By Shawn StJean
Ever done time in the Underworld?
No one goes willingly. We get sent. Or we stumble, fall, and the abyss reaches up to claim us.
It’s Time Out, amplified in adult psychological reverb.
In Book X of Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek adventurer Odysseus, having departed war-torn Troy with many ships under his command, has lost all but one, along with all their crews. Although his defeat of the Kyklops, only to then foolishly reveal his name and invoke the wrath of the Kyklops’ father, Poseidon, is the most well-known of his exploits, his greatest antagonist remains ahead, the goddess-in-exile, Kirke (pronounced aptly as “Seer-See.”)
If we are even casually interested in powerful women, we may ponder: Why doesn’t Kirke, “Dire Beauty and Divine” as the poet paradoxically describes her, dwell on Olympus? Cut off from what we would today call her network, she lives in isolation on an island home. Explanation: unlike Aphrodite, Artemis, and even Athena, she’s neither a “good girl,” nor a “dutiful daughter.” She refuses to do as she’s told, to bow down before Zeus’ paternal authority. She won’t run his errands, as Hermes does, or tolerate his scheming, like Hera. She’d rather exist according to her own code, and pay the price of solitude.
Hers is yonic potency. Impervious to containment, shrouded in darkness: the moon, cloak and hood, smoke, her seductive singing, alchemy, the sea, the sky, the trees, her hair, her weaving on the great loom. All shapeless, free, and greater than any sword forged by man. Her true power resides in her mystery.
And when mortal men invade her island, Aiaia, they quickly find themselves transmogrified into beasts.
But–Is Kirke friend or foe to our protagonist, Odysseus? Wait. Not so simple a question.
Widely misunderstood as a common “witch” (complete with phallic broomstick and yonic potions,) this is only the form in which humans are given to perceive her–no god or goddess appears in her true form on Earth, it being incapable of withstanding, by mortal eyes. This association with witchery has, especially to our Western, Judeo-Christian ears, the unfortunate side-effect of connoting “evil” (as both Hermes and Odysseus also use the word against her.)
The hero cannot hope to beat her. Nor can he match her. And yet, with this full knowledge, he goes–to loyally rescue his enthralled men from her. And only the divine intervention of the trickster god, with his gift of the antidotal moly plant, could possibly allow Odysseus to circumvent the power of the goddess. And to further his devious triumph, he’s instructed by Hermes specifically to rape Kirke–which he does. The myth tells us much about how a woman can be depowered in our culture: isolate her from her sisterly connections (in a house or anything functionally equivalent), cut or bind her hair, sexually dominate her, call her “bad.”
But here–something mysterious happens. He’s with her an entire year–until his crewmembers approach and beg to him to “Shake off this trance, Captain.”
So, Odysseus vs. Kirke: who really wins?
Even more interestingly, who benefits? As he wraps his arms around her knees in supplication, the goddess informs this “hero,” “ Home you may not go unless you take a strange way round and come to the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone.” Upon passing this dread command onto the crew, who immediately begin to despair, he concludes “Kirke ordains it.” Hers is an authority not to be gainsaid, irreversible, implacable–equivalent almost to the Fates themselves.
The title translator Fitzgerald gave Book X, “The Grace of the Witch,” reveals his characteristic hybridization of mythological values. “Grace,” to modern readers, signifies favor or forgiveness that is completely unearned and undeserved by the recipient. It’s purely a gift–a divine one. And unlike moly, it’s no gimmick.
You see, Kirke knows something Odysseus doesn’t–that he’ll never get home, unless he gets his mind right. His ego and selfishness, and the resultant stupidities, of the past, need to be annihilated. Once, he invented the great Trojan Horse that ended the ten-year war; but that early success went to his head. Now, he must confront the visage of his own dark self–and hit rock bottom–only to be built up again from the very first brick, a humbler and wiser man.
Much like the friend of an addict. . .or the friend of anyone who isn’t tall enough and strong enough to “get over it,” around it, or underneath it, but whose only option is to go through it. . .like all true friends, Kirke refuses to give him what he wants. She gives him what he needs. That’s [healing] power.