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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2021

Michiel van Veldhuizen*
Brown University/University of North Carolina, Greensboro


The reception of Circe's island in and through Classical Antiquity has largely focused on the enigmatic sorceress herself. The long literary chain of interpretive topoi—Circe the witch, the whore, the temptress—stretches from Apollonius, Virgil, Ovid, and Dio Chrysostom to Spenser, Calderón, Joyce, Margaret Atwood, and Madeline Miller. Her role as Odysseus’ benefactor, so unmistakable in Homer, is soon forgotten; to Virgil, she is above all dea saeva, (‘the savage goddess’, Aen. 7.19). One distinguishing feature of Circe and her reception is the focus on representation: the enchantment of Circe, as Greta Hawes puts it, is above all a study in allegory. From the moment Circe put a spell on Odysseus’ companions, transforming them into animals in Book 10 of the Odyssey, Circe has invited analogical reasoning, centered on what the transformation from one being into another represents. More often than not, this transformation is interpreted according to a dualist thinking about humans and animals: subjects are transformed from one being into another being, thus representing some moral or physical degradation. This article, by contrast, concentrates on Circe's island through the lens of becoming-animal, the concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the tenth plateau of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…’. I explicate the concept of becoming-animal by applying it to a Deleuzian encounter with Circe's island, both in its ancient articulations and in its various receptions, including H.G. Wells's science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Research Article
Copyright © Ramus 2021

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1. The main studies of Circe and her reception are: Bettini and Franco (2010); Yarnall (1994); Tochtermann (1992); Paetz (1970). See also Hawes (2017); Warner (1997); Segal (1968). It must be pointed out that Homer never calls Circe a sorceress or magician; the earliest author to refer explicitly to Circe as a magician is Dionysius Scytobrachion (third century BCE).

2. Alcman still casts her in the role of protector, supplying the wax used by Odysseus’ crew in order to sail safely past the Sirens (Page [1962], PMG 80). All translations are mine unless indicated otherwise.

3. Hawes (2017), 123f., where Hawes is interested in the ‘cultural biases’ and ‘underlying narrative prejudices’ that have informed interpretations of Circe. On allegory and the classical tradition, see the edited volumes by Copeland and Struck (2010) and Boys-Stones (2003).

4. The term analogy here refers to the process of arguing from similarity. In antiquity, the Latin term analogia referred to a theme in the study of the Greek and Latin languages concerned with the regularity that can be discerned in rules and classes (e.g. venio : veniens, puer : pueri). As we will see, its counterpart—anomaly, anomalia—is especially relevant for Deleuze and Guattari's notion of becoming.

5. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 232–309. The two other major works in which becoming-animal is discussed are Deleuze and Guattari (1986) and Deleuze (2003), 20–6. Deleuze's interest in animal ontology and classification can also be seen in Deleuze (1994).

6. Wells (2008), originally published 1896. On the encounter between Wells and Deleuze, see Starr (2017).

7. The very word ‘transformation’, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, is part of a discourse of being, since it presupposes a subject whose form, not whose essence, undergoes some change.

8. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 238.

9. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 238.

10. ‘The question is not: is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make it possible to think? What new emotions does it make it possible to feel? What new sensations and perceptions does it open in the body?’ (Deleuze and Guattari [1987], xv, see also 251).

11. Bogue (2007), 137.

12. The recent interest in animals from a posthumanist perspective—inaugurated by such seminal works as those of Derrida, Haraway, and Latour—has led to a vast amount of scholarship; for the purpose of this article, I shall only mention the edited volume by Rothfels (2002) and, within Classics, Payne (2010).

13. Deleuze and Guattari (1983), 106.

14. Aston (2011), 12–16, for a discussion of terminology: Aston defines a mixanthrope as ‘a composite form containing both human and non-human parts’ and mixanthropy as ‘the phenomenon of such forms, their use and representation’.

