It is my belief that the Goddess Freyja appears in Greek mythology under the guise of Kírkē, daughter of Helios and sister of Pasiphaë.
I first began to form this belief after reading in Simon Halink’s Asgard Revisited: Old Norse Mythology and Icelandic National Culture 1820-1918 of Óðr’s quest for a magical flower capable of transforming the harsh heart of the Witch of the North:
In the South, Óður meets Apollo, god of light and poetry, who leads the way to a magical flower which symbolises the warm virtues of the South. Óður takes the flower to Ásgarðr where he presents it to his wife, who is not only the goddess of love but also of war and therefore arguably too belligerent to personify Benedikt’s more Romantic concept of love. The hard, martial element in Freyja’s character is here symbolised by Brísingamen; a piece of mythical jewelry generally considered to be a necklace but here presented as a brooch. Upon Óður’s return, this cold metal object is dramatically shattered and replaced by the flower of the South.
The literary theme of a quest for a hidden flower with supernatural (transformative) powers did not arise from the Eddic sources themselves, but forms a quintessentially Romantic trope which started with Novalis’s ‘blue flower’: an allegory for the Romantic ideals of nature, inspiration, and the Sublime. This theme already inspired Bjarni Thorarensen’s application of ‘white lilies’ in his Sigrúnarljóð (‘Sigrún’s Song’; 1820), but in Brísingamen the flower is for the first time applied as a symbol not of personal, but rather national transformation and regeneration. This innovative resignification serves as a good example of how the personal (or subjective), the natural, and the national (Volksgeist) are intertwined in the Romantic imagination.
The poem ends with the rather non-descriptive remark that the reunited lovers ‘returned home’, but this does not diminish the monumental message Benedikt tries to convey in these verses. The love goddess Freyja, stripped of her Nordic harshness (Brísingamen) and adorned with the flower of Southern love and warmth, personifies Benedikt’s ideal of a balanced symbiosis of Nordic and Southern/classical characteristics.
Which immediately made me think of the magical μῶλυ flower given by Hermes, rich in wiles, to the πολυτρόπως (‘much-traveled’ or ‘of many forms, personalities’) hero Odysseus, so that he might counteract Kírkē’s seductive sorceries and win over her savage Southern heart:
And with that I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades and was approaching the palace of Kirke the enchantress I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; he seemed a youth in the lovely spring of life, with the first down upon his lip. He seized my hand and spoke thus to me : “Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know? Your comrades are yonder in Kirke’s grounds; they are turned to swine, lodged and safely penned in. Is your errand here to rescue them? I warn you, you will never return yourself, you will only be left with the others there. Yet no–I am ready to save you from all hazards, ready to keep you unscathed. Look. Here is a flower of magic virtue; take it and enter Kirke’s house with it; then the day of evil never will touch your head. I will tell you of all her witch’s arts. She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic flower will thwart her. (Homer, Odyssey 10.274-90)
And that’s when my head began whirling like a falcon’s gyre.
Κίρκη, you see, means either “falcon” (from κίρκος) or “ring” (from κρίκος) – both of which ultimately derive from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ker- “to bend, turn, or move in a circular fashion.”
Judith Yarnall in Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress argues that:
… the more the association of hawks with Circe’s character is investigated, the more convincing it becomes. The ornithological aspect of her name has a familial significance, since her brother Aietes’ name derives from aietos, meaning eagle. The name of her island Aiaia, may be based upon a West Semitic word for hawk, ayya, though we have no way of knowing for sure. But there are better, more encompassing reasons for seeing the hawk in Circe. Long before Homer imagined Circe, birds had been associated with the divine. According to Marija Gimbutas, birds appear in the prehistoric art of Europe and Asia Minor as “the main epiphany of the Goddess as Giver-of-all, including life and death, happiness and wealth.” Flesh-eating birds such as hawks and vultures possess a distinct but related tradition of iconography that was particularly strong in Anatolia, along whose Aegean coast Homer probably spent most of his professional life. This tradition is particularly relevant to Circe. According to Gimbutas birds of prey, when they appear in prehistoric art, “are omens of death and epiphanies of the Death-Wielder.” The tradition of a Vulture/Hawk Goddess who was indigenous to Asia Minor appears to stretch from neolithic Çatal Hüyük to Hellenistic times. At one of the oldest levels of settlement James Mellaart unearthed what he calls “Vulture Shrines,” mudbrick rooms painted with murals depicting the great birds swooping down with their ominous, outspread wings upon headless human bodies. These murals pictured part of this people’s death rites, for they exposed corpses to be picked clean before burying the bones beneath the floors of their houses. The human legs of one of the vultures suggest that it is more than just a bird, actually the Goddess herself in the form of a vulture. Gimbutas, following Mellaart’s interpretation, calls her, “She Who Takes Away Life, maleficent twin of She Who Gives Life.” The huge birds are not black but red, a color strongly associated with the blood of animal life and suggestive, therefore, of regeneration. In a shrine at a higher level Mellaart’s workers found a pair of heavy plaster breasts, with beaks in the place of nipples, protruding from a wall; they were found to be modelled over griffon vulture skulls. What image could express more directly or intensely the two sides of the Goddess? More than eight thousand years after its creation, this symbolism still arrests and appalls. In the millenia following Çatal Hüyük, raptors rather than vultures became the birds most often associated in Anatolia with the Goddess.
A similar origin is sometimes proposed for Freyja, for instance in Valgerður H. Bjarnadóttir’s Prolegomena to a cosmology of healing in Vanir Norse mythology:
Falcon in Old Norse and Icelandic is valr, the same name as for those who die in battle, the slain. The valr were likely originally the bird messengers of the great goddess of death and regeneration, having a function very similar to the vultures shown on the 8,000 year old walls of Catal Hüyük, where we also find a statue of a goddess with two lions or panthers (cats) by her side. This reference to the vultures of Catal Hüyük is not meant to indicate a direct correlation between the goddess culture in Anatolia in prehistoric times and the culture of the Vanir, although such a relationship could be argued for. It is meant to give an indication of the role of the fateful birdgoddess wherever she is found in the world. Death for her is a part of a spiraling process, of nurturing and being nurtured; she is as active in the slaying part as in the reviving and healing part, but those parts cannot be separated. The valkyrjur, those who weave the web of fate for men in battle are, like the nornir and dís, female beings who play an important role in the fate of individuals of human and divine ancestry, as well as the fate of the worlds. A part of their role is nurturing, healing, and regenerating. They serve, tend to, nurture and heal the dead in Valhöll and Fólkvangur every night after the day’s battle, so that in the morning they can rise again. Some valkyrjur take it upon themselves to protect certain people from death, they were their hamingjur or fylgjur. Although in so many of the myths that have come down to us they are connected to the battlefield, we can assume that they had a function around life, death and rebirth even in times when war was an unknown phenomenon. The many poems about valkyrjur, of whom the Völsunga poems are the best known, show well the enormous power to do good and ill those beings were thought to have. We also see from the poems and stories that they were thought to be woman, bird, gyðja and vættur all at once.
Remnants of which can be found in Eddic tales such as Þrymskviða:
The poem Þrymskviða features Loki borrowing Freyja’s cloak of feathers and Thor dressing up as Freyja to fool the lusty jötunn Þrymr. In the poem, Thor wakes up to find that his powerful hammer, Mjöllnir, is missing. Thor tells Loki of his missing hammer, and the two go to the beautiful court of Freyja. Thor asks Freyja if she will lend him her cloak of feathers, so that he may try to find his hammer. Freyja agrees, “That I would give thee, although of gold it were, and trust it to thee, though it were of silver.” Loki flies away in the whirring feather cloak, arriving in the land of Jötunheimr. He spies Þrymr sitting on top of a mound. Þrymr reveals that he has hidden Thor’s hammer deep within the earth and that no one will ever know where the hammer is unless Freyja is brought to him as his wife. Loki flies back, the cloak whistling, and returns to the courts of the gods. Loki tells Thor of Þrymr’s conditions. The two go to see the beautiful Freyja. The first thing that Thor says to Freyja is that she should dress herself and put on a bride’s headdress, for they shall drive to Jötunheimr. At that, Freyja is furious—the halls of the gods shake, she snorts in anger, and from the goddess the necklace Brísingamen falls. Indignant, Freyja responds, “Most lustful indeed should I look to all if I journeyed with thee to the giants’ home.” The gods and goddesses assemble at a thing and debate how to solve the problem. The god Heimdallr proposes to dress Thor up as a bride, complete with bridal dress, headdress, jingling keys, jewelry, and the famous Brísingamen. Thor objects but is hushed by Loki, reminding him that the new owners of the hammer will soon be settling in the land of the gods if the hammer isn’t returned. Thor is dressed as planned and Loki is dressed as his maid. Thor and Loki go to Jötunheimr. In the meantime, Thrym tells his servants to prepare for the arrival of the daughter of Njörðr. When “Freyja” arrives in the morning, Thrym is taken aback by her behavior; her immense appetite for food and mead is far more than what he expected, and when Thrym goes in for a kiss beneath “Freyja’s” veil he finds “her” eyes to be terrifying, and he jumps down the hall. The disguised Loki makes excuses for the bride’s odd behavior, claiming that she simply has not eaten or slept for eight days. In the end, the disguises successfully fool the jötnar and, upon sight of it, Thor regains his hammer by force. (Wikipedia, s.v. Freyja)
At the beginning of the book Skáldskaparmál, Freyja is mentioned among eight goddesses attending a banquet held for Ægir. Chapter 56 details the abduction of the goddess Iðunn by the jötunn Þjazi in the form of an eagle. Terrified at the prospect of death and torture due to his involvement in the abduction of Iðunn, Loki asks if he may use Freyja’s “falcon shape” to fly north to Jötunheimr and retrieve the missing goddess. Freyja allows it, and using her “falcon shape” Loki successfully returns Iðunn after a furious chase by eagle-Þjazi. (ibid)
Freyja’s falcon cloak speaks to the shamanic currents within seiðr, an ecstatic practice which Wikipedia describes as follows:
Seiðr is believed to come from Proto-Germanic *saiðaz, cognate with Lithuanian saitas, “sign, soothsaying” and Proto-Celtic *soito– “sorcery”, all derived from Proto-Indo-European *soi-to- “string, rope”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *seH2i- “to bind”.
