In Greek mythology, Circe (//; Greek Κίρκη Kírkē pronounced [kírkɛ͜ɛ]) was renowned for her vast knowledge of drugs and herbs. Through the use of magical potions and a wand she transformed her enemies, or those who offended her, into animals. She was a minor goddess of magic (or sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress). Some say she was exiled to the solitary island of Aeaea by her subjects and her father for ending the life of her husband, the prince of Colchis. Later traditions tell of her leaving or even destroying the island and moving to Italy. In particular she was identified with Cape Circeo there.
By most accounts, Circe was the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun, and Perse, an Oceanid. Her brothers were Aeetes, the keeper of the Golden Fleece, and Perses, and her sister was Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur. Other accounts make her the daughter of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft herself.
In ancient literature
In Homer's Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile 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 of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions, and she turned them all into swine 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 the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus 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 followed Hermes's advice, freeing his men and then remained on the island for one year, feasting and drinking wine. According to Homer, Circe suggested two alternative routes to Odysseus to return to Ithaca: toward Planctae, the "Wandering Rocks", or passing between the dangerous Scylla and the whirlpool-like Charybdis, conventionally identified with the Strait of Messina. She also advised Odysseus to go to the Underworld and gave him directions.
Later Greek literature
Towards the end of Hesiod's Theogony (1011f), it is stated that Circe bore Odysseus three sons: Ardeas or Agrius (otherwise unknown); Latinus; and Telegonus, who ruled over the Tyrsenoi, that is the Etruscans. The Telegony (Τηλεγόνεια), an epic now lost, relates the later history of the last of these. Circe eventually informed him who his absent father was and, when he set out to find Odysseus, gave him a poisoned spear. With this he killed his father unknowingly. Telegonus then brought back his father's corpse, together with Penelope and Odysseus' other son Telemachus, to Aeaea. After burying Odysseus, Circe made the others immortal. According to Lycophron's Alexandra (808) and John Tzetzes' scholia on the poem (795 - 808), however, Circe used magical herbs to bring Odysseus back to life after he had been killed by Telegonus. Odysseus then gave Telemachus to Circe's daughter Cassiphone in marriage. Some time later, Telemachus had a quarrel with his mother-in-law and killed her; Cassiphone then killed Telemachus to avenge her mother's death. On hearing of this, Odysseus died of grief.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.72.5) cites Xenagoras, the second century BC 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. In a very late Alexandrian epic from the 5th century AD, the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, her son by Poseidon is mentioned under the name of Phaunos.
In the 3rd century BC epic, the Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius relates that Circe purified the Argonauts for the death of Absyrtus, maybe reflecting an early tradition. In this poem, the animals that surround her are not former lovers transformed but primeval ‘beasts, not resembling the beasts of the wild, nor yet like men in body, but with a medley of limbs.’
Three ancient plays about Circe have been lost: the work of the tragedian Aeschylus and of the 4th century BC comic dramatists Ephippus of Athens and Anaxilas. The first told the story of Odysseus' encounter with Circe. Vase paintings from the period suggest that Odysseus' half-transformed animal-men formed the chorus in place of the usual Satyrs. Fragments of Anaxilas also mention the transformation and one of the characters complains of the impossibility of scratching his face now that he is a pig.
The theme of turning men into a variety of animals was elaborated by later writers, especially in Latin. In the Aeneid, Aeneas skirts the Italian island where Circe now dwells, and hears the cries of her many victims, who now number more than the pigs of earlier accounts:
- The roars of lions that refuse the chain,
- The grunts of bristled boars, and groans of bears,
- And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors' ears.
Ovid's Metamorphoses collects more transformation stories in its 14th book. The fourth episode covers Circe's encounter with Ulysses, with the detail that he too is changed to a pig and only Eurylochus remains to rescue the men (lines 242-307). The first episode in that book deals with the story of Glaucus and Scylla, in which the enamoured sea-god seeks a love filtre to win Scylla's love, only to have the sorceress fall in love with him. When she is unsuccessful, she takes revenge on her rival by turning Scylla into a monster (lines 1-74). The story of the Latin king Picus is told in the fifth episode (and also alluded to in the Aeneid). Circe fell in love with him too; when he preferred to remain faithful to his wife Canens, she turned him into a woodpecker (lines 308-440).
The gens Mamilia - described by Titus Livius as one of the most distinguished families of Latium - claimed descent from Mamilia, a grand-daughter of Odysseus and Circe through Telegonus. One of the most well known of them was Octavius Mamilius (died 498 BC) , princeps of Tusculum and son-in-law of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus the seventh and last king of Rome.
