KIRKE (Circe) was a goddess of sorcery (pharmakeia) who was skilled in the magic of transmutation, illusion, and necromancy. She lived on the mythical island of Aiaia (Aeaea) with her nymph companions.
When Odysseus came to her island she transformed his men into beasts but, with the help of the god Hermes, he overcame her and forced her to end the spell.
Kirke’s name is derived from the Greek verb kirkoô meaning “to secure with rings” or “hoop around”–a reference to the binding power of magic.
Kirke’s island of Aiaia (Aeaea) was located in the far west, near the earth-encircling River Okeanos (Oceanus). Her brother Aeetes’ realm in the far east was similarly named Aia (Aea).
FAMILY OF CIRCE
[1.1] HELIOS & PERSEIS (Homer Odyssey10.135,
Hesiod Theogony 956, Apollodorus 1.80, Apollonius Rhodius
4.584) [1.2] HELIOS (Homer’s Epigrams XIV, HyginusFabulae
199, Ovid Metamorphoses 13.898, ValeriusFlaccus 7.210) [1.3] AEETES & HEKATE (Diodorus Siculus4.45.1)
[1.1] AGRIOS, LATINOS (by Odysseus) (Hesiod
Theogony 1011) [1.2] TELEGONOS (by Odysseus) (Homerica
Returns Frag 4, Homerica TelegonyFrag 1, Plutarch Greek
Roman Parallel Stories 41, Hyginus Fabulae 127, Oppian
Halieutica 2.497) [1.3] NAUSITHOUS, TELEGONOS (by Odysseus) (Hyginus Fabulae 125) [2.1] LATINOS (by Telemakhos) (Hyginus Fabulae
127) [3.1] PHAUNOS (by Poseidon) (NonnusDionysiaca
13.327 & 37.10)
CIRCE (Kirkê), a mythical sorceress, whom Homer calls a fair-locked goddess, a daughter of Helios by the Oceanid Perse, and a sister of Aeëtes. (Od. x. 135.) She lived in the island of Aeaea; and when Odysseus on his wanderings came to her island, Circe, after having changed several of his companions into pigs, became so much attached to the unfortunate hero, that he was induced to remain a whole year with her. At length, when he wished to leave her, she prevailed upon him to descend into the lower world to consult the seer Teiresias. After his return from thence, she explained to him the dangers which he would yet have to encounter, and then dismissed him. (Od. lib. x.–xii.; comp. Hygin. Fab. 125.) Her descent is differently described by the poets, for some call her a daughter of Hyperion and Aerope (Orph. Argon. 1215), and others a daughter of Aeëtes and Hecate. (Schol. ad Apollon. Rhod. iii. 200.) According to Hesiod (Theog. 1011) she became by Odysseus the mother of Agrius. The Latin poets too make great use of the story of Circe, the sorceress, who metamorphosed Scylla and Picus, king of the Ausonians. (Ov. Met. xiv. 9, &c.)
AEAEA (Aiaia). A surname of Circe, the sister of Aeëtes. (Hom. Od. ix. 32; Apollon. Rhod. iv. 559; Virg. Aen. iii. 386.) Her son Telegonus is likewise mentioned with this surname. (Acaeus, Propert. ii. 23. § 42.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
PARENTAGE OF CIRCE
Homer, Odyssey 10. 135 ff (trans. Shewring) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) : “Kirke (Circe), a goddess with braided hair, with human speech and with strange powers; baleful Aeetes was her brother, and both were radiant Helios the sun-god’s children; their mother was Perse, Okeanos’ (Oceanus’) daughter.”
Hesiod, Theogony 956 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) : “And Perseis, the daughter of Okeanos (Oceanus), bare to unwearying Helios (the Sun) Kirke (Circe) and Aeetes the king.”
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 80 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) : “The Kholkhians (Colchians) who were ruled by Aeetes, the son of Helios and Perseis, and brother of Kirke (Circe) and Minos’ wife Pasiphae.”
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 584 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) : “Kirke (Circe), daughter of Perse and Helios.”
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 45. 1 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) : “[A late rationalisation of the myth of Kirke (Circe) :] She [Hekate (Hecate), daughter of Perses the brother of Aeetes] married Aeetes and bore two daughters, Kirke (Circe) and Medea, and a son Aigialeus.”
CIRCE SETTLES ON THE ISLE OF AEAEA (AIAIA)
Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragment 46 (from Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius 3. 311) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) : “Apollonios (Apollonius), following Hesiod, says that Kirke (Circe) came to the island over against Tyrrhenia on the chariot of Helios. And he called it Hesperian, because it lies towards the west.”
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 311 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) : “[Aeetes addresses the Argonauts :] ‘I myself was whirled along it in the chariot of my father Helios (the Sun), when he took my sister Kirke (Circe) to the Western Land and we reached the coast of Tyrrhenia, where she lives, far, far indeed from Kolkhis (Colchis).’”
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7. 120 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) : “Circe was borne away [from the land of Kolkhis (Colchis)] by winged Dracones (Dragons).”