Related words in Old High German and Old English refer to “cord, string,” or “snare, cord, halter” and there is a line in verse 15 of the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa that uses seiðr in that sense. However, it is not clear how this derivation relates to the practice of seiðr. It has been suggested that the use of a cord in attraction may be related to seiðr, where attraction is one element of the practice of seiðr magic described in Norse literature and with witchcraft in Scandinavian folklore. However, if seiðr involved “spinning charms”, that would explain the distaff, a tool used in spinning flax or sometimes wool, that appears to be associated with seiðr practice.
Old English terms cognate with seiðr are siden and sidsa, both of which are attested only in contexts that suggest that they were used by elves (ælfe); these seem likely to have meant something similar to seiðr. Among the Old English words for practitioners of magic are wicca (m.) or wicce (f.), the etymons of Modern English “witch”.
Seiðr involved the incantation of spells (galðrar, sing. galðr) and possibly a circular dance. Practitioners of seiðr were predominantly women (vǫlva or seiðkona “seiðr woman”), although there were male practitioners (seiðmaðr “seiðr-man”) as well.
These female practitioners were religious leaders of the Viking community and usually required the help of other practitioners to invoke their deities, gods or spirits. The seiðr ritual required not just the powers of a female spiritual medium but of the spiritual participation of other women within the Norse community: it was a communal effort. As they are described in a number of other Scandinavian sagas, Saga of Erik the Red in particular, the female practitioners connected with the spiritual realm through chanting and prayer. Viking texts suggest that the seiðr ritual was used in times of inherent crisis, as a tool used in the process of seeing into the future, and for cursing and hexing one’s enemies. With that said, it could have been used for great good or destructive evil, as well as for daily guidance.
In the 13th century Saga of Eric the Red, there was a seiðkona or vǫlva in Greenland named Thorbjǫrg (“Protected by Thor”). She wore a blue cloak and a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white ermine, carried the symbolic distaff (seiðstafr), which was buried with her, and would sit on a high platform. As related in the Saga:
Now, when she came in the evening, accompanied by the man who had been sent to meet her, she was dressed in such wise that she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads. On her head she had a black hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. A staff she had in her hand, with a knob thereon; it was ornamented with brass, and inlaid with gems round about the knob. Around her she wore a girdle of soft hair (or belt of touch wood), and therein was a large skin-bag, in which she kept the talismans needful to her in her wisdom. She wore hairy calf-skin shoes on her feet, with long and strong-looking thongs to them, and great knobs of latten at the ends. On her hands she had gloves of ermine-skin, and they were white and hairy within.
Practices Freyja was responsible for spreading among the Gods:
Like Oðinn, the Norse goddess Freyja is also associated with seiðr in the surviving literature. In the Ynglinga saga (c.1225), written by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, it is stated that seiðr had originally been a practice among the Vanir, but that Freyja, who was herself a member of the Vanir, had introduced it to the Æsir when she joined them. Freyja is identified in Ynglinga saga as an adept of the mysteries of seiðr, and it is said that it was she who taught it to Oðinn: “Njǫrðr’s daughter was Freyja. She presided over the sacrifice. It was she who first acquainted the Æsir with seiðr, which was customary among the Vanir.” (ibid)
And among mankind:
Because of her knowledge of seiðr, Freyja was the prophetess for the gods in Ásgarðr. But on earth or Miðgarðr, it was the vǫlva (pl. vǫlur), her priestesses, who could simulate Freyja’s prophetic function, although the distinction between the divinity and her priestesses could become quite blurred, if not fully identical. This is well illustrated in the Sörla þáttr where Freyja disguises herself as a vǫlva by the name of Göndul and is then solicited for numinous knowledge by an earthly king. Based on the written evidence as well as the archaeological discoveries of graves belonging to vǫlur – in all cases associated with very wealthy and distinguished women – the cult was widespread and much revered in Viking-age Scandinavia. Written and archaeological sources connect the cult of the vǫlur and the vǫlur themselves with birds and their sacrifice. For one, excavations of vǫlur graves have revealed that they were often buried with birds. Thus, in one tenth-century grave (the richest) at the Fyrkat cemetery in Denmark, identified as belonging to a vǫlva, a wooden chest filled with the remains of bones of birds and small animals was placed at the feet of the deceased female. Also, aside from the female figures with bird heads represented on the Oseberg tapestry, the boat grave of the two women (a least one of whom is identified as a vǫlva/priestess) also contained a pile of down and feathers, inside of which were placed cannabis seeds (most likely used in shamanic ritual). But, the most compelling evidence comes from the written records. Erik the Red Saga relates that during her prophetic vision ceremony in Greenland in ca. 1000, a vǫlva sat on a special high-seat on which a pillow was placed and that this pillow had to be stuffed with hen’s feathers. In his famous eyewitness account of 921/22, Ibn Fadlān observed how a rooster and hens were sacrificed during the funeral of a Rus’ chief in the middle Volga area, administered by an old woman/priestess whom he called the “Angel of Death.” Erik the Red Saga provides invaluable details on the function of the vǫlva and the nature of Freyja herself. Aside from noting the vǫlva’s use of a pillow stuffed with hen feathers when she sat on her special high-seat, it describes her attire, various ritual objects she bore such as her staff (representing a distaff used in weaving), and the ceremony she performed. Other sagas that speak of vǫlur corroborate many of these details, leading historians of Nordic religion to conclude that the vǫlva had much in common with a shaman priestess performing classic shamanic rites. To attain the visions and insight into the future, it was required that the vǫlva, like her chief priestess Freyja, traveled in spirit into the “other world.” To do so, as H.R.E. Davidson put it so well in regard to Freyja, she took “on a bird-form, which meant that she could journey far in some shape other than human. As goddess of the Vanir, the prosperity of the community and marriage of young people were within her province, and these were precisely the subjects on which the vǫlva used to be consulted.” This then further elucidates the connection of the goddess and her vǫlur with birds as well as sheds much light on the origins of their prophetic visions and wisdom or numinous knowledge that it brings. All that can be added is the obvious other feature of the falcon’s natural attributes – extraordinary eyesight, which may well have added to its connection with the “seeress” divinity and her priestesses. (Roman K. Kovalev, Grand Princess Olga of Rus’ Shows the Bird: Her ‘Christian Falcon’ Emblem)
Shamanic shapeshifting also comes up in Freyja’s relationship with her favored hero Ottar, renowned for his piety and cleverness. Indeed, as Freyja tells Hyndla in the Hyndluljóð, the young hero won the Goddess’ heart by:
“Making for me a shrine of stones,
which has turned to glass
from all the blood of oxen
he has spilt on it;
always in the Asynjor
has Ottar placed his trust.”
And now, in danger of losing his paternal inheritance because details of his genealogy are vague, Freyja intercedes on behalf of Ottar, summoning Hyndla the Giantess and völva from her oracular cave to accompany her on a mission to Valhalla to convince Óðinn to grant him a boon. Hyndla’s mount is a wolf, and Freyja rides Ottar, whom she has transformed into her battle-swine Hildisvíni. But Hyndla, whom Freyja had earlier called her sister and girlfriend, sees through the magical ruse:
“Falsely you asked me, Freyja, to go,
for I see in the glance of your eyes
that your lover goes with us
on the way to the slain,
Ottar the young, the son of Instein.”
At first Freyja attempts to keep the gambit going:
“I think you’re having a wild dream
when you say my lover is with me
on the way of the slain;
there shines the boar with bristles of gold,
he who was made by Dain and Nabbi,
the cunning dwarfs.”
But then relents, and confesses the true reason for asking her along – to use Hyndla’s keen sight to look back and recount the ancestors of Ottar, that he may claim what is owed him.
After Hyndla accuses Freyja of being an unfaithful whore:
“Eagerly to Óðr did you run,
whose love was constant,
though many under your apron have crawled;
my noble one, you leap out in the night
like Heiðrún in search of goats.”
Freyja threatens to set her on fire, which Hyndla warns will have dire repercussions:
“Flames I see burning,
the earth is on fire,
and all will pay the price
losing their precious lives;
yes, even your Ottar, too,
will drink a venomous brew
and suffer an evil fate.”
The two eventually reach an agreement, and Hyndla recites Ottar’s genealogy going all the way back to the Gods and further to primordial creation. Freyja then asks that Ottar be given memory-beer so that he may have perfect recall of everything the Giantess has just told him for up to three days.
