Circe - The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

Circe’s very name is synonymous with “sorceress.” Daughter of the Sun and an ocean spirit, Circe’s most famous appearance is in Homer’s Odyssey.

According to Homer, Circe dwells in a marble palazzo on the Isle of Aiaia (also spelled Aeaea), where she was banished after poisoning her husband, the King of the Sarmatians. (She does travel, though: according to other reports, she lives in Lazio, a region of west-central Italy.)

Circe is a witch but she is also clearly divine: Homer calls her “the fair-haired goddess.” Circe spends her days singing and weaving, habits associated with the Fates. (See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.) Her name derives from the same root words as “circle” and “falcon” (falcons notably circle in the sky). Circe’s name also resembles kerkis, which means “weaver’s shuttle.”

Circe is a shape-shifter but is most famous for transforming others. When Odysseus and his crew, trying to return home from the Trojan War, land on Aiaia, they discover an island paradise ruled by the goddess and populated by her beautiful female handmaidens, as well as by strangely human-seeming wild animals.

Circe transforms her male visitors into animals—lions, baboons, and others, but mainly pigs. One might say that the pig is the sacred animal of the goddess. One might also say that Circe reveals the true animal identity hidden within each man. Odysseus alone is saved from this fate when Hermes warns him, offering him an herbal antidote to Circe’s magic—a mysterious plant called moly. Hermes also advises Odysseus not to reject Circe’s advances: ultimately he stays with her for years, fathering her son Telegonus.

Circe initiates Odysseus into shamanism, advising him how to journey to Hades, interview dead souls, and return. She is his primary tutor. Foretelling the future, she offers Odysseus invaluable advice, ultimately enabling him to return home. It is safe to say that without Circe, Odysseus would never have reached his home again.

Circe inspired what is historically considered the first ballet, in 1581. Catherine de Medici, mother of the French king and an alleged sorceress herself, sponsored a dance company, La Ballet Comique de la Reine, whose first production was an over six-hour-long extravaganza featuring dance, songs, and elaborate floats devoted to the saga of Circe.

Although there are relatively few myths involving Circe, she captured the heart of artists from the classical era until today. She is a frequent character in literature, movies, and comic books, as well as perhaps the most popular witch among fine artists. During the nineteenth century in particular, many artists painted portraits of Circe.

Plants associated with Circe include alder, enchanter’s nightshade, juniper and mandrake. Entries for all these are found in BOTANICALS. See also Angitia, Hermes; ANIMALS: Pigs; CREATIVE ARTS: Visual Arts: Nineteenth-century Paintings; HALL OF FAME: Medea.