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Odysseus’s arrival on Circe’s island depicts Odysseus as character full of hubris and god-like qualities. Circe, even with having persuasive powers over him, does not seem to deter or detain Odysseus for very long on her island. Both Odysseus and Circe seem to have the innate ability to trick or deceive. Therefore, their encounter gives each side the chance to be deceived and set up deceptive plans to affect the other.
Out of Odysseus’s men who venture on to Circe’s palace before him, only Eurylochus returns. The rest are turned to swine with only their minds remaining “steadfast as before”(238). Here it is understood that Circe’s magic works in the sense that it allows the men to feel helpless and servile. Each man kept his original cognition, allowing him to understand how it felt to be infinitely subordinate to another being. This action in its self is a form of possession, as Circe has changed their material nature against their will. Even though their mental nature remains in tack, she has manipulated their thoughts to concern the demeaning nature of their current state. Even Eurylochus, who escaped the fate of being turned into a pig, has been affected by Circe as he comes away from her palace with a “heart possessed by grief”’(238) and is unable to tell Odysseus what has happened.
Throughout Odysseus’s initial encounter with Circe, it becomes apparent that her powers extend beyond her potion and wand. Circe is amazed that Odysseus has “a mind in you [him] no magic can enchant” and proposes that they give in to the “magic work of love” instead (240). Here it becomes apparent that the goddess is working with manipulative resources that extend beyond the apparent wand and potion. She seems to have power in her speech and manner, since it is ultimately through speech that she eventually seduces Odysseus. In the first instance where Circe invites Odysseus to her bed, he resists even though she “entices” him. However, after she has sworn the binding oath, her “urging won my [his] stubborn spirit over”(243), and he begins to follow her orders. It is not clear specifically how she is enticing Odysseus or urging him to behave and react in certain ways, but the language that she uses is a clear message for him to give in to her. Later Odysseus is again “enticed” by Circe after returning from his ship to gather the rest of his men. They all remain on her island for a year with her, as Odysseus showed no desire to escape, leave or free himself of her company in any way. Therefore, Circe’s power is that of subtlety. She is not blatant in the way that she uses magic of any kind, making it take on more of a seductive and conniving nature than that of an attack; more characteristic of her potion and wand. In a sense, she compels those under her influence to temporarily think what she wants them to think. In Odysseus’s case, he is not brought to see the urgency in leaving until his men persuade him and bring his “stubborn spirit round” (245), just as Circe originally had in order to convince him to stay with her.
During the entire time on Circe’s island it becomes apparent that Odysseus has a power of his own. Before Odysseus turns to leave for Circe’s palace, Eurylochus “flung both arms around my [Odysseus’s] knees and pleaded”(238) not to return to Circe’s palace. This is the first instance of three where a character is in such a compromising and servile position to another character. Here, Odysseus is completely unfazed by his man’s show of cowardice. In fact, this event almost seems to give Odysseus drive to prove himself braver than his comrade and take on Circe himself. It is thought of hubris, thinking himself braver than the other men, that causes Odysseus to be viewed as a man with god-like or superhuman qualities. The second instance occurs after Odysseus has attacked Circe, “she screamed, slid under my blade, hugged my knees with a flood of warm tears”(240). Once again Odysseus is seen as more than a man, he has overpowered a goddess and brought her to her knees before him. Circe even says that she is wonderstruck by his ability to evade her potion, meaning that she is in awe of him similar to how mortals are in awe of the deathless gods. The final instance occurs by Odysseus’s own volition. He brings himself to hug Circe’s knees so that he can convince her to make good on their promise (245). In this instance Odysseus is forced to hug her knees because his men are begging him to find their way home. However, it is not clear that his position of power is compromised in any way. Instead this final encounter seems to imply a more seductive situation where Odysseus is still in control of the situation.
When Odysseus enters Circe’s palace for the first time, he shows weakness by the fact that he immediately feels “anguish” (240). This could again show the power that Circe has over the men who enter her palace. Depicting that aside from the drug, the goddess seems to have a negative, persuasive power over their spirits. Regardless, Odysseus is still treated like a god when she seats him in a “silver-studded chair, ornately carved, with a stool to rest my [his] feet” (240). The chair having decorative accents of a precious metal perhaps alludes to the fact that it is a piece of some importance. Also, the fact that his feet do not touch the ground relates to the idea that he is not of this world, or more god-like than a man. In various cultures, many gods are often depicted with their feet resting on something as to state that they are not part of this world. The same scene occurs again after Odysseus is taken care of by Circe’s maidens, “she led me to sit on a silver-studded chair, ornately carved, with a stool to rest my feet” (241). At this point, Odysseus’s identity has already been revealed to Circe and she still, perhaps with even more purpose now, treats him as a god-like figure. Even Odysseus’s men treat him with the respect of a god-like figure. When his men call to him in the name “Captain,” Daimoni in Greek, the translation is also close to “god-like man.” Whether the name is being used as a form of respect for their leader or as a true proclamation of how they viewed Odysseus is unclear. In any case this distinction adds to evidence that characters around Odysseus view him on a level of importance that is equivalent to the gods.
When Hermes appears to Odysseus it seems as if the two have met before simply by the fact that Odysseus recognizes him in a somewhat unusual form. Hermes seems to view Odysseus as more than just a normal man when he says, “she’ll be powerless to bewitch you, even so—this magic herb I give you will fight her spells”(239.) It seems as if the god is saying that Circe’s magic would not work on him to begin with, and that the magic herb is more of a safety measure then a necessity. In the same speech, Hermes talks to Odysseus in a didactic tone, instructing him to follow his plan “step by step”(239.) This instructive way of talking seems to conclude that there is a hierarchy between the two, as Hermes is completely laying out Odysseus’s plan for him. The two also have another connection, “With that the giant-killer handed over the magic herb”(239). Odysseus and Hermes are both known for slaying giants. Hermes took Argus Panoptes and Odysseus took the son of Poseidon. Regardless of the connections between the two, this is one of the few points in the text where Odysseus is depicted as below, not equivalent to, the level of a god.
Throughout the Odyssey thus far, Odysseus has shown signs of excessive hubris. During his encounter with Circe, Odysseus again finds himself in a similar situation. After Hermes gave him strict instruction, Odysseus still goes off plan and does not lie with Circe immediately. Instead, after attacking her and forcing her to swear the oath he declares that he cannot enjoy himself until his men are freed. “So I demanded. Circe strode on through the halls and out her wand…flinging open the pens, drove forth my men” (242). He tests his boundaries with the goddess specifically after being told not to by Hermes. Hermes had told Odysseus to not “refuse the goddess’ bed, not then, not if she’s to release your friends” (239). Odysseus seems to have a hard time accepting orders from any character who would potentially know better or be more powerful than he. His hubris seems to consume him with determination to prove himself the wisest.
Circe is also in a position of power during their encounter, perhaps on an equivalent level to Odysseus. Although she may have been taken off guard at first, she is able to detain Odysseus for a year before he asks her for the way home. Circe does not answer his question completely either, sending Odysseus to the underworld first. Upon his return to her, she then shares the true path he must take in order to arrive home. With this underlying tension it seems that the pair has another dimension to their relationship. She may have sent him to the underworld for the benefit of interacting with the souls he met, or she might have sent him there out of spite for leaving her so soon. Consequently, Odysseus does not precisely follow her instructions on how to travel home. He instead prepares a defense while passing Scylla, and then his men slaughter the Sun god’s herd. It seems as though their relationship begins and ends with trickery and deception from both sides, each deceiving the other at one point or another.