It is interesting that Freyja asks the Giantess to procure the memory-beer for Ottar, since Njörðr’s daughter herself is often the dispenser of magical potions and sacred beverages:
The “drink of precious mead” (drykk hins dyra miadar), “the ale of memory” (minnis aul), the “Poetry Stir” (Óðrerir), thus is the drink called that the Maiden offers to the hero after trials of initiation. This drink is connected to the three wells and is somehow drawn from them through the leaves of the World Tree by an entity who has the shape of a goat but who could equally well be the Great Goddess. The mead has a transformative effect and keeps the drinkers eternally alive. It is associated with “hidden knowledge”. Through the Maiden-mythology, we learn that it is strongly associated with memory of what is taught in the Other Worlds, that it conveys secrets of the cosmos, the knowledge of runes, fate, healing and poetry. As Sigrdrífa said, it is filled with good charms and runes of pleasure, manliness and power. It is offered by a goddess to a man who is her lover. (Maria Kvilhaug, The Maiden with the Mead – a Goddess of Initiation in Norse Myths)
Passages in the Poetic and Younger Eddas often depict her acting as a cupbearer (i.e., in the Skaldskapurmål, where Freyja is the only one who dares pour for the bellicose giant Hrungnir). According to Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, the title húsfreyja (literally “lady of the house,”) which derived directly from the name of the love goddess, was an honorific given to a woman who owned her own estate. Freyja clearly embodied a number of what were considered to be highly desirable feminine characteristics of elite women in Old Norse culture. (M. Mattsson McGinnis, Depending on Sex? Tongue, sieve, and ladle shaped pendants from late Iron Age Gotland)
A role with profound religious, political and socioeconomic significance in the lands of the North, as McGinnis goes on to show:
Drinking rituals and the “great halls” in which such rituals would have taken place are probably some of the most emblematic elements of Viking culture in terms of both the amount of scholarship dedicated to the topic and how the lives of late-ancient and medieval Scandinavians are conceived of in the popular imagination. Central to these conceptions is the figure of the “lady of the hall” acting in the role of “lady with the mead cup” (as she is named in Michael J. Enright’s eponymous work on this topic), who is by now a very familiar archetype within Viking studies. The prominent role women played in ceremonial imbibing, and thus in the sociopolitical and religious processes to which these ceremonies were so integral, in Iron Age and early medieval Scandinavia is supported by a variety of literary, documentary, and archaeological sources. Goddesses and heroines are depicted in the role of sacralized hostess and peacemaker in the Eddas and the Old Icelandic sagas and the oldest extant Scandinavian law code, the Grágás laws of Iceland, even cites the ritualized drinking of ale served by the new bride as an essential requirement for a marriage to be considered valid. This strong association between women and the ritual service of alcohol is particularly manifest in the archaeological record of the Baltic island of Gotland, located southeast of the Swedish mainland. Here the motif of a female figure bearing a drinking horn and presenting it to a male warrior riding on a horse or sitting in a high seat is frequently repeated on the island’s famed Viking Age picture stones, and costly Roman-style drinking utensils have been found in both male and female graves from the Roman Iron Age onwards.
A function Freyja shares with the daughter of the Sun:
As soon as we arrived and reached the portal, lions, bears and wolves, hundreds of them together, rushed at us and filled our hearts with fear; but fear we found was false; they meant no single scratch of harm. No, they were gentle and they wagged their tails and fawned on us and followed us along, until the maids-in-waiting welcomed us and led us through the marble vestibule into their mistress’ presence. There she sat, in a fine chamber, on a stately throne, in purple robe and cloak of woven gold; and in attendance Nymphae and Nereides, whose nimble fingers never comb a fleece nor spin a skein, but sort and set in baskets grasses and flowers, heaped in disarray, and herbs of many hues; and as they work she guides and watches, knowing well the lore of every leaf, what blend is best, and checks them closely as the plants are weighed. She saw us then and, salutations made, her welcome seemed an answer to our prayers. At once she bade the servants mix a brew of roasted barley, honey and strong wine and creamy curds, and then, to be disguised in the sweet taste, she poured her essences. We took the bowls she handed. Our throats were dry and thirsty; we drank deep. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.245-73)
Which was represented in temples at Circaeum:
Kirkaion in Italy is a mountain which has the form of an island, because it is surrounded by sea and marshes. They further say that Kirkaion is a place that abounds in medicinal roots – perhaps because they associate it with the myth about Kirke. It has a little city and a temple of Kirke and an altar of Athene, and people there show you a sort of bowl which, they say, belonged to Odysseus. (Strabo, Geography 5.3.6)
There is represented a grotto and in it a woman reclining with a man on a couch, as at a feast. I was of the opinion that they were Odysseus and Kirke, basing my view upon the number of the handmaidens in front of the grotto and upon what they are doing. For the women are four, and they are engaged in the tasks which Homer mentions in his poetry. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.19.7)
We frequently find Kírkē protecting the sanctity of the home through cleansing rites, as when her niece Mēdeia and her companion Iásōn show up at Kírkē’s door polluted from the various crimes they’d committed during their wanderings, as Apollonios Rhodios relates in the fourth book of his Argonautika:
Kirke, at a loss to know why they had come, invited them to sit in polished chairs; but without a word they made for the hearth and sat down there after the manner of suppliants in distress. Medeia hid her face in her hands, Jason fixed in the ground his great hilted sword with which he had killed Apsyrtos, and neither of them looked her in the face. So she knew at once that these were fugitives with murder on their hands and took the course laid down by Zeus, the God of Suppliants, who heartily abhors the killing of a man, and yet as heartily befriends the killer. First, to atone for the unexpiated murder, she took a suckling pig from a sow with dugs still swollen after littering. Holding it over them she cut its throat and let the blood fall on their hands. Next she propitiated Zeus with other libations, calling on him as the Cleanser, who listens to a murderer’s prayers with friendly ears. Then the attendant Naiades who did her housework carried all the refuse out of doors. But she herself stayed by the hearth, burning cakes and other wineless offerings with prayers to Zeus, in the hope that she might cause the loathsome Erinyes to relent, and that he himself might once more smile upon this pair, whether the hands they lifted up to him were stained with a kinsman’s or a stranger’s blood. When all was done she raised them up, seated them in polished chairs and taking a seat near by, where she could watch their faces, she began by asking them to tell her what had brought them overseas and why they had sought asylum at her hearth.
And later, after Odysseus has bested her with his iron will and the aid of Hermes:
So I spoke, and she swore at once the thing I asked for. When Kirke had uttered the due appointed words, I lay down at last in her sumptuous bed. All this while four handmaids of hers were busying themselves about the palace. She has them for her household tasks, and they come from springs, they come from groves, they come from the sacred rivers flowing seawards. One spread the chairs with fine crimson covers above and with linen cloths beneath; in front of the chairs, a second drew up silver tables on which she laid gold baskets for bread; a third mixed honey-sweet lovely wine in a silver bowl and set the golden goblets out; the fourth brought water and lit a great fire under a massive cauldron. The water warmed; and when it boiled in the bright bronze vessel, the Goddess made me sit in a bath and bathed me with water from the cauldron, tampering hot and cold to my mind and pouring it over my head and shoulders until she had banished from my limbs the weariness that had sapped my spirit. And having washed me and richly appointed me with oil, she dressed me in a fine cloak and tunic, led me forward and gave me a tall silver-studded chair to sit on–handsome and cunningly made–with a stool beneath it for the feet. She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating. (Homer, Odyssey 10.345-74)
We also find Kírkē offering hospitality to Odysseus and his companions and performing a different sort of cleansing rite after their return from the Underworld:
Our coming back did not escape the watchfulness of Kirke. She attired herself and hastened towards us, while the handmaidens with her brought bread and meat in plenty, and glowing red wine. Then, coming forward to stand among us, the Queenly Goddess began to speak, ‘Undaunted men who went down alive to Haides’ dwelling, men fated to taste death twice over, while other men taste of it but once,–come now, eat food and drink wine here all day. At break of morning you must set sail, and I myself will tell you the way and make each thing clear, so that no ill scheming on sea or land may bring you to misery and mischief.’ Such were her words, and our own hearts accepted them. So all that day, till the sun set, we sat and feasted on plenteous meat and delicious wine. When the sun went and darkness came, my men lay down to sleep by the vessel’s hawsers, but as for myself, the Goddess took me by the hand and made me sit down apart; she lay down near me and questioned me about everything, and I told her all from first to last. (Homer, Odyssey 12.20-35)
That cathartic ceremony was undoubtedly a hieros gamos, for Kírkē was the high priestess of archaic sexual mysteries:
In the Ancient world, the Master of the Animals maintained order by controlling the beasts that lived in the desert and the mountains. These wild animals signified disorder. Just as the Master of the Animals provided order, so did the Mistress of the Animals, who also controlled them. The Mistress was naked, bringing female sexuality into play and female sexual dominion over the animal world. Depictions of naked goddesses probably originated in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. In Egypt, the female demon Beset, which was portrayed nude and holding snakes in both hands, protected houses against evil. Naked women were engraved on shields, swords and other weapons. These representations were aimed at protecting soldiers from the enemy. Some of these items arrived in Greece during the Orientalising period and were found in sanctuaries such as the Heraion of Samos and the Idaean cave on Crete. Circe’s naked body and men-pig portraits are found on archaic vase paintings. Circe is portrayed as a beautiful goddess who is sexually attractive, Mistress of wild animals who seduces men and transforms them into domesticated animals. She is fair-tressed. Her voice is sweet. She dresses in lovely clothes. She is at the same time a cruel, irrational goddess capable of awful acts of badness. She confronts Odysseus, trying to seduce him, to control him sexually. She then becomes a protection and an adviser for Odysseus and his men against the Sirens and in the Underworld. Her cruel behaviour contrasts with her love towards the hero. Coulter writes of her as a combination of fairy Mistress and cruel witch. Circe represented a relationship of seduction and concubinage, which went against patriarchal societal rules. Women that deviated from their social role were seen as acting against their rational soul and moving into the irrational which lead to disaster. Women that were without a kurios, or male authority, were seen as an anomaly in the patriarchal system. They were presented as incapable of controlling their sexual desires and keen to evoke the irrational. Men had to control women’s instincts. Circe is the anti-social goddess who influenced representations of posterior sorceresses and magicians. Magicians are marginal figures of society and women were marginal in Greece. Those that did not follow the established rules were at risk to be targeted. Circe is acting against these rules. She is an independent woman, unmarried, living without a patron and a foreigner inhabiting their land. This depiction also presented characteristics of the Greek ideal wife such as her weaving, which was divine. She is both the dangerous sexual goddess that makes men lose their minds and the ideal oikos wife. (Javier Girona Martinez, The goddess Circe in Homer’s Odyssey)
