Tag Archives: potions

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book X – The Grace of the Witch

CirceAndSwine

In this book, Odysseus continues his tale of his journey. He actually covers three parts of his odyssey in this book. First, he describes his dealings with Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus gives him a bag of wind to aid in his voyage, but some of his greedy men think it has gold and open it, resulting in the boat being blown back to Aeolia. Next, Odysseus and his crew arrive at the land of the Laestrygonians, who are cannibalistic giants and devour a few of his men. Finally, they arrive at the island of Circe, who is depicted as a goddess but also a sorceress.

What I found the most fascinating about this book are the allusions to magic and ritual. Circe is obviously very skilled in the mystical arts and the imagery of her weaving “by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 171), her use of herbs and potions, and her wielding of a wand, all conjure some fantastic visions of the mystical woman.

The god Hermes offers to assist Odysseus in overcoming Circe’s spells. He provides Odysseus with instructions on how to use an amulet in conjunction with sex magic to protect himself from the sorceress.

But I can tell you what to do
to come unchanged from Kirke’s power (Note: alternate spelling in translation)
and disenthrall your fighting crew:
take with you to her bower
as amulet, this plant I know—
it will defeat her horrid show,
so pure and potent is the flower;
no mortal herb was ever so.

Your cup with numbing drops of night
and evil, stilled of all remorse,
she will infuse to charm your sight;
but this great herb with holy force
will keep your minds and senses clear:
when she turns cruel, coming near
with her long stick to whip you out of doors,
then let your cutting blade appear,

Let instant death upon it shine,
and she will cower and yield her bed—
a pleasure you must not decline,
so may her lust and fear bestead
you and your friends, and break her spell;
but make her swear by heaven and hell
no witches’ tricks, or else, your harness shed,
you’ll be unmanned by her as well.

(ibid: p. 174)

The plant that Hermes refers to appears to be mandrake, which according to myth will drive a human insane if pulled from the ground.

He bent down glittering for the magic plant
and pulled it up, black root and milky flower—
a molu in the language of the gods—
fatigue and pain for mortals to uproot;
but gods do this, and everything, with ease.

(ibid: p. 174)

Mandrake

Mandrake

Near the end of the book, Circe tells Odysseus that he must open a portal to the underworld, summon the spirit of the blind prophet Teiresias, and inquire about what he needs to do in order to return home. Circe provides instructions to Odysseus, and these instructions read like a dark magic ritual.

Here, toward the Sorrowing Water, run the streams
of Wailing, out of Styx, and quenchless burning—
torrents that join in thunder at the Rock.
Here then, great soldier, setting foot obey me:
dig a well shaft a forearm square; pour out
libations around it to the unnumbered dead:
sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last
clear water, scattering handfuls of white barley.
Pray now, with all your heart, to the faint dead;
swear you will sacrifice your finest heifer,
at home in Ithaka, and burn for them
her tenderest parts in sacrifice; and vow
to the lord Teiresias, apart from all,
a black lamb, handsomest of all your flock—
thus to appease the nations of the dead.
Then slash a black ewe’s throat, and a black ram,
facing the gloom of Erebos; but turn
your head away toward Ocean. You shall see, now
souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts,
and now you must call out to your companions
to flay those sheep the bronze knife has cut down,
for offerings, burnt flesh to those below,
to sovereign Death and pale Persephone.
Meanwhile draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off
the surging phantoms from the bloody pit
until you know the presence of Teiresias.
He will come soon, great captain; be it he
who gives you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.

(ibid: p. 181)

I cannot help but wonder whether Homer was schooled in the magical arts. Regardless, this is a very interesting segment of the epic. I am eager to read about Odysseus’ encounter with the spirits. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XI.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Literature

“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Exposing the Hidden

JekyllHyde

We are all familiar with the story, even if we have not read it. The image of Dr. Jekyll drinking a potion and transforming into the hideous Hyde has become part of our collective psyches. I confess that this was the first time I had actually read Stevenson’s novella, and even though I was familiar with the general story, I found the text itself to be enlightening.

While I noticed quite a lot of interesting symbolism in the text, I figured I would focus on the one that really stood out for me: the hidden part of the human psyche. This is symbolized by Hyde. I do not think it is a coincidence that Hyde is pronounced “Hide.” He represents that part of our consciousness that we want to hide from others, and which we would also like to hide from ourselves. He is the primal part of our being that drives our urges. Try as we may to suppress that part of ourselves, it is always there, just below the surface, waiting for its chance to surge upwards and wrest control.

Early in the story, Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, senses that there is something that Jekyll is hiding something.

And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. “Poor Harry Jekyll,” he thought, “my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long time ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, PEDE CLAUDO, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.”

(p. 19)

In our youth, we have less control over our primal instincts. We are more likely to succumb to our urges and desires, whereas in our later years, most of us have learned how to control that part of our consciousness.

After Hyde commits murder, Utterson confronts Jekyll and asks whether he is concealing Hyde.

“One word,” said the lawyer. “Carew was my client, but so are you, and I want to know what I am doing. You have not been mad enough to hide this fellow?”

(p. 31)

I love this passage because it is essentially a triple entendre. There is the obvious meaning of hide as concealment. Then there is the homonym connection between hide and Hyde. Finally, there is the alternate definition of hide as skin. Jekyll’s skin, or hide, conceals the darker aspects of his consciousness as embodied in Hyde. Considering all the interpretations, it’s a brilliant metaphor.

