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Of Myth and Elegaic Beauty

January 6, 2010

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses - 1891, John W. Waterhouse

According to Greek mythology, Circe was a powerful enchantress who lived on an island and amused herself by turning passing travellers into the animals they most resembled, notably pigs and asses.

Ulysses (Odysseus) arrived at Circe’s island palace on his way home from 10 years of fighting in the Trojan Wars. He was wily and wise but Circe was accustomed to having her own way. She rapidly turned his companions into swine, but the great Ulysses had already been given an antidote by the god Hermes. 

She was so impressed by his apparent wisdom and total immunity to her powerfully drugged wine, that she relented and released his crew. They rested and feasted in peace and idleness for a year.

Circe gave him guidance and advice on how to overcome the terrible dangers that lay between him and his home. A voyage he would complete alone after a further 10 years of trials and tribulations.

When Ulysses returned home to Ithica, his faithful wife Penelope was still waiting for him and they resumed a happy and peaceful life together.

That’s the potted version.

John William Waterhouse painted ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses’ in 1891 as one of several Greek mythological works at a time when narrative painting (i.e. telling a story) and a taste for the exotic were popular. Waterhouse was influended by the Pre-Raphaelites but his handling of paint is much richer and more sensuous.

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4 comments

  1. Some powerful Goddess imagery in his painting — the lion chair of Cybele and the large cowrie shell border on the circular mirror. And who doesn’t love a diaphanous dress!


  2. I’m wondering if those flowers are violets…also the reflection of her arms in the mirror, shades of Kali. Just noticed one of the ‘related posts’ generated by WordPress is “Cute AND smart?”


  3. I completely failed to notice the Kali arms effect! But you’re right! I think those are probably violets too. If I remember my Victorian flower symbolism correctly, violets are for remembrance so wilted and dying violets fit right in with Circe’s plans to make Ulysses forget his home and wife.


  4. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s quote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” And that reminds me of Groucho Marx’ quip, “Time wounds all heels”.

    Hermes the Trickster..



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