On John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle

The Greek figure depicted on her ritual clothes evokes the Mysteries of Eleusis and possibly those of Dionysus, placing us in Waterhouse’s reimagining of the Ancient Mystery cults.

Outside the circle, numerous animals stand, at once omens of death and symbols of magical “familiars,” animals that work with the magickian to achieve their magickal ends.

In her right hand, she carries the ceremonial sword, in her left, the ceremonial dagger which is crescent shaped to align her with the moon and the mysteries of Luna and Diana. Outside of the circle, there is a skull; within it, on the lower right side, flowers and emblems of life. The circle contains life and closes out the darkness of death.

About her throat, a serpent is coiled, evoking the Egyptian symbol of wisdom and magick and suggesting, to Waterhouse’s audience, dark, cthonic associations. Overall, it is a powerful image and a masterfully painted work.


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