BMCR 1995.12.04

1995.12.04, Yarnall, Transformations of Circe

, Transformations of Circe : the history of an enchantress. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. x, 245 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780252020636. $14.95.

Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress, by Judith Yarnall takes on the double task of explaining the symbolic significance of the goddess Circe as she existed both in the ancient world at large and in ancient Greece in particular, and how Circe as a literary figure, and as an emblem of sexuality specifically, metamorphosized throughout western literary tradition.

Chapter 1 is, in Yarnall’s own words, “… a retelling of Homer’s story, with close attention to some of the details of his phrasing” (p. 9). Books 10 and 12 of Homer’s Odyssey, the portions relevant to Odysseus’ meeting and interactions with Circe, are re-told by Yarnall, with commentary and intention interjected throughout. Of particular importance to Yarnall in this opening chapter are the positive relationship between the sexes which she sees embodied in the Circe/Odysseus tale, and Circe’s identification as an ancient goddess.

As Yarnall herself admits, “My late twentieth-century, feminist biases—towards the equality and complimentarity of the sexes, towards a consciousness as informed by intuition and the senses as it is by reason, towards the emergence of synthesis from seemingly intractable dualisms—color my understanding of the Circe-Odysseus myth …” (p. 17) Thus Yarnall interprets the meeting of these two Homeric figures as the union of male and female, and the resultant trust and love shown between them as Homer’s belief in the potential, if not, need, of the sexes to live together in harmony. As Yarnall states it, “The most profound transformation that take place in this myth is the turning of male-female hostility into union and trust” (p. 21).

Just as important as Circe’s representation of the female is Circe’s identification as a goddess, more specifically, her identification as “The Great Goddess” worshipped throughout the millennia in the ancient world. Chapter 2 of Transformations traces the archaeological and iconographic origins of the “Lady of the Beasts” figure with which Yarnall closely associates the figure of Circe. She examines Circe’s name, which she associates with the Greek word for hawk, kirkos. This she then projects back onto the cult of the vulture goddess discovered by Mellaart at Catal Huyuk, Anatolia, and claims that Circe is thus yet another manifestation of an original great mother goddess associated with birds of the air. Yarnall next discusses the potnia theron, “Mistress of the Animals,” figure frequently represented in Aegean iconography. This image is, supposedly, another forebear to the Circe figure, the female divinity associated with fawning wild animals. As such, Circe must be associated not only with the Anatolian vulture goddess of extreme pre-history, but as well with the later Babylonian/Anatolian Kubebe/Kybele goddess, the Magna Mater worshipped into the Roman Age, Ishtar, and as well with Artemis, the later Greek deity of animal fertility.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with what Yarnall sees as the transformation of myth into allegory in the tale of Circe and Odysseus. Specifically, Yarnall examines the classical origins of the mind/body split so prevalent in Platonic discourse, and the way in which this split casts Circe not into the role of guide and friend as she was in the Homeric epic, but as the embodiment of sensuality and its accompanying woes.

Chapter 3 begins with a look at the Homeric epics, which, Yarnall claims, “are innocent of dualism” (p. 55). As such the mind/body split present in classical thought cannot colour Homer’s depiction of the deine thea. However, the emerging philosophies of Orphism, Pythagorism, and finally Platonism evolve into the Hellenic way of thinking, eventuating a scorn of the body in preference for the sublime glories of the mind. Yarnall here pays especially close attention to Plato’s Phaedo, Symposium, and Phaedrus, examining such issues as body as tomb, the man as midwife to male thought, and the unruliness of the passions. It was this dichotomy of thought, Yarnall claims, that allowed Circe to assume her role as the image of sensuality, the body, which tempted and endangered the rational Odysseus in his journeys.

