This painting by the Dutch artist, Christoffel Pierson (c. 1631-1714), was inspired by an episode from Homer’s ancient epic poem, The Odyssey, in which the Greek hero, Odysseus, encountered the goddess and sorceress Circe, who lived in luxury on an island called Aeaea. 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).
Odysseus was fortunate enough to be given immunity from Circe’s transformation magic due to a timely and helpful visit from the god, Hermes. Spared from her spells and potions, Odysseus was able to negotiate with and befriend Circe, eventually leading to the pig-men being returned to their original shapes. It is this scene, either the initial drinking of the magic potion or the later friendship between Odysseus and Circe, that Christoffel Pierson brings to life in his painting.
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.