15. Such is the observation in the highly critical—and often scathing—assessment by Miller (1993), 6–35, whose main target is Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the nomadic, developed in the twelfth plateau in Deleuze and Guattari (1987). See also Bogue (2007), who offers a rebuttal of Miller.

16. Robson (2017).

17. For Aristophanes’ Birds as a work of science fiction, see Cooper (2019).

18. Cf. Bowen (1976), 321: ‘Circe, skilled in botany, becomes Dr. Moreau, skilled in the science and chemistry of the human form.’

19. The review was by Chalmers Mitchell, the editor of The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art; for the citation, and the ensuing public correspondence between Wells and Mitchell, see Harris (2009), 186–8.

20. Bowen (1976), 320–6. On this point see also Bozzetto and Taylor (1993), 42 n.13; Loing (1984), 200; Philmus (1993), 94 n.38.

21. Yarnall (1993), 71–8.

22. Yarnall (1994), 43, where Yarnall discusses the ritual significance of pigs in ancient Greece. Germain (1954) has interpreted the transformation of Odysseus’ men into pigs as a ritual of initiation. For discussion and critique, see Yarnall (1993), 44–7. Of course, the transformative power of Circe is not porcine only, especially in the visual record, on which more below.

23. For Circe as prostitute, see Hor. Epist. 1.2.23–6, and the historicist rationalization of the Circe myth by Heraclitus the Paradoxographer On Unbelievable Tales 16.

24. Yarnall (1994) refers to the Malleus Maleficarum as evidence for the distrust of and revulsion against female sexuality in early modern Europe, but does not mention or discuss the specific passages that deal with Circe.

25. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 252.

26. The reference is to Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 252f., the sources for which are laid out in the same, 540 n.28.

27. See the edition with translation by Mackay (2009).

28. Mackay (2009), 332. The point is also made earlier in the Malleus: ‘One can read about a certain female magician called Circe, who changed the companions of Ulysses into beasts. This was feigned with acts of illusion through conjuring rather than being brought to pass in reality, when she altered the fantasies of the men’ (Mackay [2009], 204). For its analysis of the Circe myth, the Malleus relies on the authority of Augustine (De civ. D. 18.17).

29. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 252.

30. Otten (1986), 83.

31. Otten (1986), 83.

32. Larner (2010), 50.

33. Blom (2014), 96.

34. Page (1973), 55. Cf. Stanford's comment (1967), 373: ‘ὥς τε σύες = “as pigs generally are” (generalizing τε)’.

35. For Deleuze and Guattari, the folktale is a place where becomings happen; myth, on the other hand, is about relations of analogy.

36. Major language ‘reinforces categories and distinctions that compartmentalize existence, thereby fostering an isolation of the personal and the political…encourag[ing] both the reinforcement of the dominant views of the majority and the illusion of the autonomy of the single voice’ (Bogue [2007], 23).

37. Olkowski (1999), 34.

38. Deleuze and Guattari (1986), 4.

39. Bruns (2007), 703.

40. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 240f.

41. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 240. This sentiment would prove offensive to Donna Haraway, see Haraway (2008), 29f.

42. A helpful analysis of this part of the tenth plateau is Adkins (2015), 142f.

43. Deleuze and Guattari (1986), 22.

44. Antonioli (1999), 53: ‘les démons se distinguent des dieux, parce qu'ils n'ont pas d'attributs, de territoires, de codes; ils sautent les intervalles, d'un intervalle à l'autre’.

45. Germain (1954), 132.

46. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 239.

47. Incidentally, we can now also explain the date associated with our tenth plateau, which is supposed to correspond to the purest incarnation of the conceptual movement. This date is 1730, a year explained by an entry on vampires in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary: ‘From 1730 to 1735, all we hear about are vampires’— Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 237, quote the line but do not provide a reference. Voltaire traces the vampire to Greek folklore, to the so-called vrykolakas (βρυκόλακας), a word that derives from a Slavic compound, meaning ‘having the hair of a wolf’. No doubt Deleuze and Guattari would be happy to hear that Voltaire's vampire partakes of a becoming-wolf, because becoming is supposed to be a continuous process.

