This illustration, dated to the 16th or 17th century, was inspired by the writings of the ancient Greek poet Homer, and his tales of Odysseus at the palace of the goddess, Circe. Officially, the artwork is deemed to have been created anonymously, but many suspect the illustration was produced by the famous artist, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577-1640). The scene shown above depicts the crew of Odysseus feasting at the palace of Circe at some point in the dramatic time that they spent on her island. Whether this feast occurred at the beginning or the end of their stay is difficult to determine. Homer described the first feast that Circe threw for a portion of the travelers who appeared at her home:
“Circe ushered the rest into her hall, gave them seats and chairs to sit on, and then prepared them a mixture of cheese, barley-meal, and yellow honey flavored with Pramnian wine. But into this dish she introduced a noxious drug, to make them lose all memory of their native land. And when they had emptied the bowls which she handed them, she drove them with blows of a stick into the pigsties. Now they had pig heads and bristles, and they grunted like pigs; but their minds were as human as they had been before” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 10, approximately lines 230-240).
Odysseus, the hero of the tale, was later able to convince Circe to turn his crew back into their original forms. From that time on, the feasts and banquets hosted by Circe were much more merry and friendly. In Homer’s poem, the character, Odysseus, described how Circe made amends to the men she had transformed into swine:
“Circe meanwhile had graciously bathed the members of my party in her palace and rubbed them with olive oil. She gave them all tunics and warm cloaks to wear, so that on our arrival we found them having dinner together in the hall. When the two companies came face to face and they all recognized each other, they burst into tears and the whole house echoed to their sobs” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 10, approximately lines 450-460).
In the illustration featured above, the scene captures either the first magic-laden feast thrown by Circe, or one of the banquets thrown after the transformation was reversed, for the crewmen are all depicted in human form within the artwork. As the sailors are all depicted cleanly dressed and are shown throwing their arms around each other’s shoulders as if they had been recently re-united, one tends to presume that the illustration depicts the feasts thrown by Circe after she had transformed the crew back into their human forms.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.