Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891), by John William Waterhouse
Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Once upon a time there was a talented young painter who fell in love with a beautiful sorceress. This love lasted from one end of his career to the other and would cause him to create multiple works on the same subject. Her raven locks, imperious gaze, and gauzy gown haunted his dreams, and he returned again and again to her story, each time showing her sadness and isolation. At the beginning of his career, the painter depicted the sorceress bewitching a hero with her beauty and power. The hero looked uncannily like the painter himself. By the end of his career, the painter showed his beloved witch as pensive and alone, wounded by her actions and the harms bestowed upon her in return. The artist was John William Waterhouse and his beloved sorceress, painted numerous times between 1886 and 1914, was Circe.
Waterhouse was first inspired by the sorceress that would haunt him for the rest of his career in 1886. Although unnamed in The Magic Circle, the beautiful woman brandishing a staff is undoubtedly Circe. In his later pictures she is often framed by a circle or arch, the sign of both sun and moon, and her long dark hair frames a face of intense emotion and concentration. She is a solitary figure, alone with her magic, observed by creatures who regard her reverently. This is her magic, her power and passion, and within the magic circle is fire, flowers, and light. Outside is dust and desolation, murmuring that a woman who is self-sufficient has everything she needs within her space. She has her circle of protection against the world; within that circle she is life itself.
Circe is a deeply mystical figure, the child of, according to various legends, Helios the sun god and Hecate, goddess of moonlight and witchcraft. Her power and wisdom caused her to withdraw to an island named Aeaea where she lived her peaceful life of solitude, pausing only to turn those who disturbed her into animals. That is where Waterhouse placed her in Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891). This grand goddess sits on her throne, her wand aloft and potion raised. She is aloof, untroubled by any threat offered by the world of men as she can swiftly dispense with them. If we needed proof of this, at her feet slumbers a snuffling fat pig, a crewmate of Ulysses’s who had annoyed her by helping himself to her food. Circe, in her infinite power, used her potions not to kill but to reveal. If these men wish to act like pigs, then so be it: Pigs they are.
Ulysses approaches this beautiful, wicked witch, his hand on his sword. In the epic poems that mention Circe, the undefeatable woman is quickly defeated in the way only a confident man with a big sword can (in tales written by men, of course). Circe has bewitched his crew and turned them to swine, but Ulysses has placed his trust in a holy plant that will protect him, an antidote against such a piggy fate. We would recognize this flower as the snowdrop, but the ancient name is moly. Ulysses uses the power of holy moly to fend off the irresistible power of the enchantress. In Waterhouse’s painting, however, the moment of male triumph hangs in the balance as he approaches but does not strike, seemingly hypnotized by her aura. In the bright circular mirror that frames Circe, we see the face of the cautious hero, and it is a self-portrait of Waterhouse. Why is he hesitant? A pause could cost him his humanity, unless he really wants to end his days with a snout and trotters. There is a hint in Ulysses’s expression that he does not desire to conquer but to honor the strength of an equal and create a bond. Waterhouse’s Ulysses doesn’t draw his sword against this enemy; he watches, acknowledges, and admires. Ulysses’s magic protects him, and he convinces Circe to join him, un-pig his crew, and be a part of his adventures—well, at least until he goes home to his wife. As powerful and formidable as Circe seems, her weakness is men who ask for her help.
Ah, her ability to fall fast in love becomes her undoing, which Waterhouse revealed in his 1892 painting, Circe Invidiosa. As the envious woman (the Invidiosa), Circe is extremely dangerous; she has all the power but seemingly no control when it comes to love. Glaucus, a sea god, beseeched all-powerful Circe to help him win the heart of the beautiful Scylla, who was repulsed by him as he was a tad … fishy. Circe, being a contrary sorceress and not as shallow as Scylla, in turn fell in love with Glaucus and asked him to come away with her to her little love island. His refusal sparks the fire of jealousy within Circe, a dangerous thing in a woman that strong. In Circe Invidiosa, she is tall and imposing, pouring poison into the bathing pool where Scylla swims. Circe is given extra height, rising above her destruction on a sea monster who supports her. As the poison that Circe pours will transform the beautiful into the grotesque, the viewer is left to wonder what creature that serpentine coil of darkness was before the poison was poured into the pool. When Scylla walked into her favorite pool, the dark magic turned her legs into six barking dogs. As curses go, that is an unusual one, but Scylla became a fearful monster who lived out her days attacking ships that sailed too close. Circe, unlucky in love and vengeful in rejection, retreated to her island, alone again at last.
As he approached the end of his life, Waterhouse returned for a final time to his seductive sorceress. Here she is not envious, destructive, or imperious; in Circe (1911–14) the mighty enchantress sits at her table and thinks. In the oil sketch, sometimes entitled The Sorceress, Circe leans on her wand distractedly, her magical paraphernalia surrounding her and two exotic jungle cats watching her keenly. Deadly potions spill, the magical text goes unheeded, the leopard growls for his former human life, but Circe is lost in thought. By the time Waterhouse completed his final oil painting from this sketch, all that is left is Circe, sitting at her table alone, thinking. Her marble table is clear, the magical scroll is neat, and her potions are safely in their bulbous vessels. What is Circe thinking about? With all her power, she is alone but conflicted. Her expression is peaceful but just a little sad. When it comes down to it, the men she had loved were not hers to love and the ones she despised, she turned to animals. As binary choices go, that’s one that would make you a little wistful, to say the least.
When I see Circe, I see a woman tired of the world’s nonsense. All she wants in life is to be left alone, peaceful on her island with all her power. She does not bother anyone until they bother her, and it is invariably men who do so. There is no doubt that Circe’s power is what draws them to her and attracts their attention. All that power residing in one woman appears a waste when they could be using it. Make a woman love me, make my quest successful, cleanse my sins—the men who ask her help want two things: They want to win without too much effort, and they want to be right. None of the things that are asked of the mighty Circe benefit anyone but the men who ask. No wonder she turns them into animals, when it is their basic animal desires that they show her.
The solitude of Circe is where she is safe and others are safe from her power. But as a resource it seems that she is irresistible, no matter the danger. The Magic Circle (1886), which you can see on page 58, shows a woman in a space of her own creation, blooming and shining. She is harming no one, but she still she seems threatening. This is not Circe Invidiosa, the envious, destructive woman who is spurned in love and seeks to ruin love for everyone. This is the same woman who sits peacefully at her table, in a work from almost thirty years later, with her magic, in contemplation. What is she thinking about? Is she sad? None of that is our business. As such, Circe becomes a metaphor for so many things: power, science, the will of the people—powerful, mighty things that so many confident, hungry men think they can use for their own benefit. No wonder she looks tired and wistful in Waterhouse’s final image. Maybe he could finally see that her loneliness was not a source of sadness but a protection. In The Magic Circle, the sorceress stands within the circle, alone, locking out the world and the animals that watch her. Circe’s sadness is not that she is alone but that we will not leave her alone. Her thoughts are not on her vengeful deeds but the idea that there is not another soul in the world who appreciates the absolute majesty of her power. She is alone, she is sad, but ultimately she is at peace.