I have pretty much opened a can of worms when it comes to the origins of Witchcraft, so I am dedicating all of the posts over the next several weeks to various myths and legends surrounding the Goddesses most linked with it. Today I would like to introduce Circe (also Kirke), the Greek Goddess of Sorcery. According to the Theoi Project website, Circe’s name means “to secure with rings” which would make sense as a reference to the binding power of spells and magick. However, other meanings I found list “bird or falcon” as being the origin of this Greek name for girls. And if you look under the specific spelling Kirke, it there are references to it being a boy’s name in Norse which means “church.”
Circe was daughter to Helios, the Titan God of the Sun, and Perse, an Oceanid nymph, if we use Homer’s Oddessy as a starting point. There are some documents that name Hecate (the Goddess of Witchcraft) as a possible choice for her mother as well, but I’ve chosen to investigate that connection in a future post. For now, I will go with the assumption that Homer had things right.
Circe in the Odyssey
Being born to a Titan family puts Circe in the goddess category. Through the aforementioned parentage, she had a brother Aeetes, King of the Island of Colchis and a sister Pasiphae who married King Minos. Pasiphae was mother to the Minotaur (the dad wasn’t King Minos, it was much more messed up than that), who lived in a Labyrinth crafted by Daedalus and his son Icarus. The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus, aided by another one of Pasiphae’s children, Ariadne (her dad was King Minos). Pretty messed up that she helped kill her step-brother, but she had the hots for Theseus and eloped with the hero after the deed was done. Seems like that happened a lot in those days, someone falling wildly in love and then doing some horrific things because of it. We will see a bit of that going on in future posts with one of King Aeetes’s children, Medea.
All three siblings, Circe, Aeetes and Pasiphae, were skilled at witchcraft which is also referenced as pharmakeia, and is defined as “the use or the administering of drugs.” The definition also includes the words: magical arts and poisoning. These were the earliest of the pharmacists, Gods and Goddesses who became knowledgeable in the effects of certain herbs and their combinations. As with modern medicine, most of the knowledge was used for good and for healing the sick. But, there were also times it was used for reasons that were a bit more selfish.
Circe’s siblings seemed to fly under the radar when it came to their father’s wrath. They were given kingdoms of their own, while Circe was largely ignored and kept to herself. When her magical abilities came under the scrutiny of her father, after turning a fellow nymph named Scylla into a hideous monster, she was banished to a remote island called Aeaea and exiled for eternity. The story goes that Circe turned Scylla into said monster after her advances toward Glaucus, a sea-god, were ignored. It seems he was besotted with the beautiful nymph Scylla and Circe was a woman scorned. What better way to get rid of your competition than to make a potion to turn them into a terrifying creature? Scylla is described as having 12 feet and 6 heads on long, winding necks, similar to a Hydra. The monster is referenced in the epic poem Homer’s Odyssey, and it is Circe who tells Odysseus how to get by the hideous sea-creature on his way back home to Ithaca.
Circe was also known to have focused that rage also on Picus, a son of Cronus, who also ignored her attempts to seduce him. Seems to me that she had really bad taste in guys. Anyway, her wrath wasn’t focused on the woman he was in love with that time, but on Picus, himself. Circe turned him into a woodpecker, which still bears his name in Latin: picus. Doesn’t seem nearly as bad as what she did to poor Scylla, except for the whole banging your face against a tree thing. Anyway, the woman he was in love with, Canens, perished while looking for her lost love and there is an interesting story about her you can link to here. Told you this topic was a can of worms!
So back to Circe’s exile. She made the best of her situation and perfected her craft long before Odysseus finally landed on her island. Even though she was banished she wasn’t alone, she was a Goddess after all, and was sent there with handmaidens to attend her. The Nymphai (minor goddesses of water sources) & Dryades (minor goddesses of trees, groves and forests) helped Circe by gathering flowers and herbs for her potions. I suppose they kept her company as well, however, it seems to me that Circe was lost in her work for the most part. By the time Odysseus (Roman name: Ulysses) landed there, she knew the right combination of herbs to use for healing and was also able to transform her enemies into animals by way of potions. It is the explanation used for the multitudes of docile animals surrounding her home, which would otherwise be ferocious. She was also said to have the ability to hide the sun and moon, and was able to call upon the assistance of “darker” deities, such as Chaos, Nyx and Hecate (there is that name again, I promise we will get to Hecate later).
The interaction of Circe and Odysseus in the Odyssey isn’t very long. In fact, I could only find a handful of references to her name within the over 300 pages of text, and most of which could be found in Chapters 10 and 11. However, Circe’s role for Odysseus is key in that he would have never been able to make it home without her. She also bore him children, one of which would accidentally end Odysseus’s life.
Madeline Miller’s Circe
If you haven’t read Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, you need to add it to your TBR pile immediately! Go ahead, I can wait… here’s a link if you need it. Got it? Perfect! This book is beautifully written and gives us some insight into the choices Circe makes and the regrets she ultimately feels because of them. She portrays Circe as a resilient and self-sufficient woman, who uses her time on her island to develop the skills that she has tapped into. We see her story unfold in her POV, which Odysseus plays a very small part in, very much the opposite of Homer’s Odyssey where he was the entire focus of the story. It is entirely refreshing and fascinating to read Ms. Miller’s take on a woman who accepts her own flaws and makes the best of her situation.
Now I won’t be saying much more about this book, since I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s just say…I loved the way it ended. This is a story about making lemonade out of lemons and about the gift of forgiveness; a gift that sometimes has to come from within. I was fortunate enough to hear Ms. Miller speak last fall, and if you are ever able to do so, I highly recommend you make the effort to see her. She is extremely knowledgeable on the Odyssey and was an engaging speaker. I stood in line for over an hour, but it was well worth getting her signature on my copy of her book! I would like to thank the Literati Bookstore and the Ann Arbor District Library for hosting such a wonderful event!
Other works that include Circe
There are many more works that include references to Circe: The Theogony by Hesiod, The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, and the Description of Greece by Pausanias to name a few. There are also other fictional works I can find such as the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan and Olympus by Dan Simmons.
I have included some resources below, and am sharing a short video that I thought gave a good overview of this fascinating Goddess that we are still enthralled with all these centuries later. Perhaps she truly is the goddess of sorcery, for she has definitely captivated those who seek her out with her undying mystical allure. XO