Circe: A transformative enchantress

Detail from the title page of Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished by G.S. London, 1626.

Our “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series continues with Circe, a powerful witch with a notable family tree. As the first blog post in the series explains, Shakespeare and much of his audience knew about Greek myths and he could refer to them with great effect in the plays. Many of the myths trace back to multiple sources, which present different versions of the same story. 

If you or someone you know has ever thrown up your hands while exclaiming “men are pigs!,” then the story of Circe will sound familiar to you. A minor goddess and major enchantress, Circe is associated with transformation primarily through her interactions with Odysseus. Today we explore her story and some of her famous family members.

By and large, many sources agree that Circe was the daughter of the sun god Helios and the ocean nymph Perse. Her brother, Aeëtes, was King of Colchis and guardian of the Golden Fleece, famously stolen by Jason and the Argonauts so that Jason could take the throne of Iolcus, a story which Bassanio refers to when he describes Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

BASSANIO: Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renownèd suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.
The Merchant of Venice (1.1) 

Jason was aided by Circe’s niece Medea, and one story goes on to tell how Jason and Medea came to Circe to be absolved of the brutal murder they committed while procuring the fleece. 

Notably, Medea makes an appearance in our previous story of Theseus and Hippolyta. Another crossover with that story? Circe’s sister, Pasiphaë, was the mother of the minotaur, whom Theseus defeated.

Detail from John Ogilby. Homer his Odyssses translated. London, 1665.

The golden fleece and the minotaur are two of the most famous tales in Greek mythology, but Circe also has her own story to tell, enshrined in Homer’s Odyssey. As Odysseus is returning from the Trojan Wars, he and his men come upon Circe’s island, Aeaea. The scouting party—save its leader, Eurylochus, who grasps that something is amiss— is enticed by the enchantress to feast and drink wine. Alas, that wine is actually a transformative potion that turns them all into swine. 

DUKE: Why, what an intricate impeach is this!
I think you all have drunk of Circe’s cup.
The Comedy of Errors (5.1) 

Eurylochus returns to the ship to tell Odysseus what has happened. There, Odysseus is further aided by the god Hermes, who provides him with moly, a flower to protect against Circe’s charms, and some advice: act like he’s going to kill Circe and then relent and agree to go to bed with her, but make her swear to no longer plot against him. All of this comes to pass and the men are returned to their human form. 

Though bested by Odysseus, Circe seems to have gotten over it quickly—the crew stays on her island for a year, and she offers him advice for how to appease the gods and make it home safely. In other sources, Odysseus and Circe’s relationship even extends past what is covered in Homer. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Circe bears Odysseus multiple children, while in the lost poem Telegony, she goes on to marry Odysseus’s son by Penelope, Telemachus.

Turning men into swine may be the most famous example of Circe’s powers, but there are at least two other instances of individuals getting one of her extreme makeovers. 

YORK: A goodly prize, fit for the devil’s grace!
See how the ugly witch doth bend her brows
As if with Circe she would change my shape.
Henry VI, Part 1 (5.3) 

Scylla et Charybdis. Engraving. France?, 17th century?.

Unfortunately for Circe fans, neither tale paints her in a particularly flattering light. In the first, the sea god Glaucus comes to her to ask for help wooing the nymph Scylla, who has spurned his advances. Circe takes a fancy to Glaucus, who in turn spurns her advances. Enraged, Circe decides to take her anger out on… Scylla. Either through poisoned bath water or a misleading “love” potion given to Glaucus, Circe transforms Scylla into a fearsome monster who comes to reside opposite an extremely narrow passage of water from the whirlpool-creating monster Charybdis, creating a terrible predicament for sailors, who must pass between Scylla and Charybdis.

LANCELET: Truly, then, I fear you are damned both by father and mother; thus when I shun Scylla your father, I fall into Charybdis your mother. Well, you are gone both ways.
The Merchant of Venice (3.5) 

Odysseus captains one unlucky ship who must venture through this part of the sea, and Circe advises him to lose six men to Scylla rather than the whole ship to Charybdis.

The last story of Circe’s transformative power again sees her going too far when it comes to disappointments of the heart. Crossing paths with the king Picus, who is already married and deeply devoted to the nymph Canens, Circe takes her shot and is rejected. Picus’s punishment for staying true is to be turned into a woodpecker and to have poor Canens waste away from grief.

Though a relatively minor mythological figure, Circe and dramatic and compelling stories about her have been reimagined for centuries, both before and after Shakespeare’s time. She appears in works such as John Gower’s poem Confessio Amantis (written in the late 1380s), Lope de Vega’s miscellany La Circe – con otras rimas y prosas (1624), Jean-Marie Leclair’s opera Scylla et Glaucus (1746), and more recently, Madeline Miller’s novel Circe (2018). Her echoes through time and across art connect Shakespeare to a number of other authors through their shared source material — it’s exciting to think what the next iteration may be!

To learn more about Circe, explore our resources on the goddess, developed for the May 2021 selection of the Folger book club, Words, Words, Words, Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, mentioned above.