Chapter 4 continues with the allegorization of Circe, from pagan Roman through early Christian times. Yarnall examines the works of Apollonius of Rhodes, Vergil, and Ovid with a particular emphasis on how their Circes differ from that of Homer. In each case, as Yarnall points out, the presence of the goddess is minimized or, in the case of Ovid, trivialized. Thus in the Argonautica Circe merely serves to purify Jason and Medea before they continue on their voyage, while in the Aeneid Circe is only present insofar as Aeneas has the presence of mind to avoid her island entirely. By contrast, Ovid paints a picture of a Circe who is conquered by her own lust, living among her beasts in the eternal languishing of her carnal desires. Once again Yarnall points to the disdain for the body that colours the Roman perception of the goddess, and with it the growing ideology of the female linkage with the material. This becomes even more relevant at the dawning of Christianity within the empire. “The Homeric allegorists’ vision of a voluptuous Circe beckoning the rational, temperate Odysseus to drink from her poisoned cup possesses obvious similarities to the figure of Eve holding out the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to a still-innocent Adam in Genesis 3 … and the biases the early Church fathers brought into its interpretation are essentially the same biases that the allegorists brought to bear upon Circe” (p. 91). St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Boethius are all considered in Yarnall’s analysis, and they wreak perhaps the greatest havoc on women’s, thus Circe’s, status throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Through them the identification of women with nature, hence sensuality, hence sin, is set at its greatest contrast with the spiritual superiority of men, and the union of Circe and Odysseus is transformed for the next several centuries into the conflict of Circe and Odysseus.

Chapters 5 through 7 consider Renaissance through 17th century portrayals of Circe, with special emphasis on Spencer’s The Faerie Queen and the works of John Milton. The most important transformations Yarnall notes in these chapters are are the reduction of Circe from goddess to enchantress/whore; and what might be termed the stereotyping of Circe’s character: the archetype of the animal-oriented seductress going by names other than Circe.

As Yarnall states at the end of Chapter 4, “… Circe, who survived as a remnant of the ancient Goddess within the Mycenaean setting of Homer’s epic, could not survive with plentitude and divinity intact in the Christian West” (p. 98). This comes across most strongly in the images and quotes Yarnall draws from the Renaissance Emblamata books, such as those of Alciati and Whitney, wherein the authors warn their pious readers “of Circe’s cuppes beware,” (fig. 15) and “Cavendum a meretricibus” “Beware of Prostitutes” (p. 106). While Circe has lost the fear she aroused from her immortal powers, nonetheless her transformative, bestial sensuality is presented as terrifying in itself. “Whatever their shortcomings in complexity, these emblem books have the virtue of making graphic the root of the fear evoked by the Circe myth: the fear of surrender to, of engulfment by, sexual feelings” (p. 107). Yarnall also includes in this chapter paintings from such artists as Dossi, Tibaldi, and Carracci. Each presents a differing view of the “enchantress,” from Dossi’s “Circe” who presents wisdom tablets to her menagerie, to Tibaldi’s fresco showing Circe defending herself from Ulysses’ sword.

It is also here that Yarnall explores the Circe archetype which evolves in the Renaissance. “The best known Circe figure in English literature is not named Circe. Yet the ability of Acrasia, the seductress of the Bower of Bliss at the end of book 2 of The Faerie Queen, to turn men … into animals leaves little doubt about her mythological ancestry” (p. 127). Chapter 6 is dedicated entirely to Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, where Yarnall contrasts Spencer’s Acrasia, the Circe-figure, with Britomart, the chaste, noble heroine and “ancestor” of Queen Elizabeth. The contrast is intended to show the furthest extremes of British ideas of the feminine, and, ironically, the extent to which both are destroyed or abandoned during the male-dominated quests for the honour of Glorianna. The imbalance which Yarnall sees between male/female, reason/body does not allow for a successful contribution to the tale by the feminine, and thus both “witch” and virgin aspects of the female must ultimately come to naught by the end of Spencer’s narrative.

Chapter 7 rounds out the Renaissance/Early Modern view of Circe with particular emphasis on the poetry and mask plays of Calderon, Lope de Vega, Tavistock, Townshend, and, most importantly, Milton. Excluding the last of these, Yarnall considers the most important element in the works of these men Circe’s consistent willingness to hand over her source of power, usually in the shape of her “magic” wand, in exchange for love, be it from Odysseus or some even less substantial ideal. Thus, at the end of Townshend’s Tempe Restored, “Circe, who as Desire is always susceptible to Beauty, realizes the depravity of her former zoological tastes and voluntarily gives up her magical rod. Celestial Harmony floats down from above, Heroic Virtue dances in from the wings” (p. 147). Milton, by contrast, offers Western literature its first male Circe: Comus, the son of Circe and Dionysos. Here as well the battle is between sexuality and virtue, Comus vs an Attendant Spirit for possession of a maiden. But, unlike his reconciliatory predecessors, Milton banishes Comus/Circe: the body is not brought into submission to the mind, but repressed entirely. In all cases the drawn-out battle between body and mind has been won (on the spiritual side), and the “Lovelorn Temptress,” as Yarnall calls her, has finally been brought into proper submission.

