Circe was, in Greek mythology, a sorceress, in rationalized versions of the myth, an expert in poisons and drugs. She also appeared as a Goddess connected with sorcery, as did her mother Hecate. Circe is considered the Goddess of the New Moon, of physical love, sorcery, incantations, precognitive dreams, curses, revenge, magic, witchcraft, and cauldrons.
Circe was the daughter of the god Helios and the nymph Perseis, sister of the gods Perses, Pasifae and Aietes. She could also be the daughter of Hecate and Helios.
In The Odyssey
In the course of his wanderings, the hero Ulysses (an epic character in Homer's Odyssey, also known as Odysseus) and his desperate crew land on the beach of the island of Eana, where Circe, daughter of the Sun, lived.
Upon disembarking, Ulysses climbed a hill and, looking around, saw no sign of habitation except a spot in the center of the island, where he spotted a palace surrounded by trees.
Ulysses sent 23 men to the land, headed by Eurylochus, to see what hospitality they could count on. As they approached the palace, the Greeks found themselves surrounded by lions, tigers and wolves, not ferocious but tamed by the art of Circe, who was a powerful sorceress. All these animals had been men and had been turned into beasts by her enchantments.
From inside the palace came sounds of soft music and a beautiful woman's singing voice. Eurylochus called out loudly to her, and the goddess appeared and invited the newcomers to enter, which they did willingly, except Eurylochus, who was suspicious of the danger.
The goddess made her guests sit down and served them wine and delicacies. When they had enjoyed themselves to the full, she touched them with a wand and they were immediately transformed into pigs, with "the head, body, voice and bristles" of a pig, though retaining the intelligence of men.
Eurylochus hastened back to the ship and told what he had seen. Ulysses then decided to go himself to try to free his companions. While on his way to the palace he met a young man who addressed him familiarly, showing that he was aware of his adventures.
He revealed that he was Hermes and informed Ulysses about Circe's arts and the danger of approaching her. As Ulysses did not give up his intent, Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) gave him the bud of a plant called Moli, endowed with enormous power to resist witchcraft, and taught him what he should do.
Ulysses went on his way and, when he arrived at the palace, he was courteously received by Circe, who complimented him as she had done with her companions. After he had eaten and drunk, she touched him with her wand, saying
- Hey! find your pigsty and go and splash about with your friends.
Instead of obeying, Ulysses drew his sword and charged furiously at the goddess, who fell to her knees, begging for mercy. Ulysses dictated to her a solemn oath formula that he would free his companions and not commit new atrocities against them or against Ulysses himself.
Circe repeated the oath, promising at the same time to let them all depart safe and sound, after having entertained them in a hospitable manner.
She kept her word. The men regained their forms, the rest of the crew was called from the beach, and everyone was treated magnificently for several days, to such an extent that Ulysses seemed to have forgotten his homeland and resigned himself to that inglorious life of idleness and pleasure.
Finally his companions appealed to his nobler feelings, and he gladly received the reproach. Circe helped in the preparations for the departure and taught the sailors what they had to do to pass unharmed along the coast of Mermaid Island.
Sirens were sea nymphs who had the power to bewitch with their song all who heard it, so that the unfortunate sailors felt irresistibly impelled to throw themselves into the sea, where they met death.
Circe advised Ulysses to cover his sailors' ears with wax, so that they could not hear the chant, and to tie himself to the mast by instructing his men not to release him, whatever he said or did, until they had passed the Isle of Mermaids.
In the poem Metamorphoses
According to the Roman poet Ovid, Glaucus was a human whom the aquatic deities decided to transform into a sea creature, with a grayish-green beard, broad shoulders, bluish arms, and curved legs with fins at the end.
He falls in love with the nymph Scylla, who, terrified by his appearance, flees, through the waters, the rocks, the underwater caves. But poor Glaucus' love was immense, and in desperation, he throws himself into pursuit of the beautiful nymph, begging her, in tears, to grant him a little attention.
Impassive to his pleas, Scylla continues her escape, hiding in a place so inaccessible that Glaucus could never find her. After a useless search, Glaucus is forced to acknowledge his defeat.
Only some superior power would enable him to win the affection of the beautiful nymph. Abated and tortured, Glaucus goes to the island of Aeia, where Circe, the sorceress, lived, and begs her to help him win his beloved. Circe promises to help him, but ends up falling in love with the sea god.
Since Glaucus rejects her, Circe is now the one who sets off relentlessly on a journey across the seas in search of her beloved. As a woman's charms prove insufficient, she resorts to her sorceress' powers, and decides to transform Scylla into a creature so hideous and repulsive that all of Glaucus' love would turn to loathing.
Unseen, Circe pours poison into the waters of a fountain where the nymph used to bathe and returns to the island of Ea where she awaits the results. When Scylla dives into the bewitched water her beautiful body slowly begins to transform.
Horrible monsters appear around her with deafening clamor. Terrified, the nymph tries to fend them off and escape. Then she discovers that the monsters are part of herself, born from her body. Desperate, she runs to Glaucus and weeps longingly in his arms.
He, too, laments his lost beauty, but refuses to remain with the ancient nymph, for the great love is no more. The terrifying sea monster that Scylla became had the torso of a beautiful woman, but around its waist it had six serpent heads with three rows of teeth and a circle of twelve barking dogs. The dogs would alert her when a ship was passing, so that she could capture the sailors.
Modern and contemporary texts
In the poem "Endymion" by the poet Keats, we can get an idea of what was going on in the thoughts of men who were turned into animals by the sorceress goddess Circe. The verses below would have been said by a monarch transformed into an elephant by the goddess:
I do not mourn the crown I have lost, The phalanx I once commanded And the wife, or widow, I left behind I regret not, longing, my life Sons and daughters, in the dear mansion
All this I forgot, the joys I've forgotten the earthly joys of old Another desire comes, much stronger
I only aspire, I only ask for death itself Rid me of this abominable body Free me from this miserable life Mercy, Circe! Die and only die! Be merciful, gentle goddess!