BMCR 2011.02.37

Il mito di Circe: Immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi

, , Il mito di Circe: Immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi. Torino: Einaudi, 2010. xxii, 404. ISBN 9788806188306. €28.00 (pb).

Here is the fifth title in the series “Mythologica,” edited by Maurizio Bettini, published by Einaudi.1 The format of the books is performative of the guiding idea of the series, that a classical myth, as story, as image, or as interpretation, is endlessly transformed. Each begins with a new version of the myth from the pen of Bettini, continues with a specialist’s rethinking of the ancient myth, and includes a set of color plates, chosen by Stefano Chiodi and Claudio Franzoni, that illustrate the history of the myth’s iconography. In the present volume, these plates begin with the Circe depicted on a sixth-century altar from Sicily and end with Silvia Mangano and Kirk Douglas in a still from the film Ulisse (1954). Cristiana Franco contributes the central section. In the format of the series, the third, concluding section is called “Readings.” Here Franco traces the history of the reception of Circe from late antiquity to the twentieth century, adding what we call “suggestions for further reading” (351-62).

From Franco’s earlier work on women as dogs in the ancient Greek mentality, it was not a long step to men as swine.2 She has, moreover, a broad knowledge of and sympathy for animals in antiquity, of which the present book contains some bravura descriptions. The somewhat relaxed and essayistic character of the saggio, a kind of scholarly book not much cultivated by us Anglophones, makes such excursuses possible. One’s only complaint about the design of the saggi in this series is that no index of any kind is provided.

After Bettini’s imagined episode in the strange adventures of Odysseus beyond the Odyssey we find the story of Odysseus and Circe in the Odyssey outlined in Franco’s first chapter, “The goddess of Aeaea.” Franco briefly sets Homer’s version against that of Plutarch in the dialogue Gryllus, which is named after a pig to which or to whom Circe restores the power of speech. Gryllus, who declines the invitation to be restored to human form and return to Greece, in effect establishes a counter-reading of the Homeric episode. We soon move to the moment in which Odysseus secures the goddess’ promise not to unman him once he is naked, taking up the question of moly, the substance given Odysseus by Hermes, without which he would never have reached Circe’s bed. Franco deftly reviews and deflects ancient and modern pharmacological opinions, preferring a mythological explanation that she finds in Ptolemaeus Chennus. Picolous, a giant, appeared on Aeaea; desired Circe; was killed by her father, Helios. From his blood sprang moly.

Coming to the voyage of Odysseus from Aeaea to Hades and back, Franco argues, against the scholars who continue to trace this voyage on a map of known places, that it is only mythical. She sides with Alain Ballabriga in his Les fictions d’Homère. She ends with the variants of the myth that make Circe the mother of about ten heroes in all. They were the originators of four or five lines of descent in western Greece, none mentioned in the Odyssey. For reasons of the plot, as Franco points out, Odysseus must be monogamous and concentrate on his return to home and wife. Short-term relationships (Calypso, Circe) were possible; second families were ruled out.

In chapter 2, “The quest for meaning,” Franco’s program is to consider the main interpretations of Circe and then to present her own. She begins with allegory and rationalizing, in particular Euhemerism, and recounts in deft, engaging fashion the fortune of Circe in this long history of interpretation. (Even Horace relied on this tradition in Epistles 1.2.17-31.)

In the next division of this chapter, “Folk motifs,” she identifies two kinds of story that look like good analogues. In one, it is an inn-keeper who plays the role of Circe; in the other, it is a witch whom a young man and his companions meet in the forest when they are hunting. The fact that the Odyssean encounter with Circe is preceded by a hunting episode has seemed significant (125-29). When one looks at Circe from the east, iconography seems more important than narrative. Franco discusses, with several helpful black and white figures, first the potnia theōn and then the probably related nude goddess whose arrival in Greece in the eighth century is attested by numerous clay figurines. Marinatos has stressed the appearance of a nude Circe four times in vase painting of the sixth century B.C.E., i.e., at a time when the representation of the female nude was restricted to prostitutes. Franco considers two other possibilities: that the nudity reflects an already current allegorization of Circe as erotic pleasure; that it reflects the state of the parthenos, as on the Attic krateriskoi from Brauron or on a sixth-century bronze Laconian mirror. A third possibility, supported by the fragments of Sophocles’ Rizotomoi, is that the nudity of Circe signifies her magical powers.

The final section of this chapter on the “quest for meaning” is “Speaking goddesses and queens of beyond the tomb” (144-53). Circe has the epithet audēessa, as does Calypso. Franco’s discussion of this and Circe’s other epithets ( deinē, doloessa) lead to a collocation with Calypso. Both are non-Olympic divinities capable of unmediated interaction with humans. Franco moves on, then, to “tautegory,” a term that she says was invented as the antonym of “allegory” to mean that “myth speaks of itself, finds its meaning in the order of elements that it puts in play and in the narrative structures that it produces” (154).

She begins her tautegorical reading with the companions of Odysseus. They are anonymous, with a couple of exceptions (167 n. 172), in a heroic milieu in which to have a name, to be renowned, is everything. Because, as Franco is able to show, there was a parallel tradition in which they did have names and were transformed, not all of them into swine, but into various animals, according to their personalities, their anonymity is all the more striking They are an ill-disciplined lot who deserve what they get: the stupidity of the pig, its primary characteristic for the ancient Greeks, is the most likely metaphoric significance of the transformation.