Although some scenes from the Odyssey remained favorites of the vase-painters, notably the visually dramatic episode of Polyphemus, the Circe episode was rarely depicted. In describing an unusual miniature fifth-century Greek bronze in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, that takes the form of a man on all fours with the foreparts of a pig, Dorothy Kent Hill expressed the artist's dilemma: how could an artist depict a man bewitched into a pig other than as a man with a pig's head? "An author can discuss the mind and the voice, but an artist cannot show them." In an Etruscan bronze mirror relief, a common barnyard pig is depicted at the feet of Circe: Odysseus and Elpenor approach her, swords drawn. The subject would be obscure, save that the names of the characters are inscribed in the bronze. Some Boeotian vase-paintings show a caricature version of the episode, acted out by dwarf pygmies with negroid attributes, and an aged and lame Odysseus leaning on a staff; they are the mute survivors of some rustic comedy tradition that is impenetrable to us. The vase collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece holds a 5th-century BC lekythos with a depiction of this episode described as "Odysseus' companions turned into swine"
Retellings from the middle ages to modern times
Giovanni Boccaccio provided a digest of what was known of Circe during the Middle Ages in his De mulieribus claris (Famous Women, 1361-1362). While following the tradition that she lived in Italy, he comments wryly that there are now many more temptresses like her to lead men astray.
There is a very different interpretation of the encounter with Circe in John Gower's long didactic poem Confessio Amantis (1380). Ulysses is depicted as deeper in sorcery and readier of tongue than Circe and through this means leaves her pregnant with Telegonus. Most of the account deals with the son's later quest for and accidental killing of his father, drawing the moral that only evil can come of the use of sorcery.
The story of Ulysses and Circe was retold as an episode in Georg Rollenhagen's German verse epic, Froschmeuseler (The frogs and mice, Magdeburg, 1595). In this 600-page expansion of the pseudo-Homeric Batrachomyomachia, it is related at the court of the mice and takes up sections 5-8 of the first part.
In Lope de Vega's miscellany La Circe - con otras rimas y prosas (Madrid 1624), the story of her encounter with Ulysses appears as a verse epic in three cantos. This takes its beginning from Homer’s account, but it is then embroidered; in particular, Circe’s love for Ulysses remains unrequited.
As "Circe's Palace", Nathaniel Hawthorne retold the Homeric account as the third section in his collection of stories from Greek mythology, Tanglewood Tales (1853). The transformed Picus continually appears in this, trying to warn Ullyses, and then Eurylochus, of the danger to be found in the palace, and is rewarded at the end by being given back his human shape. In most accounts Ulysses only demands this for his own men.
In botany the Circaea are plants belonging to the enchanter's nightshade genus. The name was given by botanists in the late 16th century in the belief that this was the herb used by Circe to charm Odysseus' companions.
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 contains galantamine, which is an anticholinesterase and can therefore counteract anticholinergics.
The "Circe effect", coined by the enzymologist William P. Jencks, refers to a scenario where an enzyme lures its substrate towards it through electrostatic forces exhibited by the enzyme molecule before transforming it into product. Where this takes place, the catalytic velocity (rate of reaction) of the enzyme may be significantly faster than that of others.
There are also a variety of chess variants named Circe in which captured pieces are reborn on their starting positions. The rules for this were formulated in 1968.
- Homer, Odyssey 10.135; Hesiod, Theogony, 956; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.1; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica .
- Grimal; Smith
- Homer, Odyssey 10.212ff.
- Refer Weaving (mythology).
- Homer, Odyssey 10.475—541.
- Timothy Peter Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge University 1995, pp 47-8
- "They escaped neither the vast sea's hardships nor vexatious tempests till Kirké should wash them clean of the pitiless murder of Apsyrtos" (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, iv.586-88, in Peter Grean's translation).
- See the ancient concept of miasma, a Peter Green's commentary on iv. 705-17, The Argonautika Apollonios Rhodios, (1997, 2007) p 322.
- John E. Thorburn, FOF Companion to Classical Drama, New York 2005, p.138
- Dryden’s translation
- Online translation
- Dictionary of Greek & Roman Biography & Mythology
- Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, 1:49
- Walters Art Museum, acc. no. 54.1483.
- Hill, "Odysseus' Companions on Circe's Isle" The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 4 (1941:119-122) p. 120.
- Noted by Hill 1941:120
- AthensWalker, More pigs... at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
- tr. Virginia Brown, Harvard University 2003 ch.38, pp.74-6
- John Gower, English Works, 6.1391-1788; there is also a modern translation by Ellin Anderson
- The German original is available on GoogleBooks
- Pages 1-69
- The third section of the Gutenberg edition
- Oxford Dictionary
- Plaitakis A, Duvoisin RC (March 1983). "Homer's moly identified as Galanthus nivalis L.: physiologic antidote to stramonium poisoning". Clin Neuropharmacol 6 (1): 1–5. doi:10.1097/00002826-198303000-00001. PMID 6342763.
- Jeremy M. Berg, John L. Tymoczko, Lubert Stryer. (2006). Biochemistry. New York, NY: Freeman. ISBN 978-0-7167-6766-4.
- Species details; there are pictures on the Conchology site
- Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony, Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
- Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
- Lactantius Placidus, Commentarii in Statii Thebaida
- Ovid, Metamorphoses xiv.248-308
- Servius, In Aeneida vii.190
- Grimal, Pierre, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Wiley-Blackwell, 1996, ISBN 978-0-631-20102-1. "Circe" p. 104
- Milton, John, A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle [Comus] line 153 "mother Circe"
- Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873). "Circe"
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