Homer's Odyssey, Hes-iod's Theogony
Daughter of Helios and Perse
In Greek mythology , the witch Circe was the daughter of the sun god Helios (pronounced HEE-lee-ohs) and the ocean nymph (female nature spirit) called Perse (pronounced PUR-see). According to legend, Circe lived on the island of Aeaea (pronounced ee-EE-uh), where she built a palace for herself and practiced spells that enabled her to turn men into animals.
The two best-known legends involving Circe concern her encounters with the fisherman Glaucus and with Odysseus , a Greek hero of the Trojan War.
Glaucus (pronounced GLAW-kus) was changed into a sea god one day while sorting his catch. He became half man and half fish, with long strands of seaweed for hair. Glaucus fell in love with a beautiful girl named Scylla (pronounced SIL-uh), but she was frightened of his appearance and rejected him. He went to Circe and asked for a spell to make Scylla love him. Circe offered Glaucus her love instead, but he refused to have anyone but Scylla. The jealous Circe then enchanted the water where Scylla was swimming, turning her into a horrible sea monster with six heads. Scylla fled to a cave on top of a dangerous cliff and attacked any sailors that came within her reach.
The most famous tale concerning Circe appears in Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs) and his crew sailed by Aeaea as they were returning from the Trojan War. Odysseus sent some men ashore, led by a warrior named Eurylochus (pronounced your-i-LOH-kus). The group came upon Circe's palace, which was surrounded by lions, bears, and wolves, which were tame and did not attack them. In fact, the beasts were men that Circe had changed into animal form. Circe then appeared and invited Odysseus's men inside to dine and drink. Everyone accepted the invitation except Eurylochus, who was suspicious. After eating Circe's enchanted food, the men all turned into pigs. Eurylochus alone returned to the ship to tell Odysseus what had happened.
Odysseus decided to go to Circe himself. Along the way, he met a young man, who was actually the god Hermes in disguise. Hermes tried to discourage Odysseus from continuing on to the palace, but Odysseus was determined to get his men back. Hermes then gave Odysseus an herb that would protect him from Circe's spells. When Odysseus reached the palace, Circe invited him in and attempted to enchant him. However, the herb protected him against her spell, and he drew his sword and threatened her. The sorceress fell to her knees and pleaded for her life. Odysseus agreed to spare her if she would return his men to their normal condition and release them safely.
Circe restored the crew to human form and offered to entertain them before they returned to sea. Odysseus and his men found life on the island so pleasurable that they remained there a full year before resuming the journey home. When they finally left, Circe sent them on their way with a favorable wind and advice about how to avoid the many dangers that lay before them.
In an Italian version of this legend, Circe and Odysseus had three children: Telegonus (pronounced tuh-LEG-uh-nus), Agrius (pronounced AG-ree-us), and Latinus (pronounced LA-tin-us). Telegonus traveled to Ithaca to seek his father but then killed him by accident. He brought Odysseus's body back to Aeaea, accompanied by Odysseus's widow, Penelope (pronounced puh-NEL-uh-pee), and their son Telemachus (pronounced tuh-LEM-uh-kuhs). Circe made them all immortal (able to live forever) and married Telemachus, and Telegonus married Penelope. Circe also played a role in the legend of the Argonauts , ritually purifying Jason and Medea after they killed Medea's brother.
Circe in Context
Ancient Greek women did not enjoy the same status as men. They were expected to remain at home, tend to the household, and nurture their families. The aggressive actions of the female figures in ancient Greek myths show that the Greeks were well aware, however, that women might have more than meal-planning and child-rearing on their minds. The witch, Circe, possesses qualities that would both entice and frighten men. Circe is beautiful, entertaining, generous, a wonderful hostess, and a capable healer—all things that, to the ancient Greeks, a perfect woman must be. She offers rest and restoration to Odysseus's weary men, and she helps them along in their journey—but not, of course, before turning them into pigs. Thus, Circe's two-sided female nature becomes clear. She is not only nurturing and feminine; she is dangerous, deceptive, and powerful.
Although there is no evidence that Circe is based on a real historical figure, medical experts have speculated about a possible scientific explanation for her potions and Odysseus's antidote. This assumes the effect of Circe's potion is not taken literally—in other words, victims are not actually transformed into animals.
A potion that causes hallucinations, memory loss, and confusion could be made from a group of naturally occurring substances known as anticholinergics. These substances are found in deadly nightshade and other plants found in the region associated with the Circe myth. Such a potion could result in a victim feeling as if he or she were under a magical spell. (It is important to note that deadly nightshade is one of the most poisonous plants known to humans and should never be consumed or fed to anyone.)
In addition, the plant that Homer describes as protection against Circe's potion—referred to as “moly”—matches descriptions of a plant known today as the snowdrop. The snowdrop contains a natural substance that can reduce the effects of anticholinergics, thus offering protection from such a potion.
She controls wild beasts such as lions and wolves, and has a deep connection with the ancient, dark forces of nature. This dark, mysterious connection with nature is something that was, long before the ancient Greeks, associated with women. Odysseus, a clever man, recognizes and respects Circe's power. It is only with divine help that he outmaneuvers her. The story of Circe seems to be a warning to Greek men that if they did not firmly control women, women would control them.
Circe has much in common with later conceptions of witches in Europe and North America. She knows how to use herbs to create spells and potions, which she whips up in a bubbling cauldron. She even has a stick or staff, much like a witch's wand.
Key Themes and Symbols
Because of the details of her tale in the Odyssey, Circe has become associated with men in animal form, usually as swine. She is commonly shown surrounded by animals and holding a cup of her potion. Many scholars view Circe as a symbol of the luxury and unchecked desire that seduces people and causes them to ignore their duty and thus lose their dignity. Since nearly all the victims of her wrath were male, Circe may also represent the power that a woman can have over men.
Circe in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Though Circe is hardly a major character in Greek mythology, she has endured in art and popular culture better than some Greek gods. Her story is recognized well enough that she is mentioned in passing in many works, including the Ernest Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). Nathaniel Hawthorne offered a retelling of Circe's story in his 1853 collection Tanglewood Tales. Literary legends as diverse as Edmund Spenser, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison included female characters based on Circe in their most popular works.
Circe has also appeared as a villain in several DC Comics series, including Wonder Woman, and has also appeared on the animated television series Hercules.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Waiting for Odysseus by Clémence McLaren (2004) offers a unique new perspective on the story of Homer's Odyssey: each of the four sections of the book is told in the voice of a woman from Odysseus's life. The second section of the book, “Circe's Story: A Witch Takes a Lover,” tells of the sorceress and her affair with the adventurous hero. The author includes an epilogue that offers additional information about the themes of the book and the original Greek myths.
Cir·ce / ˈsərsē/ Greek Mythol. an enchantress who lived on the island of Aeaea. When Odysseus visited the island, his companions were changed into pigs by her potions.