Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Witch Circe (Music of the Sirens)

The Greek witch Circe sits in her island palazzo spinning and weaving; she is understood as magically weaving destiny as well as crafting tapestries. She is often portrayed at her loom and so spinning became explicitly associated with witchcraft. 

                                      The Music of the Sirens

Circe, Witch, Daughter of the Sun, am I, who sees what is beyond knowledge of men. By my magical arts, I send my thoughts here and there, as if borne on falcon's swift wings, and thus I know much that lies under light or in shadow: tricks of transformation, strangely - woven songs, the sea's secret ways, the desires of mortals... 

I once granted hospitality to famed Odysseus, as he journeyed home from war. Some years he stayed with me, and at our parting I advised him of dangers that yet remained before him. I told him of the sea-monster Scylla, who strikes like a serpent from her cave and bears victims away in her six ravenous mouths.

Of Charybdis I spoke well, and warned him not to dare the rushing waters of the abyss. Yet despite this fore-knowledge, he was not able to prevent the deaths of six of his followers, lost in the passage between these twin threats: I could give him only warnings, not guidance.

In the realm of the Sirens, though, I could offer better advice, for their lures are easy to escape. These great, dark birds have the faces of women, and when a ship nears their green and lovely island they raise a song of enchantment that draws close all who hear it, but the shores of their country are white with the bones of those who come to land.

I directed Odysseus to block the ears of his crew with wax; for himself, however, I suggested that he should be bound to the mast by his men, in order to hear the Siren's calls. 

The Sirens steal the wind from passing ships. Thus his craft becalmed just off their island, and out of the midday heat the burning stillness of the sea their voices came floating, shimmering.

Odysseus had listened to my words, and his men rowed calmly on, their ears stopped up with wax. But Odysseus himself - ah, his cries, and his struggling! For the Sirens sing of wisdom, of the understanding of the past and the future, and they sing with the terrible clarity of the mad or the enlightened. 

How Odysseus shouted to his followers, pleading for his freedom even as they tightened the ropes which bound him to the mast! Then he cried aloud to the Sirens themselves, begging them to come to him, as he could not go to them. Yet they did not appear, and the island was gradually left behind.

Only when they were long out of sight of the Siren's isle, and Odysseus had ceased to struggle and hung exhausted in his bounds, did his followers finally release him, and offered them many words of thanks. 

Yet I wonder whether those words came truly from his soul, or whether there was a taste of disappointment like ashes in his mouth as he spoke them. Was he ashamed that, in hearing those sweet, strange songs, he had forgotten his duty to his homeland, to his followers, to his own wife?

Or did he regret that he had not been free to obey their summoning?  And I wonder, too, who on the ship left was most utterly desolate: Odysseus, who could hear the Siren's calls and yet slowly, achingly, was drawn away from them, oar-stroke by fateful oar-stroke; or the deafened, oblivious sailors, who could not hear them at all. 

I hope you enjoyed the story of Circe, the witch, as much as I enjoyed re-telling it. 

Brightest of Blessings,