48. For a complete discussion, see Cursaru (2008). Also relevant are Nakassis (2004); Marinatos (1995) and (2001). Marinatos (2001), 396, refers to Circe's island as ‘the House of the Rising Sun’.

49. Marinatos (2001), 399f., argues that Circe's island is disorienting because it is a ‘divided location’ and ‘neutral point’, doubling as the House of the Rising Sun (east) and the gateway to the realm of Hades (west).

50. Cursaru (2008), 40f., where she cites the seminal work of anthropologist Victor Turner.

51. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 524.

52. Deleuze (2004a), 10.

53. Deleuze (2004a), 9.

54. To be a desert island, the island need not be actually uninhabited: ‘some people can occupy the island—it is still deserted, all the more so, provided they are sufficiently, that is, absolutely separate, and provided they are sufficient, absolute creators’—a condition Circe seems to approach (Deleuze [2004a], 10).

55. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 244.

56. The most detailed surviving treatment of analogy and anomaly is found in Varro's De Lingua Latina, Books 8–10. See also Colson (1919).

57. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 243.

58. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 246. On the same page they cite Leach (1961), 18–25, to support the seemingly incongruent principles of the ‘contagion through animal as pack’ and ‘pact with the anomalous as exceptional human being’. Leach (1971), 18, discusses the role of kinship for the North Burma Kachins, for whom witchcraft is ‘contagious rather than hereditary’; the point is that, in many of the tribes that Leach reports on, two distinct categories of influence are operational, the genetic (filiation) and the mystical (affinity). Leach stresses that the term ‘mystical influence’ (which he approximates to the English ‘Fate’) is conceived of as a power beyond human control: ‘An individual is thought to be subject to certain kinds of mystical influence because of the structural position in which he finds himself and not because of the intentional malice or favour of any other individual’ (22). Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 246, translate this anthropological insight into their own context of becoming-animal: ‘In order to produce werewolves in your own family it is not enough to resemble a wolf, or to live like a wolf: the pact with the Devil must be coupled with an alliance with another family, and it is the return of this alliance to the first family, the reaction of this alliance on the first family, that produces werewolves by feedback effect.’

59. Deleuze and Guattari (1986), 24.

60. Both Page (1973) and Stanford (1967) ad Od. 10.305 suggest μῶλυ is cognate with Sanskrit mulam, ‘root’. Stanford (1967), 373f., further notes that ‘the white flower and dark root suggest garlic, Allium nigrum, which was widely used in antiquity as a protective charm, especially against vampires’; cf. Germain (1954), 216–20. No wonder moly works so well in preventing Odysseus’ becoming-animal.

61. Green (2007), 302.

62. Starr (2017), 39–71.

63. Wells (2008), 110.

64. Wells (2008), 116f.

65. Cf. Storment (2008), 41.

66. Wells (2008), 137.

67. See also Stanford (1967), 377; cf. Leach's (1961) notion of the sorcerer's mystical influence, 18–25.

68. The actual title of the dialogue is uncertain. Most scholars doubt that the title that has come down to us, Περὶ τοῦ τὰ ἄλογα λόγῳ χρῆσθαι (Bruta animalia ratione uti) was given at the time of composition; see Russell (1973), 18–20. This title does not occur in the Lamprias Catalogue, although two works in particular are sometimes thought to refer to the Gryllus: no. 127 Περὶ ζῴων ἀλόγων, ποιητικός (‘On Irrational Animals, a poetic work’) and no. 135 Εἰ λόγον ἔχει τὰ ζῷα ‘Can animals think?’). As is common in scholarship, I shall refer to the dialogue as Gryllus.

69. Herchenroeder (2008).

70. See Buxton (2009), 137–40, who compares Gryllus to Kafka's Gregor; see also the elegant essay by Warner (1997).

71. Philmus and Hughes (1975), 13–21.

72. Philmus and Hughes (1975), 19. Gryllotalpa is a genus of insects in the mole cricket family (grillus = cricket, talpa = mole). On the connection between the Gryllus and the cricket, see Warner (1997).

