Reading visual art: 16 Circe and sorceresses

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

There’s something special about mythical and legendary sorceresses, who combine their working of dark arts with skills of seduction, making them among the earliest femmes fatales. Their depictions are often rich in symbols and fertile ground for iconography. This article looks at some paintings of Circe and sundry sorceresses, and tomorrow’s centres on Medea, who proves even more complex.

Greek mythology held that Circe was the goddess of magic, adept at all manner of potions and spells. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his colleagues arrived on her island, where she invited them 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, then 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.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), oil on canvas, 149 x 92 cm, Gallery Oldham, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In his Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus from 1891, John William Waterhouse shows Circe true to Homer’s account, offering Odysseus the enchanted cup containing wine laced with her magical potion. Her left hand wields the requisite 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 no doubt used in her potion, and at the far right is a tripod for burning incense.

Briton Rivière (1840-1920), Circe and her Swine (before 1896), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Briton Rivière’s painting of Circe and her Swine was used as an illustration for several versions of Homer’s Odyssey, and unusually casts Circe as a magic swineherd, her wand resting behind her.

Eglon Hendrik van der Neer (1634–1703), Circe Punishes Glaucus by Turning Scylla into a Monster (1695), oil on canvas, 64 x 53.3 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Eglon van der Neer’s Circe Punishes Glaucus by Turning Scylla into a Monster from 1695 tells a different myth, as described in its title. Circe takes the limelight, as she casts her potion from a flaming silver salver held in her right hand. Dripping onto that is the wax from a large candle, held in her left hand. In the water below, Scylla has already been transformed into a gorgonesque figure, with snakes for hair, and the grotesque Glaucus watches from behind. Above and to the right of Circe is a small dragon perched on a rock ledge.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Circe Invidiosa (1892), oil on canvas, 180.7 x 87.4 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

The year after his painting of her offering Odysseus her potion, Waterhouse painted Circe again in his Circe Invidiosa (1892). Despite its narrative limitations, this offers a marvellous insight into the character of Circe, as she pours her brilliant emerald green potion into the water, ready for Scylla to come and bathe.

Although it’s sometimes claimed to show Circe, the next painting made by Dosso Dossi in about 1518-1531 almost certainly shows Melissa, a ‘good’ sorceress and assistant to Merlin, in Orlando Furioso.

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

Melissa (Circe) is set in a richly detailed landscape. She 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.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), A Rose in Armida’s Garden (1894), watercolour and graphite on paper, 64.8 x 43.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali Stillman’s A Rose in Armida’s Garden (1894) has little narrative as such, but refers to the Eastern sorceress who is a central figure in Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered. There is more here than just her beauty, though, as some of the petals fall symbolically off her roses.

Morgan le Fay, also known as Morganna, Fata Morgana, and other variants, is generally taken to be King Arthur’s sister or half-sister, and at least an enchantress if not a full-blown sorceress or ‘fay’, a fairy. She marries King Urien, and at times is recognised as a queen alongside Queen Guinevere. However, there’s no love lost between Morgan and Guinevere, and Morgan repeatedly schemes unsuccessfully to usurp Arthur’s throne. Late in Arthur’s life, the siblings are reconciled, and it’s Morgan who accompanies Arthur on his final voyage to Avalon, where she becomes its immortal queen.

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Morgan-le-Fay (1863-64), oil on wood panel, 61.8 cm x 43.7 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederick Sandys’ Morgan-le-Fay from 1863-64 casts her as an alchemist-sorceress, working on mysterious spells. Her right hand holds an oil lamp, and at her feet are spell-books. Behind her is a tripod with burning coals.

The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Magic Circle (1886), oil on canvas, 182.9 x 127 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1886), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In John William Waterhouse’s Magic Circle from 1886, a barefoot sorceress draws a blazing magic circle in the dust around her, as smoke and steam rises vertically from a more substantial tripod used to heat and brew her potion. In her left hand she holds a golden sickle, used to harvest magical herbs. Outside that magic circle are half a dozen sinister ravens or crows watching.