracious smiles of the beautiful lady with the golden hair changed to angry frowns, and she struck each of the men sharply with a long wand that she carried in her hand. The men tried to speak, but could only squeal, and in a moment more each of them saw his twenty-one companions changed to so many frightened swine, with bright little eyes, white bristles, and curly tails. They all jumped down from their embroidered chairs, and began to run wildly about the room, squealing with all their might, and upsetting the furniture in their efforts to escape. But Circe had them fast. She drove them to the sties with her wand, and scornfully threw them a few handfuls of acorns.
Eurylochus waited for a long time outside. At length, as the men did not come back, he returned to the ship, and told Ulysses that all the men were lost.
Ulysses immediately took his sword and his bow and started alone for the palace, to see what could be done. As he was passing through the oak forest, he met Mercury in his winged cap. This was most fortunate, because Mercury knew all about Circe and her enchantments.
"Where are you going, alone in this forest?" said Mercury.
"I am going to the palace in yonder glade, to seek my men," said Ulysses.
"That is the palace of Circe," said Mercury, "and the men you are seeking are penned up in Circe's sties, eating acorns. Is not that a very good place for them?" he added, with a twinkle in his eye. "They have made you trouble enough before now. You had better go home and leave them there."
Ulysses knew the faults of his men, but he would not think of leaving them to such a fate. "No," he said, "it was I who sent them to the palace. I must rescue them or share their misfortunes."
"Very well," said Mercury. "There is a flower whose virtue is stronger than any of Circe's enchantments." He began to look about him under the trees. Just then a handsome purple woodpecker flew past them, and began tapping on the trunk of an oak. Under this tree Mercury found the flower he wanted. It was a pure white flower with a black root. Mercury plucked it and handed it to Ulysses. "Take this flower," he said. "Be very careful not to lose it. As long as you have it with you, Circe can work you no harm. You may enter her palace if you wish. She will offer you wine in which she has placed a powerful drug. Drink it. It cannot hurt you. If she strikes at you with her wand, strike at her again with your sword. When she sees that her enchantments will not work, she will be afraid. You can then compel her to restore your men to their human shape."
When Mercury said this, the little purple woodpecker came fluttering down from the oak tree with a loud cry, and Mercury told Ulysses that this woodpecker was, in reality, King Picus, who had been transformed by Circe's arts into a bird with gay feathers, but who deserved to be changed into a king again. He also said that the lions, wolves, and other beasts that guarded Circe's gate were once men who, like King Picus, had been transformed by Circe.
Mercury, having told Ulysses all that was necessary, now went back to Olympus, while Ulysses, with the white flower in his hand, walked on through the forest, and soon reached the palace of Circe. The strange beasts came bounding out and fawned on him as they had done on his companions. He called aloud at the palace doors, and Circe opened them wide. She took him into a splendid room, and invited him to be seated on a silver throne; for she knew that he was a king. She mixed wine for him in a golden cup, slyly putting in the magic drug.
Ulysses drank, without fear, believing in the power of the white flower. Then Circe struck at him fiercely with her wand. But Ulysses, instead of taking the form of some animal, stood up straight, looking more king-like than ever, and struck back at her with his sword.
Circe wrung her bands and fell on her knees, beseeching him to spare her. Ulysses made her promise that she would restore his men, and as many others as he should choose, to their proper human shape.
Then he went with her to the sties, and she sprinkled the twenty-two crowding, squealing swine with the juice of a certain plant, and there stood the companions of Ulysses, looking very much as they had done before they entered the palace of Circe.
They were beside themselves with happiness at being able to stand before the world like men again. Their strange experience made them see to what their selfish ways had been leading them, and from that day, when anything occurred which compelled them to choose between their own ease or pleasure and the good of others, they chose more wisely than they had ever done before.
The little purple woodpecker soon came fluttering around the head of Ulysses, who caused Circe to sprinkle the bird with the juice of the magic plant. Then once more the handsome King Picus, in his purple robes, stood before them. After this, the former guards of King Picus were restored to their human shape, with such other of the beasts about Circe's palace as deserved that kindness. But some of the cruel tigers and wolves were left as they were, to snarl and howl in the shape which best befitted their savage natures.
The Legend and Myth of Circe
The Myth of Circe
The story of Circe is featured in the book entitled Favorite Greek Myths by Lilian Stoughton Hyde, published in 1904 by D. C. Heath and Company.