i spoke recently about coincidence. it was an accident, a result of repeatedly thwarted plans, that i went today and not last week or month or year to the waterhouse exhibit at the musee des beaux-arts. on the heels of my interaction with joseph campbell, specifically the story of odysseus' meeting and hieros gamos ('sacred marriage') with circe that i came, unexpectedly, upon waterhouse's magnificent rendering of this meeting.
in the story, odysseus must solicit the sorceress circe's guidance, but he must first challenge her authority so that she finds him worthy of seduction (an allegory for union with the guide/guardian of the otherworld/immortality -- the goddess); it is a typically iron age patriarchy myth, in which the feminine-goddess element is dominated by the masculine-warrior element. waterhouse's painting, though, focuses on the fleeting moment when circe raises her wand to threaten odysseus. it is a distinctive interpretation of the scene, which centres on the magic powers of circe rather than her eventual capitulation to odysseus' masculine authority. she is commanding and dominates by subtle wiles, not physical force. she is the archetypal mother-goddess: pacific yet omniscient; terrible in her capacity as destroyer, benign in her capacity as life-giver.
waterhouse began his career by painting representations of scenes from classical antiquity (his uniqueness was his ability to convey a narrative through pictorial rather than literature; he showed a side-scene, which conveyed the entire story), but he shifted, mysteriously and dramatically, to a focus on pagan antiquity and mythology. (to be sure, we can draw a distinct parallel here with the present writer.) this focus on pagan myth and the centrality of commanding females made people wonder about possible connexions to an occult society, since the mystical feminine -- the eternal, dual-yet-united power of the female, the destroyer/creator-goddess -- is at the core of the human story, is more ancient than our time, and is the obsession of seekers of ultimate truth.