The third epic ‘Quest’ of the classical world is one of the oldest and greatest of all extant stories, Homer’s account of the return of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, following the Trojan War. This journey lasted a whole decade, as long as the drawn-out war itself, and has been used as a model for many odysseys since.
Although believed to have been told orally for a long period before being committed to writing, its narrative is carefully constructed and isn’t told in linear sequence. As with the other classical epics, I attempt to unravel its series of adventures, concluding with an account of Odysseus’ wife Penelope during those long years of her husband’s absence, and the resolution and reunion.
At the end of the Trojan War, King Odysseus was delayed in departing as he had angered Poseidon. The king’s tutelary goddess Athena asked Zeus to allow his departure, letting him begin his odyssey. He and his twelve ships were soon driven off course by storms, visited the lotus-eaters where the crews nearly forgot where they were heading, and then ended up on the island of the Cyclops.
Among these one-eyed giants was Polyphemus, who spent his days tending his flock of sheep then feasted on humans. After Polyphemus had devoured several of Odysseus’ crew, Odysseus got the giant drunk. Polyphemus asked Odysseus his name, and the latter replied Οὖτις (Outis, Greek for nobody). Once the giant had fallen into a stupor, Odysseus drove a hardened stake into his single eye, blinding him. The following morning, Odysseus and his men tied themselves to the undersides of the sheep in Polyphemus’ flock so that he couldn’t feel them escaping.
Recognising that he had lost his captives, Polyphemus called out for help from the other Cyclops, telling them that ‘Nobody’ had hurt him. The others therefore didn’t come to his aid. As Odysseus and his crew sailed off into the dawn, they derided the blind Polyphemus, who prayed to his father Poseidon for revenge, and threw huge rocks towards the fleeing ships.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus (1812) shows Odysseus about to make his way out of the Cyclops’ cave, as his captor strokes one of his sheep. With Polyphemus’ face turned away from the viewer, it’s difficult to see whether he has been blinded, though.
Jacob Jordaens pictures the crew fastening themselves to the underside of the sheep as they prepare to escape, in his Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus, which was probably painted in about 1650. Again, the Cyclops is facing away from the viewer, and it’s hard to be sure this is taking place after his blinding.
Guido Reni’s account in his Polyphemus from 1639-40 is far clearer. The Cyclopean eye socket is now empty, where Odysseus had poked its single eye out. In the distance, Odysseus and his crew are making their way out to their ships in two smaller boats, in their haste to depart.
JMW Turner’s depiction of Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) is faithful to the Odyssey, although the distant form of Polyphemus is hard to discern high on the top of the cliffs towards the left. He shows the entire crew, led by Odysseus brandishing two large flags, arrayed up the masts and rigging to deride the blinded giant. The orange flag on the mainmast bears the Greek word Οὖτις (Outis).
Arnold Böcklin shows Odysseus’ crew rowing frantically out to sea, through large waves, as Polyphemus prepares to hurl a huge rock at them from the shore. His detailed realism and tight composition make this one of Böcklin’s most dramatic and active paintings.
After their escape from Polyphemus, the god of the winds Aeolus gave Odysseus a bag containing all the winds except that of the west, which was intended to ensure their safe return to Ithaca. When Odysseus was asleep, his crew released the winds, which promptly drove the ships back, and all apart from Odysseus’ ship were destroyed by cannibals.
The remaining ship sailed on to reach the island of Aeaea, the home of Circe, the goddess of magic, adept at all manner of potions and spells. She invited Odysseus’ men to a feast, at which they drank wine which was laced with a magical potion, drunk from an enchanted cup. She then turned the men into pigs, apart from one who escaped and warned Odysseus and a few others who had stayed to look after their ships.
Hermes, messenger of the gods, told Odysseus to use a herb to protect himself from the effects of Circe’s potion. He should then draw his sword and act as if to attack Circe with it. Odysseus followed that advice, and was able to free his men, who remained on the island for another year, feasting and drinking wine.
Jan van Bijlert’s Ulysses and Circe from around 1640 shows the couple at the banquet, looking intently at one another. Circe holds her wand, and between them is the goblet containing her magic concoction. At the right, one of the serving maids looks directly at the viewer. At her heels are Odysseus’ crew, in the form of pigs.
Salomon de Bray makes this a more intimate meeting, in his slightly later Odysseus and Circe (1650-55). Here it’s Odysseus who is seated, clutching a krater-like goblet into which a maid is pouring clear liquid from a bottle. The hero looks quite haggard, and decidedly unimpressed by Circe. Below Odysseus’ left arm, two pigs are drinking some more of Circe’s concoction.
Giovanni Andrea Sirani, the father and teacher of the great Elisabetta Sirani, painted his account of Ulysses and Circe at about the same time as de Bray, and advances the story a few moments to the point where Odysseus is about to draw his sword. Circe is still holding the glass which she is trying to get him to drink from, with her wand in the other hand. The crew are seen in the background, in the form of pigs. Another woman holding a wand is with them: this could represent their transformation into pigs, or back into humans, which would form multiplex narrative.
Matthijs Naiveu’s Circe and Odysseus (1702) is set in a grand banquet inside Circe’s palace, with some peculiar clusters of figures which allude to Circe’s role as a sorceress. For example, there is a table just to the left of the couple at which a satyr and a demon are engaged in conversation. Circe has moved forward from her throne to embrace Odysseus, whose sword is pointing at her body to force her back. The goblet from which she has been trying to get him to drink is held by a maid at the far right. A couple of boars are feeding from fruit laid on the marble floor.
In his Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), John William Waterhouse shows Circe true to Homer’s account, offering Odysseus the enchanted cup containing wine laced with her magical potion. Her facial expression fits this well, and her left hand wields her magic wand, ready to transform Odysseus into a pig, as cued by the sight of a pig resting peacefully at her feet. Her right hand offers Odysseus and the viewer the enchanted cup.
Waterhouse uses a large circular mirror to great effect, showing Odysseus reflected in the mirror, and putting the viewer (invisibly) within the painting. Scattered around Circe are various flowers and berries, as she might use in her potions.
Briton Rivière’s rather simpler painting of Circe and her Swine (before 1896) has been used as an illustration for several versions of the Odyssey, and unusually casts Circe as a magic swineherd, her wand resting behind her.
After a year spent with Circe, she helped Odysseus reach a harbour at the western edge of the world. There he sacrificed to the dead, and summoned the spirit of Tiresias to prophesy his future.
Henry Fuseli’s Tiresias Appears to Ulysses During the Sacrifice (1780-85) shows this dramatic scene, featuring the strange character of Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, who was apparently transformed into a woman for seven years.
Odysseus then returned to Circe before setting sail on his journey towards Ithaca. His next adventure was negotiating the Sirens, which I’ll cover tomorrow.