I am enraptured somewhat by the tale of Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology, and as a corollary to this fascination is an interest in the perennial called mandrake. The mandrake is synonymous with witchcraft and maintains a connection through the ages to Circe. I have been researching the properties and effects of the psychoactive alkaloids present within the mandrake which curiously makes an appearance in the Old Testament as an aphrodisiac and then going further back into antiquity there is a connection to the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor. The fruits of the mandrake are called love apples and Hathor among her many attributes is the Mistress of Intoxication and the Goddess of Love, from which the Greek goddess Aphrodite shares a connection. The mandrake seems to have come to ancient Egypt from the Middle East in the pharaonic 18th dynasty as it was found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen and it started appearing as an offering to Hathor in the Egyptians' art at this time as well as in love songs of the era. In the Old Testament Jacob's wife Rachel exchanges a night with Jacob for her sister Leah in order to gain possession of the mandrakes Leah's son Reuben had brought home. The mandrake is then presumably used as an aid to help the childless Rachel conceive and as a result she gives birth to Joseph. Later on in the Old Testament the mandrake is mentioned in the Songs of Solomon, which for all intents and purposes are love poems to the Great Goddess.
The mandrake is from the solanaceae family of plants and this piqued my interest since these are sorcerer plants: the venerable nightshades and daturas.
An effective dose of these plants can cause delusions, hallucinations, amnesia, and a high degree of suggestibility. The mandrake also has a history of being used medicinally and as mentioned above in love potions, so as with most remedies the difference between a medicine and a poison lies in preparation and dosage.
The tale of Circe that interests me is from Homer's Odyssey where Odysseus and his crew arrive on her island and are invited to a feast. Along the way they meet strangely docile lions and wolves. Circe is singing an enchanting song and working a huge loom as half of Odysseus' crew arrives at her clearing in the forest and sit down to a sumptuous banquet. Circe laces a beverage with her sorcerer's drugs and then turns the men into swine. After hearing of his men's fate, Odysseus sets out with the remainder of his crew to save them but he is stopped along the way by the wise messenger god Hermes, who was sent by the goddess Athena, and he instructs Odysseus in the use of a plant called moly that will counteract the effects of Circe's drugs. After avoiding her trap, Odysseus threatens Circe with his sword and gets her to free his men from her enchantment. After this Circe invites Odysseus to her bed however Odysseus suspects treachery and as he was counselled earlier by Hermes to get her to swear to the gods she would not harm him, he remains free from her spell. Eventually Odysseus stays on the island with Circe for a year before he continues on his journey back home to Ithaca.
Odysseus, Circe and transformed man | Athenian red-figure calyx krater C5th B.C.
Angelica Kauffmann's painting of Circe enticing Odysseus, 1786
Within this myth are many elements that invite a closer look. First of all the turning of Odysseus' men into swine along with the tame beasts surrounding Circe's home is tainted with misogyny in relating that women are to blame for making men veer off their own personal heroes journey and causing them to lose their ability to reason, instead of pinning it on perhaps their own doing. The underlying idea here is that the pursuit of women will bewitch and destroy the fortitude of men. In relation to this idea is the necessary sexual relationship between Circe and Odysseus which depicts women as using sex and pleasure if the drugs don't work to once again gain control over men. As well, Circe at her loom is representing weaving a spell to keep those within her sphere of influence enchanted. When Hermes gives Odysseus the secret of moly to counteract the spell it symbolizes that wisdom is the antidote to the enchantment. Metaphorically the enchantment can also be thought of as the love of the pleasures of the world, the world symbolized by the feminine Circe and the loom representing the weaving of the world into existence. It turns a man on a journey of adventure and discovery of self, his true calling, into a tamed beast once he tastes the finer pleasures of the world. This all ties in to the idea of Circe as the original femme fatale. The name Circe brings to mind the circus ring where the enchanted beasts put on a great show for all. This idea of a ring or circle is prevalent in magic, witchcraft, and sorcery and In relation to this idea Odysseus stays for one year with Circe so the sun can complete a revolution, in essence a full circle.
The idea of Circe representing the seductive pull of getting lost in the sensuous pleasures of incarnation really fascinates me. From an Eastern perspective this is related to the idea of Maya. In this regard Maya is impermanence and therefore illusory, so the pursuit of worldly treasures is a fool's errand. Being constantly tricked by this delusion keeps you trapped on the wheel of Samsara, going round and round in this carnival; ah the old Merry Go Round riding the tamed beasts! Every successive incarnation into the game of life is the result of the forgetfulness and thinking this time it really is going to be magical. The pull and attachment to carnal desires remains strong until you can finally break free. Circe, the carnival, and the circus are all symbolizing this predicament. When you are ready Athena sends Hermes, the wise messenger god, to give you the knowledge necessary to break free of your chains.
Bartholomeus Spranger, Hermes and Athena, c. 1585 Fresco Castle, Prague
Now in terms of the drugs Circe is using, it is through folklore and tradition thought to be the mandrake as it has been called the drug of Circe and within some languages the Mandrake has been given a name connecting it to Circe such as in the Latin ciceron. As I mentioned above, the mandrake is related to the daturas and in my travels and involvement with Amazonian shamanism I am familiar with these plants, called toé in the Amazon basin and I have ingested them as part of an Ayahuasca brew. When I drank a dose with a high content of toé I experienced the most harrowing and dark night of my life. In my opinion Ayahuasca is a teacher plant and when it works with the daturas it gives you a lesson in the power and control your dark side has over you. I did experience hallucinations and delusions during and following the ceremonies for a few days afterwards and was also very open to suggestion, so much so that I followed the voice in my head that told me I should leave the place I was at and go home. But enough of my experience with these plants because what is strange about the use of datura and its relationship to Circe is the antidote to its effects being the plant called moly.
Historians and scholars have taken up the task of trying to identify moly. As with all things found in the murky waters of antiquity there is more than one possibility though one of the identifications I find quite striking. Moly has been identified by some scholars as a plant called peganum harmala.
Well I know my entheogens so I know this plant is used as an Ayahuasca analogue in places where Ayahuasca cannot be found or is illegal. The alkaloids within peganum harmala mimic those found within the Ayahuasca vine. Putting this altogether we have the goddess Athena getting the wisdom god Hermes to go and deliver a message to Odysseus to ingest an Ayahuasca analogue to counteract the enchantment and trappings of the material world represented by Circe. Thousands of people a year currently seeking answers to the vexing questions of life are doing just that in spiritual quests down into the Amazon jungle or within Ayahuasca circles springing in up in many places throughout the world.
To conclude this tale of worldly trappings and delusion I am reminded of the seductive pull of Los Angeles on those egos infatuated with the grandeur of self and the desire for fame. The song 'Hotel California' by the Eagles sums it up, describing the pull of losing yourself completely within the illusion.
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night.
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
'This could be heaven or this could be Hell'
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face.
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (any time of year) you can find it here
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget
So I called up the Captain,
'Please bring me my wine'
He said, 'we haven't had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine'
And still those voices are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say"
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face.
They livin' it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise), bring your alibis
Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said, 'we are all just prisoners here, of our own device'
And in the master's chambers,
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
'Relax' said the night man,
'We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!'
Written by Don Felder, Don Henley, Glenn Frey • Copyright © Cass County Music / Wisteria Music / Privet Music, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Red Cloud Music