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The Original Femme Fatale

The term femme fatale, used to describe a dangerous and alluring woman, originated in the mid-1800s and became a staple of noir mysteries in the 20th century. Classic films might’ve justified an inverted “Me Too” movement led by Frank Chambers (played by John Garfield in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”), Philip Marlowe (Humphry Bogart in “The Big Sleep), and Walter Neff (Fred McMurray in “Double Indemnity”). These poor saps were controlled by the likes of Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, and Barbara Stanwyck. So 70 years ago, the femmes fatales duped and dominated men. Okay, it’s not the same as Harvey Weinstein, but sex and power are culturally complicated.

But surely this sort of female character didn’t wait until the French came up with the evocative term. So how did people refer to deadly seductresses in earlier times?

The term used to be “Circe” (kēr-kē, rhymes with “beer key”), an allusion to the beautiful enchantress who lived on the island of Aeaea in Homer’s Odyssey. Through the use of magical herbs, she could transform her enemies, or those who offended her, into beasts. Apparently, Ulysses’ crew was rather boorish in their encounters with Circe because she lured them into a feast which included a potion that transformed the men into swine (the original male chauvinist pigs?).

Ulysses went to save his crew but fortunately heeded the advice of Hermes, who told the wannabe hero to use another powerful herb to protect himself from Circe’s dark powers and then to demand that she swear an oath to the gods before he climbed into bed with her or else she would “take his manhood” (presumably à la John Wayne Bobbitt, a fitting outcome for the likes of Harvey Weinstein but not the Greek king of Ithaca). Ulysses ends up saving his crew and happily hanging out with Circe, while remaining in far better shape than poor old Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity.”

As for the lesson in Homer’s epic poem, Renaissance moralists decided that the porcine transformation was not just the work of a peevish sorceress but the just consequence of vice. One pious analysis had it that the crew was punished for their gluttony, but the more popular interpretation was that piggy transmogrification was the price of carnal desire. And henceforth, Circe became the archetypal prostitute.

So, the next time I’m writing a noir mystery and need a good name for the femme fatale, I might just go with Ms. Circe (and name the beguiled sucker Mr. Hogg).

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