Indeed, she was so sexually alluring that the Goddess Aphrodite once borrowed her appearance:
Of a sudden Venus was sitting on Medea’s bed, having changed her heavenly form to that of a counterfeit Circe, Titan’s daughter, with broidered robe and magic wand. But the girl, as though mocked by the lingering image of a dream, gazes perplexed and only little by little deems her to be the sister of her mighty sire; then in tearful joy she sprang forward and of her own accord kissed the cruel Goddess. (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7.210)
This is why Hermes counseled the wise and faithful hero Odysseus that the sensual sorcery of Kírkē was an ambiguous blessing, capable of bringing about alternately ecstasy and joy or inversion and unmanning:
“She will shrink back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a Goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest. But first, make her swear the great oath of the Blessed Ones by the river Styx to plot no mischief to you thenceforward–if not, while you lie naked there, she may rob you of courage and of manhood.” (Homer, Odyssey 10:291-300)
One is reminded of the year that the Mediterranean’s greatest hero spent as a submissive transvestite serving an Oriental Goddess-Queen in order to learn the feminine mysteries of weaving from her:
Texts of the first and second centuries describe Omphale in two quite different ways. The Greek mythographers and those who preserve their stories, especially Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus, follow one textual path. They indicate that Hercules, ill after committing murder, allowed himself to be sold into slavery as expiation. He was bought by Omphale the queen of the Lydians, whom Apollodorus refers to as having inherited the throne from her husband and whom Diodorus calls virgin queen. Hercules’ heroic deeds in the queen’s service and the passage of the necessary period of time result in his cure and freedom. The mythographers’ story retains the dignity of the protagonists and has no indication of exchange of clothing. The work of the poets and playwrights of the first and early second centuries take another path and emphasize the romantic or mocking elements of the story. The writers of the period insist on Hercules’ ludicrousness and Omphale’s domination of him through sex, and they find diverse ways to insult her for it. They call Omphale puella, girl; Ovid and Propertius comment on her body and the luxurious clothing she wears, and they say she made Hercules spin with her maids – the ultimate abasement. Ovid, like Lucian writing a century later, remarks on Omphale’s domination of Hercules, and the latter depicts Omphale slapping the hero with her slipper in a mixture of seduction and sadism visible in the comparable late Hellenistic statue of Aphrodite threatening Pan with a sandal. When Ovid has Deianeira describe Omphale in the Heroides, she is speaking in anger and jealousy, but she calls Omphale whore and concubine, describes how the mistress threatens and beats the hero, and asserts that the conqueror is conquered. Augustan artists and writers made specifically political use of the motif to compliment the emperor by disparaging his enemy Mark Antony. They used Antony’s self-identification with Hercules to pillory him by connecting Cleopatra with Omphale. Propertius in 3.11 marches out Medea, Penthesilea, and Semiramis along with Omphale in order to make clear the connection between the East and the dominating woman Cleopatra, while earlier Cicero’s invective against Antony or Verres and Plutarch’s later use of Omphale as the dominating woman in the Pericles and the Antony make such women the mirror that reveals the moral flaws and weaknesses of male political enemies. (Natalie Kampen, Omphale and the Instability of Gender)
Notably, this was an art Kírkē taught Odysseus:
Odysseus hastened to tie the cunning knot which Lady Kirke had brought to his knowledge in other days. (Homer, Odyssey 8.447)
Such emasculating fears were woven into seiðr as well, as we see in the acid remarks Loki directs at Óðinn in the Lokasenna:
“They say that with spells in Samsey once
Like witches with charms didst thou work;
And in witch’s guise among men didst thou go;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.”
This is also the poem where Loki and Freyja have a heated argument about sexual morality and gender roles:
In the poem Lokasenna, where Loki accuses nearly every female in attendance of promiscuity or unfaithfulness, an aggressive exchange occurs between Loki and Freyja. The introduction to the poem notes that among other gods and goddesses, Freyja attends a celebration held by Ægir. In verse, after Loki has flyted with the goddess Frigg, Freyja interjects, telling Loki that he is insane for dredging up his terrible deeds, and that Frigg knows the fate of everyone, though she does not tell it. Loki tells her to be silent, and says that he knows all about her—that Freyja is not lacking in blame, for each of the gods and elves in the hall have been her lover. Freyja objects. She says that Loki is lying, that he is just looking to blather about misdeeds, and since the gods and goddesses are furious at him, he can expect to go home defeated. Loki tells Freyja to be silent, calls her a malicious witch, and conjures a scenario where Freyja was once astride her brother when all of the gods, laughing, surprised the two. Njörðr interjects—he says that a woman having a lover other than her husband is harmless, and he points out that Loki has borne children, and calls Loki a pervert. The poem continues in turn. (Wikipedia, s.v. Freyja)
Not the first or the last time they sparred over such matters, as we read in Sörla Þáttur 1 & 2:
To the East of Vanakvisl in Asia was a country called Asialand or Asiaheim. Its inhabitants were called Æsir and the chief city they called Asgarth. Othin was the name of their King, and it was a great place for heathen sacrifices. Othin appointed Njörth and Frey as priests. Njörth had a daughter called Freyja who accompanied Othin and was his mistress. There were four men in Asia called Alfregg, Dvalin, Berling and Grer, who dwelt not far from the King’s hall, and who were so clever that they could turn their hands to anything. Men of this kind were called dwarfs. They dwelt in a rock, but at that time they mixed more with men than they do now. Othin loved Freyja very much, and she was the fairest of all women in her day. She had a bower of her own which was beautiful and strong, and it was said that if the door was closed and bolted, no-one could enter the bower against her will. It chanced one day that Freyja went to the rock and found it open, and the dwarfs were forging a gold necklace, which was almost finished. Freyja was charmed with the necklace, and the dwarfs with Freyja. She asked them to sell it, offering gold and silver and other costly treasures in exchange for it. The dwarfs replied that they were not in need of money, but each one said that he would give up his share in the necklace for nothing else except for her to lie one night with each of them. And at the end of four nights they handed it to Freyja. She went home to her bower and kept silence about it as if nothing had happened.
There was a man called Farbauti who was a peasant and had a wife called Laufey. She was thin and meagre, and so she was called ‘Needle.’ They had no children except a son who was called Loki. He was not a big man, but he early developed a caustic tongue and was alert in trickery and unequalled in that kind of cleverness which is called cunning. He was very full of guile even in his youth, and for this reason he was called Loki the Sly. He set off to Othin’s home in Asgarth and became his man. Othin always had a good word for him whatever he did, and often laid heavy tasks upon him, all of which he performed better than could have been expected. He also knew almost everything that happened, and he told Othin whatever he knew. Now it is said that Loki got to know that Freyja had received the necklace … and this he told to Othin. And when Othin heard of it he told Loki to fetch him the necklace. Loki said that there was not much hope of that, because no-one could get into Freyja’s bower against her will. Othin told him to go, and not come back without the necklace. So Loki went off howling, and everyone was glad that he had got into trouble. He went to Freyja’s bower, but it was locked. He tried to get in but could not. The weather outside was very cold and he became thoroughly chilled. Then he turned himself into a fly, and flew around all the bolts and along the whole of the woodwork, but nowhere could he find a hole big enough to enter by, right up to the gable. He found only a hole no bigger than would allow of the insertion of a needle. Through this hole he crept. And when he got inside he stared around, wondering if anyone was awake. But he found that the room was all wrapped in slumber. Then he went in and up to Freyja’s bed and found that she was wearing the necklace and that the clasp was underneath her. Loki thereupon turned himself into a flea and settled on Freyja’s cheek and stung her, till she awoke and turned over and went to sleep again. Then he laid aside his flea-form, drew the necklace from her gently, opened the door and departed, carrying the necklace to Othin. When Freyja awoke in the morning she found that the door was open, though it had not been forced, and that her lovely necklace was gone. She had a shrewd idea of the trick that had been played on her, and when she was dressed she went into the hall to King Othin, and told him that he had done ill to rob her of her trinket, and begged him to return it. Othin replied that considering how she had come by it she should never get it back, “unless you bring about a quarrel between two kings, each of whom has twenty kings subject to him; so that they shall fight under the influence of such spells and charms that as fast as they fall they shall start up again and fight on.” Freyja agreed to this and recovered the necklace.
Lokasenna is not the only place where Óðinn is accused of being a little argr; the Heimskringla says:
Óðinn knew and practiced that skill that was followed by the greatest strength, called seiðr, and from it he knew the fortunes of men and things that had not yet come to be, and also caused the deaths of men or bad luck or ill health, and also took from men wit or strength and gave it to others. And this magic, when it is practiced, comes with such great queerness that it was shameful for a man to practice it, and the skill was taught to the Goddesses.
