This painting, by the artists Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg (c. 1630-1676) and Carl Borromäus Andreas Ruthart (c. 1630-1703), re-creates an episode from Homer’s ancient epic poem, The Odyssey, in which the Greek hero, Odysseus (or Ulysses, as the title calls him), encountered the goddess and sorceress Circe, who lived on an island called Aeaea. As Odysseus and his crew quickly found out, Circe’s island and palace were inhabited by a vast variety of animals. These animals, however, were not ordinary creatures, and their existence on the island was due to a magical secret. Unfortunately, a great portion of Odysseus’ crew did not wait to learn more about Circe and her island before they allowed themselves to be lured in for a banquet that Circe threw for the travelers. What happened next was recorded by Homer (c. 8th century BCE):
“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).
Such is the scene that is playing out in the painting above. It shows the chaotic scene of the Greek warriors, mid-transformation, scurrying around to-and-frow on Circe’s palace grounds, likely before they were beaten and prodded into the pigsties. Nevertheless, the beastly affliction of the Greek adventurers was not permanent. Their clever leader, Odysseus, who had not been present for the initial banquet, was later able to convince Circe to turn the crew back into their original humanoid forms. From then on, Circe and Odysseus’ crew were able to coexist.
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.