Once the battle is over, the pendulum begins its return arc, and thus Yarnall arrives in the 19th and 20th centuries where an entirely new approach to the goddess and what she represents emerges. Chapter 8 looks at the artistic works of the pre-Raphaelite school where Circe, just as beautiful and sensuous as before, begins to appear as neither evil not submissive, but empowered and enticing; she becomes again the entity whom Homer first created to test and to aid Odysseus. The remainder of the chapter is an analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, with particular emphasis on the brothel of Bella Cohen. Some familiar themes are already present: the Circe archetype assumed by a mortal, the Circe figure as prostitute. But the major difference between Joyce’s Circe and those of the preceding two millennia is that Joyce sees in transformation and sexuality a beneficial aspect. It is within the brothel of Bella, the realm of Circe, that Bloom is transformed from cuckold to masochist to saviour to the father of Stephen Daedalus, and thus we might assume is healed of the impotence caused by the death of his child. He is returned younger and healthier than before, as were the men of Odysseus; and he might return home, renewed, to the bed of his beloved and overtly sexual wife, Molly.

Finally, in chapter 9, entitled “Her Voice,” we hear the Circe story from the female perspective. Here Yarnall examines the works of Eudora Welty and Margaret Atwood. In them she sees an entirely new perspective of the goddess, a view dominated not by sensuality, but by the desire for companionship and an understanding of the human mind. As Yarnall interprets Welty’s Circe, “No longer satisfied with the impersonal and elemental, or with her own ability to control, she seems, like Homer’s Calypso, painfully caught between the divine and the human” (p. 186). Likewise: “Atwood’s cycle tells the story of a love, an intense but brief affair that goes through many seasons of feeling during its short span of time” (p. 187). The themes presented are no longer matters of conquest and repression, but examinations into the unknown, especially concerning matters of mortality and intimacy, issues which have come under renewed scrutiny in the late 20th century.

In its praise, Transformations of Circe is certainly exhaustive, well-researched, and inclusive. Likewise, I think that Yarnall takes an interesting approach to the study of the goddess, examining portrayals of Circe vis-à-vis a society’s ideals and opinions concerning women and the body. This is, after all, one of the primary purposes of comparative literature.

There are, however, flaws within the work, the most blatant of which is Yarnall’s biased feminism. While it is certainly regrettable that women have been associated with the “lower elements” throughout the centuries, and thus have been repressed as inferiors, Yarnall’s vehemence against all artists who portray Circe in a negative light detracts from the scholarly value of her book. Also, as she herself admits, her feminist biases colour her understanding of the Circe-Odysseus myth, and thus rather than arriving at an understanding of how Homer and his audience originally understood the figure of Circe, Yarnall projects back what she would like to believe about the Circe myth. Thus entire chapters dedicated to the notions of universal, monotheistic goddess-worship, an idea for which there is no evidence, and the equality of the sexes, which I doubt was an overwhelming concern of either Homer or his fellow Greeks. In so doing, Yarnall ignores alternate interpretations of the Odyssey, such as concepts of sophrosyne and the heroic journey, and thus she is unable to fit the encounter between Circe and Odysseus into the larger framework of the Odyssey. Perhaps, if Yarnall had offered a translation of the Circe-Odysseus passages, instead of merely a “re-telling” she would have been obliged to focus on Homer’s words instead of her own suppositions. This shaky foundation then colours the rest of Circe’s evolution throughout Transformations; as Yarnall cannot quite determine what Circe is originally, she cannot properly assess into what Circe changes.

In sum, I would say that Transformations of Circe is both interesting and valuable reading for anyone interested in comparative literature. However, the general reader should be cautioned when reading what Yarnall has to say about the Classical and Pre-Classical world.