Among the Norse ergi was a pretty serious charge, as Heathen poet, scholar, theologian and vitki Galina Krasskova explains in Transgressing Faith: Race, Gender, and the Problem of Ergi in Modern American Heathenry:
The concept of ergi is drawn from Norse legal codes which remained in force through the early medieval period. It encompassed a broad spectrum of behavior considered by social mores of the time and place to be “unmanly”. To be ergi had clear moral implications and overtones of sexual deviance or gender transgression. As such, it fell under the category of nið, or accusations that might impact a man’s honor. Historian Preben Sorensen notes that accusations of nið almost always had a sexual component. Such accusations abound in Icelandic literature, and legal penalties are clearly recorded in law, most notably in the early Icelandic law collection Grágás, and the Law of Gulathing, Norway’s oldest legislation. To accuse a man of nið was a verbal offense of slander that could, in some circumstances, evoke a legally sanctioned honor killing. Within modern Heathenry, the concept of ergi evokes great feeling on both sides of the debate. Gender issues surface in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, most especially in the area of liminal practices and, most especially, the development of a Northern Tradition-based practice of shamanism. It is significant that a majority of practitioners of Northern Tradition shamanism are gender transgressive in some way. This can range from gender performance that transgresses accepted norms to being transsexual to having sworn celibacy for spiritual reasons. Many, like intersex shaman Raven Kaldera, specifically connect their own gender transgression to being ergi and define this as a necessary and often integral part of Northern Tradition shamanic practice. He is not alone. The growing number of Northern Tradition shamans – the majority of whom are also female-bodied – are regularly castigated by nearly every denomination within Heathenry. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) they are rarely attacked outright for their beliefs, though this can and does occasionally occur. Rather, their morality, sanity, and sexual practices are consistently questioned. One well known practitioner was deemed “a misfit, degenerate, and an unworthy person” for no other reason than that she sacrificed to a powerful and controversial female Deity. Another was accused of engaging in Lokian-focused “sex orgies” solely on account of her association with Kaldera.
We find a similar affliction among the Enarees of Aphrodite Ourania on the shores of the Black Sea:
There are many eunuchs among the Skythians who perform female work, and speak like women. Such persons are called effeminates. The inhabitants of the country attribute the cause of their impotence to a God, and venerate and worship such persons, every one dreading that the like might befall himself. (Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places 22)
Herodotos goes on to relate the cause of the disease and some of the Enaree practices:
But the Skythians who pillaged the temple, and all their descendants after them, were afflicted by the Goddess with the “female” sickness: and so it is that visitors to the Skythian territory see among them many who are in the condition of what the Skythians call “Hermaphrodites.” (Histories 1.105.4)
There are many diviners among the Skythians who divine by means of willow wands. They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again; this manner of divination is hereditary among them. The Enarees, who are hermaphrodites, say that Aphrodite gave them another art of divination, which they practise by means of lime-tree bark. They cut this bark into three portions, and prophesy while they braid and unbraid these in their fingers. (ibid 4.67.1)
Which sounds an awful lot like the method of Germanic divination recounted by Tacitus:
For divination and the casting of lots they have the highest regard. Their procedure in casting lots is always the same. They cut off a branch of a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips; these they mark with different signs and throw them completely at random onto a white cloth. Then the priest of the state, if the consultation is a public one, or the father of the family if it is private, offers a prayer to the Gods, and looking up at the sky picks up three strips, one at a time, and reads their meaning from the signs previously scored on them. If the lots forbid an enterprise, there is no deliberation that day on the matter in question; if they allow it, confirmation by the taking of auspices is required. (Germania 10)
This also just so happens to be the region Kírkē came from, before immigrating to Italy:
Although Kirke also, it is said, devoted herself to the devising of all kinds of drugs and discovered roots of all manner of natures and potencies such as are difficult to credit. She was given in marriage to the king of the Sarmatians, whom some call Skythians, and first she poisoned her husband and after that, succeeding to the throne, she committed many cruel and violent acts against her subjects. For this reason she was deposed from her throne and, according to some writers of myths, fled to the ocean, where she seized a desert island, and there established herself with the women who had fled with her. Though according to some historians she left the Pontos and settled in Italy on a promontory which to this day bears after her the name Kirkaion. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.45.1)
Leaving behind the land Freyja had once called home:
On the south side of the mountains which lie outside of all inhabited lands runs a river through Sviþjóð, which is properly called by the name of Tanais, but was formerly called Tanakvisl, or Vanakvisl, and which falls into the Black Sea. The country of the people on the Vanakvisl was called Vanaland, or Vanaheim; and the river separates the three parts of the world, of which the easternmost part is called Asia, and the westernmost Europe. (Ynglinga Saga 1, Heimskringla)
Regarding this passage Brent Landon Johnson writes:
An etymological chain connects the present-day Russian Дон back to the Old East Iranian Dānu, and to the Greek Τάναϊς, which Snorri links to Old Norse Tanakvísl, or Vanakvísl. The Indo-European root “danu-” pertains to “river” and is similar to “dhanu-” (grain). The present-day Don River is notably surrounded by lands fertile, green, and warm, given to a prosperous harvest. […] The Germanic migrations during the height of the Roman Empire placed the Goths – the central human players in the legendary sagas and eddas often referenced as the Sviþjóð – at various times in present-day Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, northern Turkey, and southwestern Russia. Along the north side of the Black Sea where the Goths have settled are four fertile river watersheds – the Danube, the Dniester, the Dnieper, and the Don. Snorri ties the “Dana” word root with “Vana” by interchanging them, which could imply that Vanaheimr may have been a very large region of eastern Europe spanning these four rivers. (In Search of Vanaheimr)
Kírkē’s home in Italy was a truly special place:
Previous cultures believed that the Sun journeyed through the universe every day. It passed through the Underworld at night and regenerated itself in the morning. It did this on a circular cycle. This was believed in Egyptian, Near Eastern and also in Ancient Greek society. These cultures shared the duality of up and down, east and west, which related to the contradictory behaviours of female deities. Circe’s island is the “House of the Rising Sun”. The Goddess is the daughter of the Sun. This circular universe, with the two cosmic junctions, presents the West as a descent to darkness which is connected with Hades. Circe’s island is the gate between the day and the night and once that gate has been trespassed, the hero travels through day, which according to the Ancient Egyptians is a much easier path to go through. Circe’s island constitutes a gate to and from the island of the Sun. Circe’s character reflects these two poles, the beautiful and terrible, the day and night sides, the polarity of her island. When the hero journeys to Hades, he doesn’t see the Sun. He then sees it when they return to Circe’s island. This is as if they followed the Sun’s journey through darkness and then came to light, enjoying it until reaching the island of the Sun. This cosmic journey has a meaning for the hero as it poses challenges and intents to mark on him, to shape him before returning to civilisation. (Javier Girona Martinez, The goddess Circe in Homer’s Odyssey)
Almost the double of Freyja’s felicitous abode:
According to both Grímnismál and Gylfaginning, Freyja owns the hall Sessrumnir (Many-seats) which stands on Folkvangr (the People’s plain). There she welcomes half of the war-fallen. Odin receives the other half into Valhalla. Thus, Freyja was associated not only with procreation and childbirth, but also with death and the afterlife, completing the full circle of the life-cycle. In Egil’s Saga, ch. 79, Egil’s daughter Thorgerd expresses her belief that upon dying, she will go to join Freyja, (engan hefi eg náttverð haft, og engan mun eg fyrr en að Freyju). As a destination for the dead, Freyja’s Folkvangr directly competes with the early Catholic concepts of heaven and hell as the exclusive destination of departed souls, providing yet another reason for Snorri not to detail her cult. Of course, we cannot now know Snorri’s intentions, but suffice it to say, Christians found the cult of Freyja in particular offensive. The morality exhibited in her mythology, and more broadly by the Vanir cult which she represents, is often in direct conflict with Christian tenets which promote the pretence of celibacy among its priests. (William P. Reaves, The Cult of Freyr and Freyja)
Which makes the ordeal Odysseus undertakes to reach the palace of Kírkē all the more significant:
But when Dawn of the lovely tresses gave birth to the third day I took my sharp sword and spear and climbed swiftly from the ship to a high lookout point, hoping to see signs of men, and hear their voices. I reached a rocky height with a wide view, and standing there I saw smoke rising through thick scrub and woodland, from the wide clearing where Circe’s halls lay. Seeing that smoke from a fire, I pondered whether to go and explore, but it seemed better to return to the ship and the shore, and allow my men a meal, then send them to investigate. Then as I neared the swift ship some God took pity on me in that solitude, and sent a huge stag with great antlers right across my trail. The power of the sun had troubled him and sent him down from his woodland pasture to drink at the river’s edge. As he came from the water I struck him on the spine with my bronze-spear, in the centre of his back, and it pierced right through, so he fell in the dust with a groan, and his spirit passed. Then I planted my foot on his carcass, drew the bronze spear from the wound, and laid it on the ground while I gathered willow shoots then wove a rope, six foot long, by splicing them together end to end. Next I tied the great creature’s feet together, and carried him down to the black ship on my back, using my spear to lean on, since he was too large to sling over my shoulder and steady with my hand. I threw him down in front of the ship and cheered my crew with comforting words, tackling each man in turn, “We’re not bound for the Halls of Hades ahead of time, my Friends, despite our troubles. Come, while there’s still food and drink in our swift ship, let’s think about eating, not waste away with hunger.” They soon responded to my words. They drew their cloaks from their faces to marvel at the stag’s huge size, as he lay on the barren shore. When they had sated their sight with gazing, they washed their hands and readied a fine feast. All day long till the sun went down we sat and feasted on meat in plenty, and drank sweet wine. But once the sun had set and darkness fell, we lay down on the sand to sleep. (Homer, Odyssey 10)
In the Classical world deerskins were an ubiquitous part of the Bacchic regalia:
He’s welcome in the mountains,
when he sinks down to the ground,
after the running dance,
wrapped in holy deerskin,
hunting the goat’s blood,
blood of the slain beast,
devouring its raw flesh with joy,
rushing off into the mountains,
in Phrygia, in Lydia,
leading the dance—
(Euripides, The Bakchai 172-180)
Which is given cosmic significance in Macrobius Saturnalia 1.18:
In the line, “The sun, which men also call by name Dionysos,” Orpheus manifestly declares that Liber is the sun. And in riddling verse he also says, “One Zeus, one Hades, one Helios, one Dionysos.” And concerning the ornaments and vestments worn by Liber at the ceremonies performed in his honor, Orpheus says:
Let the worshiper first throw around him a crimson robe,
like flowing rays resembling fire.
