Circe in Greek Mythology — The Goddess of Sorcery

Circe in Greek Mythology — The Goddess of Sorcery

Who was Circe in Greek Mythology?

CIRCE, the daughter of Helios, the sun god and the ocean nymph Perse, was a powerful witch who had poisoned her husband, king of the Sarmatians, before going to the fabulous island Aeaea. Her magical powers turned Odysseus’ men into swine when they landed on Aeaea on their way home from Troy. Aided by Hermes, the messenger god, Odysseus was immune to Circe’s magic, restored his crew to human form, and gained the witch’s aid for the next part of his journey.

For a year, Odysseus stayed as Circe’s lover before she told him how to navigate through the waters of the Sirens and between Scylla, a monster, and Charybdis, a whirlpool. Scylla had been a rival of Circe, who had turned her into a monster when one of her many lovers had shown interest in the unfortunate girl. In some accounts, Circe eventually married Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

The idea of magic and sorcery is one that we see fairly often in Greek mythology, mostly because some of the things that we see the gods and goddesses do can only really be described as magical. There are a few minor deities that have been associated with magic and sorcery. We’ve already taken a look at Hecate, the goddess of magic, and today we’ll be examining Circe, the goddess of sorcery.

Circe Name’s Pronunciation

She was known to the ancient Greeks as Κίρκη (pronounced as kírkɛː [Kirke]), but as is common with most of the words in ancient Greek that contained a hard K sound, when they were Latinized and anglicized, the hard case sound became a soft C, and we now refer to her as Circe.

Origin of Circe

She was a daughter of Helios, the titan god of the Sun, and Perse, one of the many Oceanid nymphs—which meant that she had two siblings: Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, and Aeëtes, the guardian of the Golden Fleece.

She appeared in a variety of different forms. Sometimes, she was seen as the goddess of magic and other times, a nymph, much like her mother. But the most common depiction was that of an enchantress or sorceress.

She was a goddess known for her skills in transmutation, illusion and necromancy. It’s believed that She took residence on the island of Aeaea with her many nymph companions after being exiled by her father. There are a few explanations as to why she was exiled. The most common being was that she murdered the Prince of Colchis, who was also her husband.

They were very few who dare to venture to Circe’s Island, as she was capable of transforming those who angered her into a wild beast and she was best known for her role in Homer’s Odyssey, where we see exactly what she was capable of.

Circe and Odysseus: Men Turned to Swine—Homer’s Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey does describe the island that Circe lived on in some detail. She lived in a large house, in the middle of a dense wood, and surrounded the house were numerous wild animals; Lions, Wolves and Bears, but unlike what you would expect, these animals were extremely docile, and they would prowl the surrounding grounds, greeting newcomers and guests that they came across.

Circe and Odysseus: Men Turned to Swine—Homer’s Odyssey

All of these animals were once human, but they were now nothing more than victims of her sorcery as a result of Circe’s transmutation experiments.

When Odysseus and his men reached Circe’s Island, they stumbled upon her residence, and she invited them in, even throwing a feast in the name of Odysseus and his crew. The feast contained food that they were all familiar with; piddles sweetened of honey and laced with wine, as well as one of Circe’s magical potions.

Circe herself drank from an enchanted cup, as to not arouse suspicion from Odysseus’s men. The men suspected nothing and gorged themselves on the feast before them. When the men’s bellies were full, the magical potion began to take effect. She then drew her staff, and with one incantation, she transformed them all into swine.

Only Odysseus’ second-in-command, Eurylochus, suspected treachery and had not entered Circe’s mansion. When learning what had happened to his men, he escaped and returned to the ship to warn Odysseus and the rest of the crew who been had elected to stay behind.

Odysseus took the men he had left at his disposal and set out to rescue his crew, but before he entered Circe’s woods, he was intercepted by Hermes, who had a message from Athena. She advised Odysseus to use a specific herb to protect himself from the sorcery that his men had fallen victim to.