20 Responses to “Odysseus and Equally Deceptive Circe”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Brieanah,

    I think you did a great job of working through some of the textual issues. First I want to comment on your claim regarding Odysseus’ hubris, and then I want to address some of the other points that you make. In general, I think your essay would have been a bit clearer had you focused more exclusively on either the hubris point or the point about Circe and Odysseus each being deceptive. But you make many excellent points, nonetheless, and those are the important things.

    To what extent Odysseus knows or even worries about his limits is worth pondering. I think you are right to point to several places where he disregards advice from gods, for instance. He may not be to blame for his men’s behavior on Thrinacia–we are told he didn’t want to land there, after all (12.290ff), and Homer seems to blame his men for that episode rather than Odysseus (1.9). They are close to mutiny at that point (12.301) and he doesn’t threaten force against them. However, I think you are exactly right to point out that Odysseus explicitly and self-consciously contravenes orders to arm himself against Scylla (12.245); Fagles rather hilariously translates this as Odysseus complaining that Circe was “cramping his style.” It’s also worth noting that he modifies what Circe tells him about the Sirens; he says that he alone is to hear their voices (12.175), but of course we know she didn’t say that. She told him what to do IF he wanted to listen (12.55). Odysseus is misleading his men by putting the responsibility for his own action onto Circe’s orders. So this speaks to your thesis, I think. By the way, it’s worth thinking about why she even tells him it’s a possibility to listen. Does she think he will foolishly listen, anyway, if she outright tells him he can’t? Or is she trying to tempt him?

    Re: the comparison between Odysseus and Hermes, you are correct both to note that they are both giant-killers and to note that it appears that Odysseus is meant to be the inferior one. For one thing, Argos had many (at least a hundred) eyes, whereas the Cyclops had one. Odysseus also had the help of his men for that episode; the stake was too big to lift alone, presumably (but the gods can do all things, as we know from the moly episode). Secondly, we know that Hermes helped Odysseus resist Circe, even though Circe thinks it’s all due to Odysseus’ unique mind (10.365–and the “twists and turns” epithet [polytropos] appears here for the only other time in the Odyssey besides the beginning). At any rate, you make good points. The connection is interesting in a further way in that Hermes is the main connection between the “outside world” and the, shall we say, hermetically sealed world of Odysseus’ fantastic journeys. Polyphemus and Circe, for instance, both know of Odysseus’ coming only through Hermes. And Hermes visits both Aeaea and Ogygia during the narrative.

    I think you do a good job of pointing out the three instances of supplication. Putting out the “stubborn spirit” between the two relevant episodes was also good work. Two things to think more about: how does Eurylochus know what happened re: the animal transformations? He doesn’t see it. Does he guess it? Why does he feel “grief” and cowardice? And the other: does Odysseus in fact recognize Hermes, as he did Athena on Scheria? If so, what allows him to see through disguises? His own cunning?

    KH

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