Moreover from above the broad all-variegated skin of a wild fawn
thickly spotted should hang down from the right shoulder,
a representation of the wondrously-wrought stars and of the vault of heaven.
And then over the fawn-skin a golden belt should be thrown,
all-gleaming to wear around the breast a mighty sign
that immediately from the end of the earth the Beaming-one springing up
darts his golden rays on the flowing of ocean.
Having harnessed the terrific power of the Lord of Animals the Hunter killed, butchered, brought back and apportioned meat to his community (placing their needs above his own in the process) and by so doing Odysseus has demonstrated his worthiness to come before the Mistress of the Isle and challenge her in a contest of sexual dominance. If he loses, he becomes a Magician. If he wins, a King.
As Homer relates in the 10th book of the Odyssey:
‘Noble Odysseus, we went, as you bade us, through the thickets, and in the glades we found before us a stately palace. Someone inside it, a Goddess or a woman, was singing in high pure notes as she moved to and fro at her wide web. The men called out and made themselves heard; she came out at once, she opened the shining doors and she called them to her. They in their heedlessness all entered; only I myself foreboded mischief and stayed outside. They vanished utterly, all of them; not one among them appeared again, though I sat a long while there, keeping watch.’
So he spoke. I slung across my shoulders my great silver-studded sword of bronze; I slung on my bow as well, then told him to guide me back by the same path. But he clutched my knees with both his hand and made supplication : ‘Heaven-favoured king, do not force me back that way again; leave me here. I know you will neither return yourself nor yet bring back any of your comrades. Instead, let us flee from this place at once, taking these others with us; we may still escape the day of evil.’
Such were his words.
So spoke the Radiant One; then he gave the magic herb, pulling it from the ground and showing me in what form it grew; its root was black, its flower milk-white. Its name among the Gods is moly. For mortal men it is perilous to pluck it up, but for the Gods all things are possible. Then Hermes departed; over the wooded island he went his way to the mountain of Olympos. I myself passed on to Kirke’s palace, with my thoughts in turmoil as I walked.
I paused at the doorway of the Goddess, and standing there I gave a great cry; she heard my voice and came out quickly, opening the shining doors and calling me in. I went up to her though my heart sank. She ushered me in and gave me a tall silver-studded chair to sit in–handsome and cunningly made it was–with a stool beneath it for the feet. In a golden goblet she brewed a potion for me to drink, and treacherously mingled her drug with it. When I had taken and drunk it up and was unenchanted still, she struck at me with her wand, and ‘Now’ she said ‘be off to the sty, to wallow with your companions there.’
So she spoke, but I drew the keen sword from beside my thigh, rushed at her and made as if to kill her. She shrieked, she slipped underneath my weapon, she clasped my knees and spoke in rapid appealing words: ‘Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents? It bewilders me that you drank this drug and were not bewitched. Never has any other man resisted this drug, once he had drunk it and let it pass his lips. But you have an inner will that is proof against sorcery. You must surely be that man of wide-ranging spirit, Odysseus himself; the Radiant One of the golden wand has told me of you; he always said that Odysseus would come to me on his way from Troy in his dark and rapid vessel. But enough of this; sheathe your sword; then let us go to bed together, and embracing there, let us learn to trust in one another.’
It is good to be the King.
But notice a couple things?
The high seat that Kírkē keeps offering to her guests – it doesn’t just play a role in seiðr, but was also used in the Bacchic Orphic initiatory rite of thronismos:
So it is just as if someone were to initiate a man, Greek or barbarian, leading him into some mystic shrine overwhelming in its size and beauty. He would see many mystic spectacles and hear many such voices; light and darkness would appear to him in alternation, and a myriad other things would happen. Still more, just as they are accustomed to do in the ritual called enthronement, the initiators, having enthroned the initiands, dance in circles around them. Is it at all likely that this man would experience nothing in his soul and that he would not suspect that what was taking place was done with a wiser understanding and preparation? … Still more, if, not humans like the initiands, but immortal Gods were initiating mortals, and night and day, both in the light and under the stars were, if it is right to speak so, literally dancing around them eternally. (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12.33-34)
Which is reflected in the Gold Leaves, even down to Kírkē’s probing questions, “τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες?” (Who are you and where from? where are your city and your parents?)
Gold tablet from Rome:
A: I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld, Eukles and Eubouleus, noble child of Zeus! I have this gift of Memory, prized by men!
B: Caecilia Secundina, come, made divine by the Law!
Gold tablet from Pelinna:
Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones.
Gold tablet from Eleutherae in Crete:
A: I am dry with thirst and am perishing.
B: Come, drink please, from the ever-flowing spring on the right, where the cypress is. Who are you, and where do you come from?
A: I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven.
Gold tablet from Thurii:
A: I come from the pure, o Pure Queen of the earthly ones, Eukles, Eubouleus, and You other Immortal Gods! I too claim to be of your blessed race, but Fate and other Immortal Gods conquered me, the star-smiting thunder. And I flew out from the hard and deeply-grievous circle, and stepped onto the crown with my swift feet, and slipped into the bosom of the Mistress, the Queen of the Underworld. And I stepped out from the crown with my swift feet.
B: Happy and blessed one! You shall be a god instead of a mortal.
A: I have fallen as a kid into milk.
Gold tablet from Thurii:
But whenever a soul leaves the light of the sun–enter on the right, where one must, if one has kept all well and truly. Rejoice at the experience! This you have never before experienced. You have become a god instead of a man. You have fallen as a kid into milk. Hail, hail, as you travel on the right, through the Holy Meadow and Groves of Persephone.
Note the animal transformations?
Note the crowns, wheels, circles and sexual union with an Underworld Goddess?
Note the Dancing Stars?
Which should remind you of the Corona Borealis:
This is thought to be Ariadne’s crown, placed by Father Liber among the constellations. For they say that when Ariadne wed Liber on the island of Dia, and all the Gods gave her wedding gifts, she first received this crown as a gift from Venus and the Hours. But, as the author of the Cretica says, at the time when Liber came to Minos with the hope of lying with Ariadne, he gave her this crown as a present. Delighted with it, she did not refuse the terms. It is said, too, to have been made of gold and Indian gems, and by its aid Theseus is thought to have come from the gloom of the labyrinth to the day, for the gold and gems made a glow of light in the darkness. (Hyginus, Astronomica 2.5)
Given an alternative aition in the scholia on Homer’s Odyssey 11.321
Theseus son of Aigeus, assigned by lot with the youths, sailed to Crete to be supplied to the Minotaur for destruction. But when he arrived, Minos’s daughter Ariadne fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread that she took from Daidalos the builder. She instructed him, when he entered, to bind the beginning of the ball around the crossbar above the door and to go along unrolling it until he entered the innermost place, and if he overtook him while he was sleeping (text missing) that having vanquished (him) to sacrifice to Poseidon from the hairs on his head, and to return back by rolling up the ball of thread. And Theseus took Ariadne and embarked on his ship with both the youths and maidens not yet served up to be killed by the Minotaur. And when he had done these things, he sailed out in the middle of the night. And when he anchored at the island of Dia, he disembarked to sleep on the shore. And Athena stood beside him and ordered that he abandon Ariadne and come to Athens. He did this and departed immediately. But when Ariadne bewailed her lot, Aphrodite appeared and advised her to be strong, for she would be Dionysos’ wife and become famous. Whence the God appeared and mated with her, and gave her a golden crown that moreover the Gods placed among the stars by the grace of Dionysos. And they say that she suffered death at the hands of Artemis for throwing away her virginity. The story is in Pherekydes.
This is commenting on the passage when Odysseus follows Kírkē’s necromantic instructions and beholds a vision of Ariadne in the Underworld:
“And Phaidra and Prokris I saw, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of baneful mind, whom once Theseus was fain to bear from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens; but he had no joy of her, for ere that Artemis slew her in sea-girt Dia because of the witness of Dionysos.” (Homer, Odyssey 11.321)
The lovely Goddess replied swiftly: “Odysseus, man of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, don’t think of finding a pilot to guide your vessel, but raise your mast and spread your white sail, and take your seat aboard, and the North Wind’s breath will send her on her way. When you have crossed the Ocean stream, beach your ship by the deep swirling waters on a level shore, where tall poplars, and willows that shed seed, fill the Groves of Persephone. Then go to the moist House of Hades. There is a rock where two roaring rivers join the Acheron, Kokytos, which is a tributary of the Styx, and Pyriphlegethon. Draw near then, as I bid you, hero, and dig a trench two feet square, then pour a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. Then pray devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when you reach Ithaca you will sacrifice a barren heifer in your palace, the best of the herd, and will heap the altar with rich spoils, and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock. And when you have petitioned the glorious Host of the Dead with prayers, sacrifice a ram and a black ewe, holding their heads towards Erebos, while you look behind towards the running streams. Then the hosts of the dead will appear. Call then to your comrades, and tell them to flay and burn the sheep killed by the pitiless bronze, with prayers to the divinities, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. You yourself must draw your sharp sword and sit there, preventing the powerless ghosts from drawing near to the blood, till you have questioned Teiresias. Soon the seer will come, you leader of men, and give you your course, and the distances, so you can return home over the teeming waters.” Kirke finished speaking, and with that came golden-throned Dawn. Then the Nymph dressed me in a tunic and cloak, and clothed herself in a beautiful long white closely-woven robe, and clasped a fine belt of gold around her waist, and set a veil on her head. Then I walked through the halls, rousing my men with cheerful words, speaking to each in turn: “My Lady Kirke has explained what I need to know: don’t lie there culling the flower of sweet sleep: let us be on our way.”