Artwork by Continental School, 19th Century, Hermes protecting Odysseus from Circe, Made of Oil on canvas

When Odysseus eventually confronted Circe, he was able to resist her sorcery. Circe then attempted to seduce Odysseus, luring him to her bed. Hermes had previously advised that he had to be cautious of such a thing, as she would attempt to take his manhood unless he had her swear by the name of the gods that she would not.

Odysseus eventually freed his men, and they remained on the island for a year or so. Feasting and rested for the next voyage.

Homer’s Odyssey doesn’t develop the relationship between Circe and Odysseus after their confrontation. Still, we can assume that they at least remained civil, with Circe allowing Odysseus and his men to remain on her island, even advising Odysseus on what routes he should take on his next voyages.

Circe and Odysseus—Hesiod’s Theogony

This image may contain Human Person Art and Painting. Circe and Odysseus—Hesiod’s Theogony
Many readers of the Odyssey want Penelope, Odysseus’ strong-willed wife, to fit the ideal of an empowered woman.Artwork by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée. Photograph by Paul Fearn / Alamy

If we take a look at Hesiod’s Theogony, it does state that she bore the three sons of Odysseus, Ardeas, Latinus, and Telegonus, who will set sail to find his father when Circe informed him of who he was.

She gave Telegonus a poisonous spear that he would unknowingly kill his father with, and along with this is his other son, Telemachus, whose mother was Penelope.

They brought Odysseus’ corpse to Circe, who, with some magical herbs and sorcery, was able to bring Odysseus back from the dead. The hero was so grateful that he gave his son Telemachus to Circe’s daughter, Penelope, in marriage. But like many stories in Greek mythology, this one would end in tragedy.

Telemachus would one day have a very heated discussion with his mother-in-law, which would end in him killing Circe, and Penelope will then avenge her mother by killing Telemachus. And upon hearing the news of his son’s death, Odysseus would die from grief.

So, I guess the next time you consider your own family to be dysfunctional, you can consider yourself lucky that you’re not Telemachus, who watched his father die only to be resurrected and forced him to marry his ex-lover’s daughter, whose mother he would eventually kill causing his wife to then kill him, and his father to die from grief.

In Conclusion

Whatever you choose to take from the story of Circe and Odysseus, there’s no doubt that it’s a thoroughly entertaining and eventful story. Circe, much like Hecate, was a minor goddess in Greek mythology. Her association with magic and sorcery meant that she was later associated with witchcraft when that notion came into existence.

The scientific interpretations of Circe show her to be somewhat of a botanist, using plants and herbs that would cause amnesia, hallucinations, delusions and ultimately death.

Circe is a goddess I’m fairly undecided on. She doesn’t come across as particularly caring or even patient. Anyone who disturbed her work or angered her was immediately punished by being turned into an animal. What certainly does come across is her devotion to her work.

I see her as somewhat of a tinkerer, experimenting with different potions and herbs. To what end, I’m not exactly sure of; but power and knowledge are most likely what she was driven by. She does happen to have many of the tropes that we were associated with witches, the power of magic, the collection of animal familiars, and a house in the woods of the forest.

But I’d like to know how you guys feel about Circe. Do you feel she harboured any resentment towards her father and the gods for exiling her? Or do you think she didn’t care?

Do you see her as a sorceress or a witch? Or, perhaps, maybe a slightly all tempered botanists?

Circe Q&A

Who is Circe in the Odyssey?

Circe, in the Odyssey, was the daughter of the sun-god Helios and the Oceanid nymph, Perse. She lived in a large house, in the middle of a dense wood, and surrounded the house were numerous wild animals; Lions, Wolves and Bears, but unlike what you would expect, these animals were extremely docile, and they would prowl the surrounding grounds, greeting newcomers and guests that they came across.

Image Sources: Howard Lyon, Continental School, 19th Century, Kevin Nichols

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