This artwork, vaguely labeled “Round Study of Composition from Roman History” and created by Milan Thomka Mitrovský (c. 1875–1943), seems to have been inspired by the ancient tale of Picus, a man of myth or legend who was said to have ruled a kingdom in Italy. Picus allegedly was one of the most handsome men of his age, and he had countless lustful admirers from both the mortal and immortal communities. Yet, of these willing women, Picus devoted himself only to one—a nymph named Cánens—and to her Picus remained steadfastly faithful.
Unfortunately for Picus, the magically-masterful goddess, Circe, was one of the many unsuccessful suitors that sought his attention. Since Picus was the handsomest man in the land, the sight of him naturally filled Circe with desire and she decided to have a go at seducing him. Calling on all of her magical knowledge and power, Circe conjured an illusory animal to lure King Picus away from any guards and attendants. She similarly summoned darkness and mist to blind Picus’ kingdom while she tried to charm the king. Nevertheless, all of Circe’s magic and planning was for naught; when the goddess revealed herself to Picus and tried to seduce him, the faithful king rejected her advances. Circe, of course, was irate after her desires were thwarted, and in her wrath, she decided to use her characteristic transformation magic to punish King Picus. The Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), described what happened next:
“[Circe shouted] ‘You’ll learn what a woman in love who is injured
can do; and Circe is surely an injured woman in love!’
The sorceress then turned twice to the west and twice to the east;
she struck the young king with her wand three times, and she spoke three spells.
Picus took to his heels but soon was surprised to discover
himself running faster than usual. Wings had sprung from his body!
A new type of bird had suddenly joined the forests of Latium”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.384-390)
Milan Thomka Mitrovský’s artwork likely depicts Circe after she was rejected by King Picus. In the scene, the goddess can be seen holding up a wand, which she would use in her efforts to transform Picus into a bird. Once the spell had run its course, the king would be completely metamorphosized into a woodpecker. Most shocking to the avian monarch was the new addition of a beak on his face. So the story goes, it was his hatred of (or confusion over) this new body feature that caused the kingly woodpecker to begin pecking on tree trunks.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.