Which Kírkē took extraordinary steps to ensure could be fulfilled:
My crew were already on their way, as I addressed them: “No doubt you think you are heading home, but Kirke has set us on a different course, to the House of Hades and dread Persephone where I must consult the ghost of Theban Teiresias.” At this their spirits fell, and they sat right down where they were and wept, and tore at their hair. But their lamentations served no purpose. While we made our way to our swift vessel and the shore, grieving and shedding tears, Kirke went on ahead of us, and tethered a ram and a black ewe by the black ship. She had easily slipped by us: who can observe a Goddess passing to and fro, if she wishes otherwise?
All this suggests a knowledge and expertise in ritual matters which is comparable to Freyja’s own, for she was appointed blótgyðja (sacrificial priestess) of the Gods as Terry Gunnell remarks in Blótgyðjur, Goðar, Mimi, Incest, and Wagons: Oral Memories of the Religion(s) of the Vanir:
It would seem questionable whether these stanzas were composed by Christians—or even by Icelanders, since no specially-constructed hof (temple), hǫrgar (altar), or so-called kulthus (cult-houses) of the kind described in the sagas and eddic poems and later found in archaeological excavations in mainland Scandinavia have ever been found in Iceland. The stanzas would thus appear to have roots in earlier Nordic tradition, and a Nordic tradition that had some reason for connecting Njǫrðr and Freyja to sacred spaces: once again, no mention is ever made of a hǫrgr being dedicated to any other god. The same ideas of Vanir connections with religious practice, ritual, and hof are reflected in Snorri’s comments in chapters 4 and 10 of Ynglinga saga, in which Njǫrðr and Freyr are called “blótgoðar”, and Freyja a “blótgyðja”. In terms of absence, it should be borne in mind that Snorri makes no similar statements about either Óðinn or Þórr (or even Frigg). Furthermore, while hof and hofgoðar are mentioned elsewhere in Ynglinga saga in connection with the Æsir (ch. 2 and 5; cf. Vǫluspá st. 7), Snorri stresses that “Freyr reisti at Uppsǫlum hof mikit” (Freyr raised a large hof at Uppsala), underlining once again the direct connections he saw as existing between the Vanir (and especially Freyr), Uppland, and the religious activities he describes elsewhere as taking place at Gamla Uppsala (Ynglinga saga ch. 15, 34 and 38; and Ólafs saga helga ch. 67). No similar statements are made about Þórr (who is strangely near absent from Ynglinga saga). Finally, it is worth considering Snorri’s words about Freyja, which underline that she, a woman, not only ruled after Freyr’s death, but also personally “hélt þá upp blótum, því at hon ein lifði þá eptir goðanna” (kept up the sacrifices because she was the only surviving member of the gods) (Ynglinga saga ch. 10). Freyja is also said to have been the one who introduced the Æsir to seiðr which “Vǫnum var títt” (was common amongst the Vanir) in Ynglinga saga (ch. 4), an idea which suggests yet further close associations between the Vanir and ritualistic activities. In both cases, as in Hyndluljóð, Freyja is said to play a particularly active role in these rituals, even though the nature of this role is never described in detail. One must assume that it was similar to that of the hofgyðjur noted above. The Vanir, however, are not only shown to be more closely associated with religious buildings than other gods in the extant accounts. They are also depicted as being more directly bound up with particular holy sites in the landscape, and not least sites where they are supposed to “live on” after their deaths: in contrast to Óðinn and Njǫrðr, who are cremated (Ynglinga saga ch. 8 and 9).
Odysseus is not the only one Kírkē has shared her knowledge of ritual (or her bed) with. Note what follows her inquiry into Odysseus’ identity and genealogy:
“Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents? It bewilders me that you drank this drug and were not bewitched. Never has any other man resisted this drug, once he had drunk it and let it pass his lips. But you have an inner will that is proof against sorcery. You must surely be that man of wide-ranging spirit, Odysseus himself; the Radiant One of the golden wand has told me of you; he always said that Odysseus would come to me on his way from Troy in his dark and rapid vessel.”
That sure sounds as if she was on intimate terms with Hermes.
Which has some interesting implications when one considers that Tacitus, Paulus Diaconus and Columbanus all identified Mercury with Óðinn.
Speaking of Tacitus, he relates in the Germania that it was believed Odysseus had traveled through the Northlands:
Ulysses also, in all those fabled wanderings of his, is supposed by some to have reached the northern sea and visited German lands, and to have founded and named Asciburgium, a town on the Rhine inhabited to this day. They even add that an altar consecrated by Ulysses and inscribed also with the name of his father Laertes was discovered long ago at this same place, and that certain barrows with monuments upon them bearing Greek inscriptions still exist on the borders of Germany and Raetia.
Which is, perhaps, why traces of his story can be found in the literature of Norway and Iceland, as Ben Waggoner relates:
The younger version of Trójumanna saga adds material from another Latin retelling of the fall of Troy, the so-called Ilias Latina attributed to Baebius Italicus—plus some more material from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroïdes, and scraps from elsewhere. The younger version is rather a patchwork—but none of the texts of Trójumanna saga draw directly on Homer’s Iliad, and the plot of Trójumanna saga diverges from the Iliad quite a bit. Snorri Sturluson was keen to try to tie in Norse history to the “Matter of Troy”, and his Prose Edda includes a long explanation of how the Norse gods and goddesses were really Trojan heroes who had come north. Most of this is based on chance resemblances in names—Öku-Thórr, “Chariot-Thor”, is supposedly Hec-tor, for example, while Frigg’s name supposedly comes from Phrygia. This isn’t considered sound by any serious scholars today. Still, it does show that Snorri and others knew something about the Trojan War, knew it was a hugely famous story, and tried in various ways to link their own heritage with it. And you can argue that the style of foreing works like Trójumanna saga influenced Icelandic literature quite a bit; styles and phrases and occasionally whole scenes in the sagas can sometimes be traced to foreign models. (There’s a funny bit in the “legendary saga” Egils saga ok Ásmundar in which the hero is being held captive by a giant—he tricks the giant into letting himself be stabbed in the eyes with a red-hot poker, and then gets out of the giant’s cave by hiding underneath one of the giants’ sheep when they have to be let out to pasture. Yep, somehow Odysseus and Polyphemus made it into a saga of Nordic heroes.)
But I digress.
We were discussing Kírkē’s other lovers, such as Picus, king of Latium:
And on the doors of the palace there, holding the augur’s staff, arrayed in a short toga purple-striped, the holy shield on his left arm, sat Picus, tamer of horses: vainly lusting to bed with him, golden Circe had used her wand and her magic potions, and turned him into a bird, into a pied woodpecker. (Virgil, Aeneid 7.187)
And Kalchos, king of the Daunians:
The story goes that Kalchos the Daunian was greatly in love with Kirke, the same to whom Odysseus came. He handed over to her his kingship over the Daunians, and employed all possible blandishments to gain her love; but she felt a passion for Odysseus, who was then with her, and loathed Kalchos and forbade him to land on her island. However, he would not stop coming, and could talk of nothing but Kirke, and she, being extremely angry with him, laid a snare for him and had no sooner invited him into her palace but she set before him a table covered with all manner of dainties. But the meats were full of magical drugs, and as soon as Kalchos had eaten of them, he was stricken mad, and she drove him into the pig-styles. After a certain time, however, the Daunians’ army landed on the island to look for Kalchos; and she then released him from the enchantment, first binding him by oath that he would never set foot on the island again, either to woo her or for any other purpose. (Parthenius, Love Stories 12)
And Dionysos, king of Nysa, with whom she had a child by the name of Komos:
The splendid entrance, with its golden doors, reveals a very wealthy pair just married who are lying on a couch. And Komos has come, a youth to join the youths, delicate yet full grown, and always flush with wine. Do you not hear the castanets and the flute’s shrill note and the disorderly singing that accompany him? The torches give a faint light, enough for the revellers to see what is close in front of them, but not enough for us to see them. Peals of laughter rise, and women rush along with men, wearing men’s sandals and garments girt in strange fashion; for the revel permits women to masquerade as men, and men to put on women’s garb and to ape the walk of women. Their crowns are no longer fresh but, crushed down on the head on account of the wild running of the dancers, they have lost their joyous look. (Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1.2)
Komos is the κῶμος personified:
The Greek komoidia means “the song of the komos.” A komos is a communal ritual
carouse: on a small scale it is the ancient equivalent of party-crashing and bar-hopping rolled into one, but as part of a communal festival of Dionysus it recalls modern carnivals such as that of Mardi Gras (although the ancient rites were usually more carefully scripted and ordered) — a time when normal social rules and inhibitions are cast aside and people party in the streets, singing, dancing, and drinking. The ancient komos often involved masks and costumes, as does Mardi Gras, but was marked by another practice foreign to most festivals in modern North America: aischrologia or the ritual abuse of individuals. Another distinctive feature, found in many Dionysiac rites and no doubt in some komoi, was the phallos: an imitation penis, often too large for one person to lift with ease, carried on a pole or cart. As with Mardi Gras, these rites tended to occur in spring (or mid- to late-winter) and although they may have served a number of psychological, social, or political ends, their main function was to promote fertility by honoring or encouraging the god (and driving away any spirits of blight) through a boisterous display of health, prosperity, and virility. The chorus of comedy often appears dressed as animals, insects, or in some other nonhuman guise (as the titles of many plays indicate: e.g., Wasps, Birds, Frogs); Old Comedy teems with vitality: it abounds in references to food, drink, and sex, and frequently concludes with a triumphant revel — often celebrating a marriage — reminiscent of the komos. (John Porter, Aristophanes and Greek Old Comedy)
English poet and prophet John Milton invokes him thusly:
Bacchus, that first from out the purple grape
Crushed the sweet poison of misused wine,
After the Tuscan mariners transformed,
Coasting the Tyrrhene shore, as the winds listed,
On Circe’s island fell. (Who knows not Circe,
The daughter of the Sun, whose charmed cup
Whoever tasted lost his upright shape,
And downward fell into a grovelling swine?)
