Circe – one of the foremost witch goddesses from the European literary tradition – was immortalized in Homer’s Odyssey. Offspring of the sun-god Helios and a sea nymph called Perse, Circe lived on the island of Aeaea. Some sources, however, claimed she was the daughter of the dark goddess Hecate because of her association with the moon.
The fair-haired Circe was skilled in the arts of transformation and illusion. She was also the mistress of glamor magic with a vast knowledge of potions and herbs. In Homer’s tale she transformed Odysseus’ men into pigs with human intelligence. Eurylochus escaped the enchantment and managed to warn Odysseus, who had remained behind to guard their boat. On the way back to rescue his crew the hero was met by Hermes and given a magic plant called moly to protect him from the witch. Odysseus overpowered Circe, demanded that his men be restored to their human forms, but then he stayed on the island with her for another year. During this time he fathered a son called Telegonus, the boy who eventually killed him with a poisoned spear. Later, Circe was slain by Telemachus – Odysseus’ legitimate son with Penelope.
Botanists suggest that enchanter’s nightshade could have been one of Circe’s magic plants because it contains an anticholinergic that produces hallucinations, and may make men believe they have been transformed into animals. Also, moly might derive from the snowdrop, as this flower contains the anti-hallucinogenic compound called galantamine.
Circe appears to have functioned as a symbol of luxury and wantonness, perhaps as a warning against the drunkenness, lust, and debauchery that made men act like pigs. But unlike other mythological hags who rendered men impotent, she was a beautiful, alluring witch figure who catered to their sexual fantasies instead. Small wonder her fame lives on!
Graves, Robert. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Worldwide: Hamlyn, 1977.
Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wikipedia: “Circe” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe
(Painting: Wright Barker)
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