The Spellbinding Story of Circe, Goddess of Magic in Greek Mythology
Circe is a complex character within Greek mythology. Feared and desired in equal measure, Circe was a goddess of magic, and even today she continues to be one of the most enchanting and deadly deities of the Greek pantheon, despite playing a minor role within the many legends from her home on the mythical island of Aeaea.
Detail from a painting of Circe offering the Cup to Ulysses, the Latin name for Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse. (Public domain)
The Genealogy of Circe in Greek Mythology
In most texts, the mythological Circe is described as the daughter of Helios, the Titan of the Sun, and Perse the Oceanid. In Greek mythology, Circe is described as having several siblings, including Pasiphae, remembered for having married King Minos and giving birth to 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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Circe has appeared in many of the most famous ancient Greek texts throughout history, 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. But why did Circe become so popular for these and other writers? Although a minor character within Greek mythology, the goddess Circe has inspired fascination throughout the ages.
Detail from an 1892 depiction of a jealous Circe, entitled Circe Invidiosa, poisoning the water where her rival Scylla bathed and turning her into a monster, by John William Waterhouse. (Public domain)
Patron of Witches and Enchantress of Greek Mythology: The Magic of Circe
Since the beginning of humanity, people have searched for solutions through magical practices and witchcraft. Therefore, Circe (or Kirke) became one of the most magnetic women in ancient Greece. A patron for witches, the personality and attributes of Circe in Greek mythology encompass all of the key ideas related to witchcraft.
The goddess Circe has been remembered for her vast knowledge of magic potions. As a specialist in herbs and knowledge of how to use them for magic and healing, Greek mythology had it that she created many recipes for ancient potions to use in magic rituals. To that end, Circe is often depicted with a wand or a staff in artworks.
But, who is Circe in Greek mythology? Circe was a vengeful enchantress and wasn’t to be crossed and the myths of ancient Greece are filled with tales of her powers and wily ways. In one of the stories of Circe, the Greek goddess falls in love with Galucus, the sea god. Unfortunately, Circe never had much luck when it came to love and, as would become a reiterating aspect to her story, her love was unrequited as Glaucus was enamored with Scylla the nymph.
Roman mythology tells the tale of Circe transforming Picus into a woodpecker, by Luca Giordano. (Public domain)
In a memorable scene famously rendered in a painting by John William Waterhouse, Circe the goddess of magic poisoned the water where Scylla would bathe in a fit of jealousy, transforming the nymph into a terrible monster, with dog heads growing from her waist. Ovid told a slightly different version of the story, whereby Glaucus asked Circe for a love potion to win Sculla’s affection, sparking the envy of Circe. The end result was however the same. This monster would later feature in the Odyssey and Scylla was said to have devoured six sailors. The Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus wrote:
“While Scylla was bathing in the sea, the jealous Circe poured a baleful potion into the sea water which caused Scylla to transform into a frightful monster with four eyes and six long snaky necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp shark's teeth. Her body consisted of 12 tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail, while six dog's heads ringed her waist. In this form, she attacked the ships of passing sailors, seizing one of the crew with each of her heads.”
Within Greek mythology, one of her most memorable traits was her ability to transform her enemies into animals. In artworks she is often depicted doing so with the help of a staff or a magic wand. Her magical ability for metamorphosis was recounted in the tragic Roman tale of Picus. The King of Latium and loving husband of a nymph known as Canens, Picus was transformed into a woodpecker when he spurned Circe in favor of his wife.
Wine cup or kylix depicting scenes from the Odyssey from circa 560 to 550 BC. (Lucas / CC BY 2.0)
Circe in the Odyssey: The Power to Transform Men into Swine
The most well known account of Circe in Greek mythology was recorded within Homer’s 8th century Odyssey. Within this epic poem, Circe the goddess is described as having braided hair, human speech and strange powers, all the while surrounded by tamed wolves and lions. In this tale, Odysseus visits Circe on the island of Aeaea as he tries to return home from the Trojan War. When half of the crew disembarks to explore the island, they were lured to her home.
“Presently they reached the gates of the goddess's house, and as they stood there they could hear Circe within, singing most beautifully as she worked at her loom, making a web so fine, so soft, and of such dazzling colors as no one but a goddess could weave,” described Homer in his Odyssey. Homer’s description of Circe led to her being considered one of the most attractive female figures in ancient Greek mythology.
Woodcut illustration of Circe and Odysseus with men transformed into animals. (kladcat / CC BY 2.0)
From her home on Aeaea, Circe invited them to a banquet, before drugging them and turning them into pigs using her magical powers.
“They were like pigs-head, hair, and all, and they grunted just as pigs do; but their senses were the same as before, and they remembered everything.”
With the help of Hermes, Odysseus manages to outdo her by putting a plant called moly into his wine which made him immune to her deceit. Unable to turn him into a pig, Odysseus managed to force her to turn his crew back into human form.
Odysseus and his crew ended up spending an entire year on the island. Circe eventually fell in love with him and helped him to appease the gods and return home. In Theogony, by Hesiod, they had three sons together known as Agrio, Latinus, and Telegonus, the last of which ended up killing his father.
Circe returning Ulysses' (Odysseus) followers to human form by Giovanni Battista Trotti. (Public domain)
A Heroine of Science and Literature
Stories from ancient literature fascinated scientists so much that they started to search for scientific explanations within them. The genus Circaea, known as enchanter’s nightshades, were named after Circe due to the stories of her ability to use herbs and potions against her enemies. 16th century botanists believed that Circe had used them for these ends.
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 amongst scientists. Carl Linnaeus the botanist named a genus of the Venus clams after the Greek goddess, while the French astronomer Jean Chacornac named the dark main-belt asteroid (34 Circe) after her.
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 Concerning Famous Women (De mulieribus claris), Boccaccio wrote that she lived in Italy and commented on her life. She also appeared in the monumental 600-page text written by Georg Rollenhagen in 1595, titled The Frogs and Mice (Froschmeulseler), in which 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. Circe was also a popular motif during the 19th century in books related to mystical and mythical topics as well.
1910 painting of Circe by Federick Stuart Church. (Public domain)
The Circe of Greek Mythology in Modern Times
In Women and Other Monsters, Jess Zimmerman argues that within ancient literature women who lived outside of whatever was deemed normal or feminine, were portrayed as monstrous, their traits amplified within Greek mythology.
For Zimmerman, the often-female monsters of Greek mythology, written by male authors of their era, can tell us a lot about cultural expectations and represent “the bedtime stories patriarchy tells itself.” She goes so far as to question their monstrousness, asking the reader to see their traits as strengths.
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Circe is now one of the most popular figures from the realms of witchcraft and Greek mythology. Her character appears in TV series, movies, games, and fantasy books, including being portrayed as the enemy of Wonder Woman within the DC Universe and within the 2021 movie Eternals where she inspired the character Sersi.
In these modern-day depictions she still casts her magic and terrifies men, who have no idea what to do – should they escape or admire her beauty? These days 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: 1889 painting of Circe by Wright Barker. Source: Public domain
By Natalia Klimczak
Miller, M. 2018. Circe. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Zimmerman, J. 2021. Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology. Beacon Press.