Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 77 – Circe’s bad habit

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Picus and Circe (date not known), oil on canvas, 99.8 x 124 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Macareus, one of the survivors of the Odyssey, has been telling his account of the sojourn of Ulysses and his men on Circe’s island. Having told of their arrival and transformation into pigs, he completes his story with a cautionary tale of what happens to those who don’t submit to Circe’s desires.

The Story

One of Circe’s assistants showed Macareus a marble statue of a youth with a woodpecker on his head. When Macareus asked why that was in the shrine, the assistant explained that it all came about as a result of Circe’s magic powers.

Picus had been the king of Latium, and drew admiring glances from nymphs wherever he went. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman who sang so wonderfully that she was named Canens (Latin for singing), and they lived in wedded bliss. One day, Picus was out hunting on his horse when Circe caught sight of him from the undergrowth. Her desire for him was immediate and intense, so she worked her magic to lure Picus into a thicket, in pursuit of a phantom boar which she had conjured up.

Circe confronted him, and told of her desire for him, but he refused her in fathfulness to Canens. Despite Circe repeatedly pleading with him, Picus stood firm and refused her time and again. The sorceress became angry, warning him that he would pay for his obstinacy, and would never return to his bride:
Then twice she turned herself to face the west
and twice to face the East; and three times then
she touched the young man with her wand,
and sang three incantations. Picus fled,
but, marvelling at his unaccustomed speed,
he saw new wings, that spread on either side
and bore him onward. Angry at the thought
of transformation — all so suddenly
added a strange bird to the Latian woods,
he struck the wild oaks with his hard new beak,
and in his rage inflicted many wounds
on the long waving branches his wings took
the purple of his robe. The piece of gold
which he had used so nicely in his robe
was changed to golden feathers, and his neck
was rich as yellow gold. Nothing remained
of Picus as he was except the name.

With Picus turned into a woodpecker, his courtiers were out searching for him. Stumbling across Circe instead, they accused her of being responsible for his disappearance. She promptly worked her spells upon them too:
The men all quaked appalled. With magic rod
she touched their faces, pale and all amazed,
and at her touch the youths took on strange forms
of wild animals. None kept his proper shape.

Picus’ wife Canens was beside herself with worry, and roamed the countryside looking for her husband:
Distracted she rushed forth and wandered through
the Latin fields. Six nights, six brightening dawns
found her quite unrefreshed with food or sleep
wandering at random over hill and dale.
The Tiber saw her last, with grief and toil
wearied and lying on his widespread bank.
In tears she poured out words with a faint voice,
lamenting her sad woe, as when the swan
about to die sings a funereal dirge.
Melting with grief at last she pined away;
her flesh, her bones, her marrow liquified
and vanished by degrees as formless air
and yet the story lingers near that place,
fitly named Canens by old-time Camenae.

With the King of Latium transformed into a woodpecker, his courtiers into sundry wild animals, and his wife vanished into thin air, Ulysses and his men finally left Circe’s island, and Macareus finished his stories.

The Paintings

The story of Picus, Canens, and Circe with its multiple transformations would appear to be ideal for the visual artist. Ovid’s account is quite vivid, and the story appears in both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Oddly, it has remained little-known, and seldom-painted.

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Picus and Circe (date not known), oil on canvas, 99.8 x 124 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The only dedicated account available is Luca Giordano’s Picus and Circe, probably painted around 1670. This shows Circe trying to seduce Picus, and the king resisting her advances. By their expressions, she has just told him that he will pay for his refusal, and is working her magic to transform him into a woodpecker. Already he has grown feathery wings, and at the upper right there is the silhouette of a woodpecker as an ominous reminder of the fate that awaits him at any moment.

There are more paintings, though, which show Circe in the company of various enchanted birds and animals, including the former King Picus. Two of the more remarkable examples are both by Dosso Dossi, one painted in about 1515, the second probably fifteen years later.

Dosso Dossi (–1542), Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape (c 1514-16), oil on canvas, 100 × 136 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Dossi’s Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape (c 1514-16) is a remarkably early and realistic mythological landscape, with deep rustic lanes, trees, and a distant farmhouse.

Circe leans, naked, at the foot of a tree going through spells on a large tablet, with a book of magic open at her feet. Around her are some of the men who she took a fancy to and transformed into wild creatures. There’s a spoonbill, a small deer, a couple of dogs, a stag, and up in the trees an owl and what could well be a woodpecker, in the upper right corner.

Dosso Dossi (–1542), Melissa (Circe) (c 1518-1531), oil on canvas, 176 × 174 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Dossi’s later painting of Melissa (Circe) (c 1518-1531) is also set in a richly detailed landscape. Circe sits inside a magic circle, around which are inscribed cabalistic words. In the upper left corner are small homunculi apparently growing on a tree. On the left is a large dog, and perched on top of a suit of armour is a bird, most probably a woodpecker.

Disappointingly, although Circe inspired paintings by several of the Pre-Raphaelites, none came close to the story of Picus and Canens, or of her bad habit of collecting in animal form those men who refused her desires.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.