Justice: Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses
Circe, like the law, is the protector of her realm. When men visit her island nation, she turns them into animals. Below, at her feet and behind her throne are men Circe has turned into swine (oh, the irony). The stories typically describe her turning men into wild animals, like wolves, boars, and bears, or into pigs. The men become docile once transformed. Certainly, what better role for Justice than to make a threat submissive, to turn an enemy pliant?
In some versions, Circe is a minor goddess of magic, in others a princess exiled for murder, in another simply the queen of the island, and in most a sorceress. In all iterations, Circe is a woman alone on an island and skilled in herbal magic.
Without doubt, Circe is cunning, but she is not without heart. In the mirror behind her, we see Ulysses to one side and his ship on the other. Instead of a scale and sword of justice, like in Smith’s illustration, she holds a cup and wand.
She is testing Ulysses. If he fails and drink the poison, he will metamorphose, and Circe will control him. He does, in fact, drink, but warned by a crewman and advised by a goddess, Ulysses fortified himself with an antidote.
Like the law itself, Justice represents fairness and unfairness, justice and injustice. Pamela Colman Smith’s iconic illustration (right) seems based on the Greek goddess Dikē, the personification of moral judgement and equanimity. She’s an ideal, of course, and the Greeks placed great weight on the abstract concept of justice and how it manifested in the world.
On the other hand, it certainly can seem as if the other Greek and Roman deities were not overly concerned with justice. While they sometimes stepped in to save a victim or exact justice, they were prone to act selfishly, jealously, and unfairly. They were above human concepts of justice. Conveniently, however, their actions could explain love, war, tragedy, sudden fortune or misfortune, and other aspects of our lives that seem to defy reason (and justice).
Tarot of Delphi Meditation: Justice
Ulysses reminds us that strategy is needed to engage with systems of justice. It is not enough to be righteous. We must understand the rules, the pitfalls, and the fine print. We must meet with advisors, hire lawyers, and plan our approach.
Interactions with institutions as powerful as “the law” should never be undertaken lightly, and this painting is rich with symbols of power.
Circe’s right foot stands on a carved head, symbolizing her dominance and reminding us that the law is binding. The gossamer snakes, hardly visible on the hem of her loose dress, warn us that justice is not predictable, and it can bite. The clawed feet and growling beasts on her throne caution us to approach carefully and thoughtfully.
Strewn at Circe’s feet are violets with a frog sitting among them. The frog symbolizes Circe’s knowledge of magic and especially her ability to transfigure people into beasts.
The violets, interestingly, often represented faithfulness in the Victorian language of flowers. The painter, John William Waterhouse, who is sometimes criticized for an apparent obsession with tragic women, was perhaps reminding the Victorian viewer, who would also have been familiar with the greater mythology of Circe’s life, that once befriended, Circe was a faithful and powerful ally.
Divine Justice or Human Justice?
Circe certainly seems like a manipulator of the “law” rather than an impartial judge. Because of this, Circe is a wonderful representations of the dichotomy between the ideal of justice, or “divine justice,” and how it manifests in our lives through human institutions.
It is in its manifestation that we have our most potent and life-altering experiences with justice, perhaps better referred to as “the law.” The ideal of justice is an important measure of the success or failure of our human justice systems. While they will never be perfect, the ideal provides an opportunity to create standards and at least strive for fairness.
As with human justice, whether Circe is just or unjust also depends on one’s perspective. As a protector, she is wise and authoritative. An enemy, on the other hand, many see her as ruthless and cold-hearted.
We can see this in our own societies when someone (or even an entire nation) treat another person or group in ways they themselves would find entirely unacceptable. This is a paradox of human justice. What we find “just” in our own actions is not acceptable when leveled against us.
The Shadow of Justice
In reverse, Justice suggests a meditation on injustice. Because human institutions are faulty and, at various times and places, more or less corrupt, we can easily feel more victimized than helped by justice systems.
There are many stages for unfairness to manifest – stereotyping by security personnel, harassment by lawyers whose clients can afford to use their services for intimidation, judges who give preferential treatment to groups that fund their election campaigns.
Justice reversed gives us pause to think about the failures of our systems. I’ve seen police officers perjure themselves in court after attacking someone in my neighborhood. On another occasion, I witnessed officers insist that a large group of cyclists stop riding on the street. As the cyclists stood around in confusion (there was nothing illegal going on, and it wasn’t possible for such a large group to ride on the sidewalks), the officers called for backup. Backup arrived in several flashing police units and immediately aggressed the increasingly frightened cyclists. The officers physically abused many people, arresting several and especially targeting anyone taking trying to record the incident with photos.
Also, justice is often a matter of perspective. That’s why people pursue litigation or arbitration to settle disagreements. Both sides feel justified (while neither may feel satisfied with the result).
When we turn to formal systems of justice, we need to be well prepared to play a game, and it’s a game we might lose despite a true (or imagined) sense of righteousness.