This Nymph, that gazed upon his clustering locks,
With ivy berries wreathed, and his blithe youth,
Had by him, ere he parted thence, a son
Much like his father, but his mother more,
Whom therefore she brought up, and Comus named:
Who, ripe and frolic of his full-grown age,
Roving the Celtic and Iberian fields,
At last betakes him to this ominous wood,
And, in thick shelter of black shades imbowered,
Excels his mother at her mighty art;
Offering to every weary traveller
His orient liquor in a crystal glass,
To quench the drouth of Phoebus; which as they taste
(For most do taste through fond intemperate thirst),
Soon as the potion works, their human count’nance,
The express resemblance of the gods, is changed
Into some brutish form of wolf or bear,
Or ounce or tiger, hog, or bearded goat,
All other parts remaining as they were.
And they, so perfect is their misery,
Not once perceive their foul disfigurement,
But boast themselves more comely then before
And all their friends, and native home forget
To rule with pleasure in a sensual sty.
Milton’s masque Comus unfolds as follows:
The plot concerns two brothers and their sister, simply called “the Lady”, lost in a journey through the woods. The Lady becomes fatigued, and the brothers wander off in search of sustenance. While alone, she encounters the debauched Comus, who is disguised as a villager and claims he will lead her to her brothers. Deceived by his amiable countenance, the Lady follows him, only to be captured, brought to his pleasure palace and victimised by his necromancy. Seated on an enchanted chair, with “gums of glutinous heat”, she is immobilised, and Comus accosts her while with one hand he holds a necromancer’s wand and with the other he offers a vessel with a drink that would overpower her. Comus urges the Lady to “be not coy” and drink from his magical cup (representing sexual pleasure and intemperance), but she repeatedly refuses, arguing for the virtuousness of temperance and chastity. Within view at his palace is an array of cuisine intended to arouse the Lady’s appetites and desires. Despite being restrained against her will, she continues to exercise right reason (recta ratio) in her disputation with Comus, thereby manifesting her freedom of mind. Whereas the would-be seducer argues appetites and desires issuing from one’s nature are “natural” and therefore licit, the Lady contends that only rational self-control is enlightened and virtuous. To be self-indulgent and intemperate, she adds, is to forfeit one’s higher nature and to yield to baser impulses. In this debate the Lady and Comus signify, respectively, soul and body, ratio and libido, sublimation and sensuality, virtue and vice, moral rectitude and immoral depravity. In line with the theme of the journey that distinguishes Comus, the Lady has been deceived by the guile of a treacherous character, temporarily waylaid, and besieged by sophistry that is disguised as wisdom. Meanwhile, her brothers, searching for her, come across the Attendant Spirit, an angelic figure sent to aid them, who takes the form of a shepherd and tells them how to defeat Comus. As the Lady continues to assert her freedom of mind and to exercise her free will by resistance and even defiance, she is rescued by the Attendant Spirit along with her brothers, who chase off Comus. The Lady remains magically bound to her chair. With a song, the Spirit conjures the water nymph Sabrina who frees the Lady on account of her steadfast virtue. She and her brothers are reunited with their parents in a triumphal celebration, which signifies the heavenly bliss awaiting the wayfaring soul that prevails over trials and travails, whether these are the threats posed by overt evil or the blandishments of temptation.
Milton isn’t the only one to preserve the tradition of an affair between Kírkē and Dionysos; the God is coming from Kírkē’s mythic isle when he discovers the grieving Cretan princess Ariadne on Naxos, in the famous opera by German composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal:
Ariadne is alone in front of her cave. Three nymphs look on and lament her fate. Watching from the wings, the comedians are doubtful whether they will be able to cheer her up. Ariadne recalls her love for Theseus (“Ein Schönes war”), then imagines herself as a chaste girl, awaiting death. Harlekin tries to divert her with a song (“Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen”) but Ariadne ignores him. As if in a trance, she resolves to await Hermes, messenger of death. He will take her to another world where everything is pure (“Es gibt ein Reich”). When the comedians’ efforts continue to fail, Zerbinetta finally addresses Ariadne directly (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin!”), woman to woman, explaining to her the human need to change an old love for a new. Insulted, Ariadne leaves. After Zerbinetta has finished her speech, her colleagues leap back onto the scene, competing for her attention. Zerbinetta gives in to Harlekin’s comic protestations of love and the comedians exit.
The nymphs announce the approach of a ship: it carries the young god Bacchus, who has escaped the enchantress Circe. Bacchus’s voice is heard in the distance (“Circe, kannst du mich hören?”) and Ariadne prepares to greet her visitor, whom she thinks must be death at last. When he appears, she at first mistakes him for Theseus come back to her, but he majestically proclaims his godhood. Entranced by her beauty, Bacchus tells her he would sooner see the stars vanish than give her up. Reconciled to a new existence, Ariadne joins Bacchus as they ascend to the heavens. Zerbinetta sneaks in to have the last word: “When a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck.” (Synopsis of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos from the Metropolitan Opera)
Becca Goldknopf elucidates on the seemingly inexplicable presence of the Harlequinade on Naxos:
There are a few additions to the cast of the myth of Ariadne in Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. While the three beautiful nymphs naturally fit into the ancient mythological setting of the story, the five-member comedy troupe with all their merriment would seem to have no connection to the desolate island of Naxos or its mournful inhabitant. These apparently contrasting groups produce the same effect of emphasizing the inconsolable grief which consumes Ariadne. By introducing new characters into the mythical world of Ariadne, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal present a deeper interpretation of the princess’ emotions and of her resulting behavior. They give insight into Ariadne’s pain and isolation, allowing the audience to empathize with her more intimately. They illustrate the interconnectedness between Ariadne’s relationships with Theseus and Bacchus and her desire for death.
Ariadne’s lament in the opera expresses overwhelming sorrow. The nymphs watching over her say she is “weeping in her sleep.” So heavily does her grief lie upon her that even in sleep her sobs continue. In “Ariadne to Theseus,” Ariadne’s cries are said to be answered only by the echoing of the rocks on the beach around her. Thus Strauss and Hofmannsthal place three nymphs, including Echo, with Ariadne, who sympathize with her and join in her lamenting, but since the Minoan princess does not recognize their cries, she feels isolated. The composers also integrate a five-member comedy troupe into the plot, who, led by the charming Zerbinetta, make a number of valiant and enthusiastic attempts to console Ariadne and cheer her up. Ariadne simply cannot be consoled and remains, in fact, oblivious to the song and dance going on around her. The jovial nature of the bunch of buffoons presents a sharp contrast to Ariadne’s state of grief. She is “. . . the epitome of human loneliness,” according to the Composer character in the opera’s prologue. She feels the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she simply wants to die.
In both Ovid’s Epistles and the opera, Ariadne desires death. She wants to forget her pain and suffering and the man who caused it. In “Ariadne to Theseus,” Ovid describes her angrily cursing Theseus for not having killed her before he left and actively praying for death to end her misery. In the opera she behaves more passively as she allows her emotions to wash over her, simply waiting for death rather than calling out for it. Her view of the Underworld is strangely positive. She sings of “. . . a realm where all is pure. . . .” and where her soul can be free from the misery of living alone. The way Strauss and von Hofmannsthal interpret the myth, Ariadne does, in a sense, die. Since she is in love with the idea of death, she instantly and unrestrainedly falls in love with Bacchus thinking he is the messenger god, Hermes, come to take her to the Underworld. In falling in love with Bacchus, the pain inside her is replaced with joy, and she leaves behind the Ariadne who wept and mourned the betrayal of a lover. The woman who leaves is a different person entirely, free from the chains of despair and sorrow.
The ship Bacchus arrives on, while beautifully majestic, appears to be a less godlike, more earthly mode of transportation compared with swooping down from the sky as he does in Catullus’ account. This element of humanity in the god allows the audience to more closely empathize with Bacchus by making him more real and believable. Yet still the nymphs make abundantly clear with their cries of “A young god!” and “A charming boy!” that Bacchus is no mere human.
Ariadne’s meeting with Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos shows her vulnerability and its connection to her relationship with the god of wine. The composers insert a new part of the story in which Bacchus spent the day before his arrival on Naxos in the company of Circe on her island. This experience causes him to be slightly wary of the vision of beauty he finds himself in love with the next day, questioning her as to whether she is a sorceress like Circe. Ariadne, rather than questioning who Bacchus is, believes that he must be Hermes, for whom she has waited. It is not clear whether she is ever really convinced that he is not the messenger god, but if so she is so in love with him that it does not matter who he is. All that matters is that he has lifted the weight off her shoulders and set her free from her pain and suffering.
In the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos, the Composer insists Ariadne is “… one of those women who belong to one man only in their life and after that to no one else – to no one else, save Death,” yet Zerbinetta sings at the end of the opera, “When the new god approaches, we surrender without a word.” These two ideas, though they seem to be in complete contradiction, somehow coexist in the heart of Ariadne. The interpretation by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, rather than showing Ariadne as moving on so quickly as to almost herself betray her love of Theseus, illustrates that she was only able to love Bacchus because she loved Theseus. She loved him so deeply she wanted to die without him, and she desired death so strongly she mistook Bacchus for the god of death. In Ariadne auf Naxos, Ariadne is more than just a woman who is left by one lover and forgets her tears as soon as another man comes along. Her emotions run deeper than most people could imagine, and her love is pure and eternal. The composers use the prologue, the nymphs, and the comedians to help illustrate their interpretation of Ariadne without significantly altering the plot as it applies to Ariadne and while remaining true to the mythical nature and size of the story.