The Spellbinding Story of Circe, Goddess of Magic
Circe was a goddess of magic and she continues to be one of the most enchanting deities of ancient Greek mythology. This daughter of Helios and patron of ancient Greek witches still fascinates people even today.
She appeared in many of the most famous ancient Greek texts, such as The Odyssey by Homer, The Theogony by Hesiod, Description of Greece by Pausanias, Geography by Strabo, and The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus. She was also mentioned by famous Roman writers like Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, Hyginus, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, and Propertius. Why did Circe become so popular for these and other writers? She was just one of many characters in Greek mythology, but people saw something in her which fascinated them more than the others.
The Magic of Circe
Witchcraft has always been important. Since the beginning of humanity, people have searched for solutions through magical practices. Therefore, Circe (or Kirke) became one of the most magnetic women in Ancient Greece.
Statue of Circe at Versailles. ( Public Domain )
In most texts, she is described as a daughter of Perse the Oceanid and the Titan of the Sun – Helios. She had several siblings, including Pasiphae (who married King Minos and bore the famous Minotaur.) Aeetes, known as the keeper of the Golden Fleece, was said to be her brother. However, some ancient texts suggest that she was actually the powerful goddess Hecate’s daughter instead.
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Her personality and attributes encompass all of the key ideas related to witchcraft. It is written that she was a specialist in herbs and knew how to use them for magic and healing. She created many recipes for ancient potions to use in magic rituals. Circe is often depicted with a wand or a staff. One of the most famous of her accomplishments was transforming her enemies into animals.
"Circe", a catalogue of famous women, from a 1474 edition. ( Public Domain )
The most popular account of Circe comes from the Odyssey 10. 135 - 12. 156:
“[Odysseus sailed forth from the land of the Laistrygones (Laestrygones) and came next to the island of Kirke (Circe):] Then we came to the island of Aiaia (Aeaea); here Kirke (Circe) dwelt, a goddess with braided hair, with human speech and with strange powers; the magician Aeetes was her brother, and both were radiant Helios the sun-god's children; their mother was Perse, Okeanos' (Oceanus') daughter. We brought the ship noiselessly to shore, and with some divinity for guide we put in at the sheltering harbour. We disembarked, and for two days and two nights we lay there, eating out our hearts with sorrow and weariness.
But when Eos the Dawn of the braided hair brought the third day at last, I took my spear and my sharp sword and hastened up to a vantage-point, hoping to see some human handiwork or to catch the sound of some human speech. I climbed a commanding crag, and from where I stood had a glimpse of smoke rising from the ground. There were gleams of fire through the smoke, and at sight of this I wondered inwardly whether to go and look. But as I pondered, it seemed a wiser thing to return first to my vessel on the beach, give my men a meal and then send them out to spy. I was on my way back and near the ship when some divinity pities me in my loneliness and sent a great antlered stag right across my path [perhaps a man that Kirke had transformed into an animal].''
Her role is quite large in the Odyssey, where it shows many things about morality and understanding the power of magic and the fear of deities in ancient Greece. Homer’s description of her also led to Circe being considered as one of the most attractive female figures in ancient mythology.
A Heroine of Science and Literature
Stories from ancient literature fascinated many scientists so much that they started to search for scientific explanations in them. For example, the plants which are believed to be the ones Circe used to put a spell on Odysseus’ companions were called Circaea. That name was given during the late 16th century.
Circe dropping her cup and fleeing Odysseus. ( CC BY 2.5 )
The enzymologist William Jencks tried to explain the myth about Circe while doing research in his field. His work concluded with an enzymatic reaction called “The Circe Effect.” Circe also became very popular for astronomers, who named a genus of the Venus calms and the dark main-belt asteroid (34 Circe) after her.
Portrait of William Jencks ( Fair Use )
Circe’s fame didn't die with the end of ancient beliefs. During medieval times, she became an important symbol in moral stories created by Giovanni Boccaccio. In ''Famous women'' ( De mulieribus claris ), he wrote that she lived in Italy and commented on her actions. She also appeared in the monumental 600-page text written by Georg Rollenhagen in 1595, titled ''The frogs and mice'' ( Froschmeulseler). In that book, Rollenhagen described the story of Odysseus or Ulysses and Circe.
In 1624, Spanish writer Lope de Vega also presented her in his text titled La Circe - con otras rimas y prosas , where he wrote another version of the Greek myth. She was a popular motif during the 19th century in books related to mystical and mythical topics as well.
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Portrait of Emma Hamilton as Circe, subsequently used to illustrate numerous books. ( Public Domain )
Circe is now one of the most popular figures from ancient witchcraft and mythology. Her character appears in TV series, movies, games, and fantasy books. She still casts her magic and terrifies men, who have no idea what to do – should they escape or admire her beauty? Circe is a symbol of female power for women and vanity for men. Regardless of how she is interpreted, she is still one of the most magnetic women from ancient Greek myth.
Top image: Barker's 1889 ‘Circe’. Source: Public Domain