In Greek mythology, Circe (sərsē; Greek Κίρκη Kírkē, falcon), is a Queen goddess (or sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress) living on the island of Aeaea.

Circe's father was Helios (or Helius), the god of the sun and the owner of the land where Odysseus' men ate cattle, and her mother was Perse, an Oceanid; she was sister of two kings of Colchis, Aeetes and Perses, and of Pasiphaë, mother of the Minotaur. Circe transformed her enemies, or those who offended her, into animals through the use of magical potions. She was renowned for her knowledge of drugs and herbs.

In ancient literature

In Homer's Odyssey

In Homer's Odyssey, her home Aeaea is described as a water mansion standing in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus' crew to a feast, the food laced with one of her magical potions, and she turned them all into pigs with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by Hermes, who told him to use the holy herb moly to protect himself from Circe's potion and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were to attack Circe. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.

Odysseus heeded Hermes's advice, thus securing the transfigured freedom of his fellows. For three days, he and Circe were lovers. Odysseus and his men remained on the island for one year feasting and drinking wine. She later assisted him in his quest to reach his home.

According to Homer, she suggested to Odysseus two alternative routes to return to Ithaca: either toward the "Wandering Rocks" (possibly the pumiceous Lipari Islands; in the 13th-century Chinese travel notes of Chou Ju-kua they are called similarly ), where King Aeolus reigned. Or, to pass between the dangerous Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, conventionally identified with the Strait of Messina.


In Hesiod's Theogony

Towards the end of Hesiod's Theogony (1011f) we find that Circe bore of Odysseus three sons: Agrius (otherwise unknown), Latinus, and Telegonus who ruled over the Tyrsenoi, that is the Etruscans.


Later poets generally only speak of Telegonus as Odysseus' son by Circe. When grown to manhood, later poets reported, she sent him to find Odysseus, who had long since returned to his home on Ithaca, but on arrival Telegonus accidentally killed his father. He brought the body back to Aeaea and took Odysseus' widow Penelope and son Telemachus with him. Circe made them immortal and married Telemachus, while Telegonus made Penelope his wife.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.72.5) cites Xenagoras the historian as claiming that Odysseus and Circe had three sons: Romus, Anteias, and Ardeias who respectively founded three cities called by their names: Rome, Antium, and Ardea.

That Circe also purified the Argonauts for the death of Apsyrtus may be early tradition.

In later tales Circe turned Picus into a woodpecker for refusing her love, and Scylla into a monstrous creature with six dogs' heads when Glaucus (another object of Circe's affection) declared his undying love for her. She had one daughter: Aega, who was born from the ocean in a shield of ice.

Modern interpretations

Medical historians have speculated that the transformation to pigs was not intended literally but refers to anticholinergic intoxication. Symptoms include amnesia, hallucinations, and delusions. The description of "moly" fits the snowdrop, a flower of the region that produces secondary metabolites that can counteract anticholinergics.


The phrase "Circean poison" has been used to refer to intoxicating things, such as applause.


  • In Dan Simmons' science-fiction novel Olympos, both Odysseus and Circe appear as themselves in a plot line of narrative fiction that draws upon The Odyssey.
  • In the second book of the epic poem The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser based Sir Guyon's antagonist Acrasia on Circe, both being witches who change the form of their victims into lower animals such as swine.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne retold the story of Circe in his Tanglewood Tales.
  • The Victorian poet Augusta Webster (1837-1894) wrote a blank verse dramatic monologue titled "Circe" (1870), in which the sorceress anticipates her meeting with Ulysses and his men. She insists that she does not turn men into pigs--she merely takes away the disguise that makes them seem human.
  • In James Joyce's Ulysses, the fifteenth chapter, known as the "Circe" episode, offers as Circe's equivalent the brothel madam, Bella Cohen.
  • In Ernest Hemingway's early novel The Sun Also Rises, Robert Cohn refers to the Lady Ashley as Circe, saying she "turns men into swine."
  • In John Myers Myers's 1949 novel Silverlock, Circe turns the main character into a pig due to his proclivity for food and fornication.
  • In 2000, British poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem entitled Circe.
  • American choreographer Martha Graham created a 1963 ballet entitled Circe, with score by Alan Hovhaness
  • Circe is also mentioned in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, as a famous witch, and in A Great and Terrible Beauty (Libba Bray) as one of the characters.
  • Circe appeared in the cartoon Ulysses 31 where she attempted to build a tower that would house all the knowledge of the universe, thus making her more powerful than the gods.
  • In DC Comics, Circe is a constant and deadly foe of Wonder Woman, while in Marvel Comics, the immortal Eternal superheroine Sersi is said to be the basis for Homer's Circe in the Marvel Universe.
  • In Rick Riordan's novel The Sea of Monsters Circe lures Percy and his friend into a magical trap, and Hermes rescues them.
  • A variation of the theme of Odysseus and Circe is also to be found in Philip K. Dick's short story "Beyond Lies the Wub", with the protagonist explicitly referring to the Odysseus myth.
  • In the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, when Chihiro's parents eat the feast of Yubaba, they are transformed into pigs.
  • The 2003 Radio Tales drama "Homer's Odyssey: Voyage to the Underworld" is a dramatic retelling of the portion of Homer's epic poem featuring Circe, followed by the voyage to Hades to consult with the prophet Teiresias.
  • There is a short story by Julio Cortazar titled "Circe" in his collection Bestiario from the 1950s.


Ancient source references

  • Servius, In Aeneida vii.190
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses xiv.248-308
  • Lactantius Placidus, Commentarii in Statii Thebaida

Characters in the Odyssey

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