The transformative potion which Jekyll drinks is referred to as “transcendental medicine.” As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking that this was some form of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drug. Hallucinogens are believed to unlock the hidden parts of our consciousness, or as Blake would have said, open the doors of perception. I suspect that Jekyll’s potion was intended to represent a mind-altering drug that allows the hidden aspects of our consciousness to rise to the forefront.

“It is well,” replied my visitor. “Lanyon, you remember your vows: what follows is under the seal of your profession. And now, you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors—behold!”

(p. 68)

As the dualistic aspects of human consciousness are explored, the assertion seems to be that the primal subconscious is essentially evil and should be subjugated by reason.

…all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

(p. 75)

The following passage incorporates two of my favorite symbols: the crossroads and the doors. Here, the crossroads represent the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious mind, as well as the intersection between good and evil, the two contradictions that are embodied within us. The doors represent the passageway to that hidden part of our psyches, where the darker regions of our consciousness exist.

That night I had come to the fatal cross-roads. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition, and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.

(pp. 75 – 76)

I think the scariest thing about this story is it forces us to recognize that the potential for evil exists within all of us. We like to deny it is there and hide it away, but it is always waiting for the doors to open, to surge up from the depths of our psyches and overthrow our reason. Sanity is fragile, and once it cracks, the hidden crawls forth.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature

Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 15

CirceAndSwine

This episode corresponds with the section in Homer’s Odyssey concerning Odysseus’ encounter with Circe. According to Greek mythology, Circe is the goddess of magic and sorcery and is renowned for her knowledge of potions and herbs.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus’ crew to a feast of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions, and drunk from an enchanted cup. Thus so she turned them all into swine with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus to use the holy herb moly to protect himself from Circe’s potion and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were to attack Circe. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.

(Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, this episode takes place in the red light district, most of which is in a brothel. The entire episode, which is the longest in the book at around 180 pages, is written in the form of a play script. The majority of the “action” that takes place is in the form of hallucinations and mental visions induced by intoxication. This draws on the symbolism of Circe as a sexual temptress and one who can ensnare men using drugs and potions. I see the use of the play form as symbolic of the action playing out on the stage of the individuals’ minds and psyches.

In Homer’s epic, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine. Likewise, Joyce uses pig metaphors throughout the episode to reinforce the image of the men who are soliciting the prostitutes being nothing but swine.

Most of Bloom’s hallucinations are tied to feelings of guilt regarding his sexuality. At one point he imagines himself on trial where all his dark secrets are exposed. It is like he is being accused and confronted by his conscience which is no longer comfortable with the things he has done and imagined.

THE CRIER

(Loudly.) Whereas Leopold Bloom of no fixed abode is a well-known dynamitard, forger, bigamist, bawd and cuckold and a public nuisance to the citizens of Dublin and whereas at this commission of assizes the most honorable…

(p. 470)

In one of the hallucinations, Bloom has a cross-dressing fantasy. He imagines himself being forced to assume a female role and become a prostitute. This ties in with Hermes’ warning to Odysseus that Circe would take his manhood.

BELLO

(Points to his whores.) As they are now, so will you be, wigged, singed, perfumesprayed, ricepowdered, with smoothshaven armpits. Tape measurements will be taken next your skin. You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille, with whalebone busk, to the diamond trimmed pelvis, the absolute outside edge, while your figure, plumper than when at large, will be restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes and things stamped, of course, with my houseflag, creations of lovely lingerie for Alice and nice scent for Alice. Alice will feel the pullpull. Martha and Mary will be a little chilly at first in such delicate thighcasing but the frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees will remind you…

(pp. 535 – 536)

In another of Bloom’s hallucinations, he encounters the Goddess in the form of The Nymph. She accuses him of exploiting her, using her sacred image in advertising as a means to sell things. I found this to be a powerful critique on how women continue to be exploited by the media.

THE NYMPH

Mortal! You found me in evil company, highkickers, coster picnic makers, pugilists, popular generals, immoral panto boys in flesh tights and nifty shimmy dancers, La Aurora and Karini, musical act, the hit of the century. I was hidden in cheap pink paper that smelt of rock oil. I was surrounded by the stale smut of clubmen, stories to the callow youth, ads for transparencies, truedup dice and bustpads, proprietary articles and why wear a truss with testimonial from ruptured gentleman. Useful hints to the married.

BLOOM

(Lifts a turtle head towards her lap.) We have met before. On another star.

THE NYMPH

(Sadly.) Rubber goods. Neverrip. Brand as supplied to the aristocracy. Corsets for men. I cure fits or money refunded. Unsolicited testimonials for Professor Waldmann’s wonderful chest exuber. My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.

BLOOM

You mean Photo Bits?

THE NYMPH

I do. You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame.

(pp. 545 – 546)

This is such a long episode and there is so much that can be analyzed and explored, way too much for a single blog post. As such, I will look at one last quote that struck me as interesting. Stephen (who was with Bloom in the brothel) gets into an argument with a soldier. He criticizes the soldier’s willingness to die for his country. It is a display of anti-nationalism. Considering that Joyce wrote this at a time when nationalism was on the rise in Europe, I found it a poignant critique on the socio-political climate of the time.

STEPHEN

(Nervous, friendly, pulls himself up.) I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. This is the age of patent medicine. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve.) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!

(p. 591)

My next post on Ulysses will cover Episode 16 which ends on page 665 in my copy with the phrase “… and looked after their lowbacked car.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section15.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe

3 Comments

Filed under Literature