73. Vondel (1622), 52: ‘Men mach dese Circe te recht by de dronckenschap vergelijcken, dan zy de menschen in alleley beesten verandert, wanneer men haere dranck te vele nuttigt.’

74. Cf. numerous entries in LIMC vi s.v. Kirke. Several representative vase paintings are discussed in Buxton (2009), 91–5, and Hill (1941).

75. Apollodorus Library Epitome 7.15, inferring this from Homer, mentions that Odysseus’ companions are changed into pigs, wolves, asses, and lions.

76. Aston (2011), 262. This artistic mixanthropy can be explained in two ways. Davies (1986), 182, argues that the transformation is complete, but that this is the artist's way of rendering the fact that their human faculties are still intact. Snodgrass (1982), 7, on the other hand, argues that the artist is capturing a sense of ongoing change.

77. Aston (2011), 264f.

78. Buxton (2009), 95.

79. Here I echo Bruns's point about Haraway's cyborg as something that inhabits a ‘zone of indiscernibility’ between human and animal. As Bruns (2007), 714, puts it: ‘From a Deleuzian standpoint, a cyborg is a line of flight that escapes the segmentarity of molar organizations.’

80. Again, echoing Bruns (2007), 716.

81. The emblem of Circe's island in De Vernieuwde Gulden Winckel (Vondel [1622], see Fig. 2) also has a pig with a man's face.

82. Deleuze (2003), 19. For an insightful discussion of faciality and its relation to another Deleuzian concept, the Body without Organs, see Bruns (2007), 708–13, where he also discusses the fascinating case of the French performance artist Orlan, who had her face surgically removed while the surgery was being broadcast live.

83. Deleuze (2003), 19. For several of these Bacon images, including a self-portrait, and an extended discussion of Deleuze's work on the topic, see Ben Radcliffe's article in this volume.

84. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 170.

85. Kafka's request, which he made in a letter to the Kurt Wolff publishing company in October 1915, is quoted in Bruce (2006), 175.

86. For description, interpretation, and bibliography, see Gaultier (1995), 51f. (plate 39).

87. For description, interpretation, and bibliography, see Hannestad (1976); Krauskopf (1987), 20–3 (plate I.d).

88. Interestingly, the word loup-garou is an etymological pleonasm meaning ‘wolf-werewolf’. It is composed of loup (> Old-French leu, wolf) and garou (> Old French garoul, from Frankish *werwolf, i.e. man-wolf).

89. This is essentially the same question that vexed Miller (1993), but then with regards to the concept of nomadism.

90. On this topic, see Rissanen (2012); Rupp (2007), 48–75; Elliott (1995); Simon (1973).

91. Elliott (1995), 24–7. On the Lycoscura, see Lawler (1964). On ritual lycanthropy in Ancient Greece, of which the cult of Zeus Lycaeus is perhaps the most well-known, see Buxton (1987); Bremmer (2007); and Kunstler (1991).

92. Gaultier (1995), 51f.

93. Simon (1973), reprinted in Simon (1996), 55–70. Elliott (1995), 27, admits that the head and mane seem lion-like, but argues that ‘the artist has mistakenly given the wolf a mane’.

94. Another explanation is that it represents Phobus, the son of Ares, who sports a lion's head (De la Genière [1982], 137–45, esp. 140f.).

95. For example, in Hannestad (1976); Krauskopf (1987); Elliott (1995); and Gaultier (1995).

96. Krauskopf (1987), 21.

97. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 247.

98. Miller (1993), 30.

99. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 539 n.11.

100. Joset (1955).

101. Bogue (2007), 158.

102. I would like to thank Kyle Khellaf, Alex Purves, and the members of the 2018 SCS panel Deterritorializing Classics for their valuable comments and feedback. I am also grateful to Pura Nieto and Steve Kidd for their suggestions and encouragement at an early stage of this project.

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