She proceeds to illustrate, from the encyclopedia (this time s.v. “boar”), the opposition between the tame and the wild pig, referring to the famous boar hunts, including the one in which Odysseus got his scar. Could one think, then, she asks, of the transformation of the companions into domestic pigs as the inversion of the warrior image of the kapros, further contrasting them with their leader (176-83)?

In the brief section, “Sguardi” (perhaps “Perspectives”), Franco shifts into the first person and sums up her interpretation of the Circe episode. She sees it as “eminently androcentric.” Referring ironically to the old idea (it goes back to Ptolemaeus Chennus) that a woman composed the Odyssey, she says that we have to be astonished that this woman completely succeeded in taking the male perspective of the internal narrator. (Methodological reflections on the very last page of the chapter link up with the earlier ones on “tautegory.”)

The third of Franco’s three chapters is “Rethinking Circe.” She discusses briefly the strange encounter of Jason and Medea with Circe in the Jurassic Park (213) in which Apollonius puts her ( Argon. 4.661-752), comparing this Circe with Homer’s.3 Next Aeneas rounds the promontory of Circeii, prudently avoiding an encounter with Circe ( Aen. 7.170-193). He and his men hear lions, bears, boars and, in a strange expression, “forms of wolves” ( formae maiorum … luporum) struggling against chains and cages. In a valuable excursus (221-24), Franco, asking whether the Vergilian take on Circe might not arise from a specifically Roman experience of animals, compares the Romans and the Greeks in this respect. She asks whether the animals of the Italian Circe might not be modeled on the ones known to the Roman arena and refers to the ancient etymology that connected the name Circe with circus.

Franco then turns to magic for a long stretch (227-45). Circe is never called a magician, and her powers do not distinguish her from other gods and goddesses. “Either all the Homeric gods are magicians or magic consists in something quite different from producing unexpected and extraordinary effects” (229). The term magic is anachronistic as applied to Homer. The notion of magic, once it arrived on the scene, became a dump into which the new intellectuals could throw everything unworthy of the name of religion (i.e., the purified religion of a Socrates at, e.g., Pl. Phaedo 80e) or science. According to another school, magic was known to Homer but suppressed as indecorous. In any case, says Franco, Circe must have appeared to the Greeks and later to the Romans as a magician. She finds traces in Apollonius and Vergil. The oldest writer who refers explicitly to Circe as a magician is Dionysius Scytobrachion (3rd c. B.C.E.).

At this point Ovid enters with his revised Circe, who, unlike Homer’s, is in love with Odysseus and tries to prevent his leaving Aeaea ( Remedia amoris 263-90). Ovid returns to Circe in the Metamorphoses, in which she appears in three different stories: with Odysseus14.248-307, Picus 14.308-434, and Glaucus13.898-14.69. Franco ends her discussion of Ovid by bringing together his strictures on love potions in Ars amatoria (2.105-8) — he refers to Circe — with the Circe of the Metamorphoses, who, despite her consummate skill in the use of herbs and incantations, cannot change the laws that govern erotic attraction. Ovid transforms his models into a new Circe, the prototype of a new myth, which will have great success in following centuries.

No one was ever better prepared than Franco for a reading of the Circe episode in Satyrica 126ff., to which she turns next, giving a bemused account of Petronius’ “degradation of the model” (273-81). She concludes this section with two suggestions concerning the reception of Petronius’ Circe: that James Joyce had her in mind when he composed the Nighttown episode in Ulysses; and that she was Heinrich Mann’s model for the chanteuse in Professor Unrat (1904), the character played by Marlene Dietrich in the film version, “Der Blaue Engel” (1930). Franco ends the chapter “Rethinking Circe” with a discussion of Plutarch’s Bruta animalia ratione uti or Gryllus (985d-992d) (282-96). Circe bestows speech on a pig, who then convincingly demonstrates to Odysseus that it is better to be an animal than a human. The theme is taken up by Machiavelli in the unfinished L’asino d’oro (1517). A much more successful treatment was the Grillo of Giovan Battista Gelli (1549). This time, Odysseus convinces his interlocutor, an elephant, of human superiority. But in a brief conclusion Franco sides with the animals (295-96).


1. Maurizio Bettini and Carlo Brillante, Il mito di Elena (2002); Maurizio Bettini and Ezio Pellizer, Il mito di Narciso (2003), BMCR 2003.09.21 (Monica Ressel Giordani); Maurizio Bettini and Giulio Guidorizzi, Il mito di Edipo (2004), BMCR 2006.10.39 (Robert W. Wallace); Maurizio Bettini and Luigi Spina, Il mito delle Sirene (2007), BMCR 2007.11.20 (Natalia Agapiou). Each volume has the same sub-title: Immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi. Aeneas is next. Antigone is promised. French translations of the first four volumes have recently appeared (Éditions Belin: Paris, 2010).

2. Senza ritegno: il cane e la donna nell’immaginario della Grecia antica (Bologna: Il mulino, 2003), BMCR 2005.08.17 (Sharon L. James).

3. She is abreast of scholarship on this episode which would have appeared moments before she finished her manuscript but does not cite the extensive discussion of Circe in ch. 4 of Virginia H. Knight, The Renewal of Epic: Responses to Homer in the Argonautica of Apollonius (Leiden: Brill, 1995).