Saturday, July 11, 2009

Circe Invidiosa

One of the most striking paintings in the Waterhouse exhibition at London's Royal Academy is a tall painting of a beautiful woman tipping luminous turquoise water into an azure pool. It is a luscious vision of blue green.

Going closer, I see the title is Circe Invidiosa: Jealous Circe. I know who Circe is - the sorceress who turned Odysseus men in to swine - but I don't know this particular story. So I do some detective work. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Of course.

In Metamorphoses Book 14, Ovid tells of a fisherman named Glaucus who comes to Circe with a problem. He loves a girl named Scylla. She lives on the island of Sicily and although he has courted her in every manner, she has rejected him. Circe looks Glaucus up and down and says 'Forget love potions. Become my lover. Spurn the one who spurns you and reward she who admires you, and in that one act be twice revenged.'

'Seaweed will grow on the hills,' says Glaucus, 'before I love anybody but her.'

The sorceress is furious and decides to take revenge, not on Glaucus, whom she decides she loves, but on the innocent Scylla. Circe Invidiosa (jealous Circe) prepares a terrible potion and pours it in the grotto where Scylla goes to bathe. As soon as Scylla steps into the pool, the 'water around her groin erupts with yelping monsters'. Seven dogs' heads rise snarling out of the sea. Scylla screams and tries to slap them away. But every blow causes her pain because they are part of her. Her lower limbs have become horrible man-eating dogs.

Revolted and traumatized by this metamorphosis, the once-beautiful Scylla takes shelter in a grotto near the straits of Messina, the place where Sicily almost touches the toe of Italy. And when sailors pass by, her monstrous dog-heads dart out and gulp them down still living. Poor Odysseus loses six men this way.

Waterhouse has shown Circe wearing a stunning gown of peacock feathers. The poison matches her dress. It is a luminous turquoise, like a liquid jewel. But this beautiful mixture will cause unimaginable horror and pain to poor innocent Scylla. Mercifully, the monsterfied girl is eventually turned into a rock, and so her suffering ends.

Note that Circe is shown standing on one of her many beasts in thrall, a kind of dog-faced sea creature that hints at what is to come.

Nowhere does Ovid say Glaucus is good looking, so why does Circe want his love? I think Circe is like one of those beautiful girls who wants every man to desire her, and always pursues the one man who doesn't. Ovid describes her as passing through a crowd of fawning animals. These are enchanted men who have drunk the potion of Circe's beauty and have been made bestial by their desire for her. Although she has a crowd of admirers, she wants Glaucus, the one man who seems resistent to her beauty. But you know that if ever he was ensnared by her and professed his love, she would soon grow bored with him.

J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It is now finished, kaput, over.

If you liked this post check out my takes on these other paintings by Waterhouse: Ariadne, Hylas, Adonis, Narcissus and Orpheus.

[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The BBC televised some of the books and you can get DVDs.] 


  1. That story took a great stretch of imagination. Chills race down my spine thinking of such a fate. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Circe is clearly not someone you would wish to irritate.

    Great story.

  3. Anonymous1:36 PM

    Thank you for some additional background on this painting. Your research is appreciated. Like you, I have always been enamored with this beautiful painting by J.W. Waterhouse, and have a reproduction of it in my home. Clearly, Circe is a woman/enchantress with a bad reputation. As rumors abound, I had heard that this painting represents Circe poisioning the sea after Odysseus and his men left the island in which she presided over. She had a year long affair and bore 3 sons and a daughter with Odysseus(quick reproductive cycle!), and was in a jealous rage when he slipped away one night with his men, to return to his wife.

  4. Laurel2:18 AM

    I also have a reproduction of this painting in my house. It is beautiful painting for such a dark story. It hangs as a reminder of what results of acting out of anger!

  5. Oh wow what a fascinating story! I also didn't know that these paintings are on exhibition now. I will definitely go and take a look.

  6. NO! Don't GO. It was on a few years ago!! :P

  7. Oh yes I just tried to book tickets and realised it was 2009! Haha I should really read dates on blog posts

  8. What a magnificent painting! I wish I could see it up close and personal.