CIRCE, THE ARGONAUTS & THE WEDDING OF MEDEA
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 584 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) : “It [the talking beam of the ship Argo] threatened them [the Argonauts] with endless wanderings across tempestuous seas till Kirke (Circe) should have purged them of the cruel murder of Apsyrtos (Apsyrtus) [Medea’s brother]; and it bade Polydeukes (Polydeuces) and Kastor ((Castor) beg the immortal gods to grant them access to the Italian Sea, where they would find Kirke, daughter of Perse and Helios.”
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 662 ff : “Passing swiftly over the Ausonian Sea, with the Tyrrhenian coast [of Italy] in sight, they [the Argonauts] came to the famous haven of Aia (Aea), took Argo close in, and tied up to the shore. Here they found Kirke (Circe) bathing her head in the salt water. She had been terrified by a nightmare in which she saw all the rooms and walls of her house streaming with blood, and fire devouring all the magic drugs with which she used to bewitch her visitors. But she managed to put out the red flames with the blood of a murdered man, gathering it up in her hands; and so the horror passed. When morning came she rose from bed, and now she was washing her hair and clothes in the sea. A number of creatures whose ill-assorted limbs declared them to be neither man nor beast had gathered round her like a great flock of sheep following their shepherd from the fold . . . The Argonauts were dumbfounded by the scene. But a glance at Kirke’s form and eyes convinced them all that she was the sister of Aeetes. As soon as she had dismissed the fears engendered by her dream, Kirke set out for home, but as she left she invited the young men to come with her, beckoning them on in her own seductive way. Iason Told them to take no notice, and they all stayed where they were. But he himself, bringing Medea with him, followed in Kirke’s steps till they reached her house. Kirke, at a loss to know why they had come, invited them to sit in polished chairs; but without a word they made for the hearth and sat down there after the manner of suppliants in distress. Medea hid her face in her hands, Iason fixed in the ground his great hilted sword with which he had killed Apsyrtos (Apsyrtus), and neither of them looked her in the face. So she knew at once that these were fugitives with murder on their hands and took the course laid down by Zeus, the god of suppliants, who heartily abhors the killing of a man, and yet as heartily befriends the killer. She set about the rites by which a ruthless slayer is absolved when he seeks asylum at the hearth. First, to atone for the unexpiated murder, she took a suckling pig from a sow with dugs still swollen after littering. Holding it over them she cut its throat and let the blood fall on their hands. Next she propitiated Zeus with other libations, calling on him as the Cleanser, who listens to a murderer’s prayers with friendly ears. Then the attendant Naiades (Naiads) who did her housework carried all the refuse out of doors. But she herself stayed by the hearth, burning cakes and other wineless offerings with prayers to Zeus, in the hope that she might cause the loathsome Erinyes to relent, and that he himself might once more smile upon this pair, whether the hands they lifted up to him were stained with a kinsman’s or a strangers blood. When all was done she raised them up, seated them in polished chairs and taking a seat near by, where she could watch their faces, she began by asking them to tell her what had brought them overseas, from what port they had sailed to visit her and why they had sought asylum at her hearth. Horrible memories of her dream came back to her as she wondered what was coming; and she waited eagerly to hear a kinwoman’s voice, as soon as the girl had looked up from the ground and she noticed her eyes. For all the Children of Helios were easy to recognise, even from a distance, by their flashing eyes, which shot out rays of golden light. Medea, daughter of Aeetes the black-hearted king, answered all her aunt’s questions, speaking quietly in the Kokhian (Colchian) tongue. She told her of the quest and voyage of the Argonauts, of their stern ordeal, and how she herself had been induced to sin by her unhappy sister and had fled from her father’s tyranny with Phrixos’ (Phrixus’) sons; but she said nothing of the murder of Apsyrtos. Not that Kirke was deceived. Nevertheless she felt some pity for her weeping niece. ‘Poor girl,’ she said, ‘you have indeed contrived for yourself a shameful and unhappy home0coming; for I am sure you will not long be able to escape your father’s wrath. The wrongs you have done are intolerable, and he will soon be in Hellas to avenge his son’s murder. However, since you are my suppliant and kinswoman, I will not add to your afflictions now that you are here. But I do demand that you should leave my house, you that have linked yourself to this foreigner, whoever he may be, this man of mystery whom you have chosen without your father’s consent. And do not kneel to me at my hearth, for I never will approve your conduct and your disgraceful flight.’ Medea’s grief, when she heard this, was more than she could bear. She drew her robe across her eyes and wailed till Iason took her by the hand and led her out of doors shivering with fear. Thus they left Kirke’s house.”
Strabo, Geography 5. 2. 6 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) : “There is at Aithalia [in Italy] a Port Argoos, from the ship ‘Argo’, as they say; for when Iason (Jason), the story goes, was in quest of the abode of Kirke (Circe), because Medea wished to see the goddess, he sailed to this port.”
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7. 210 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) : “Of a sudden Venus [Aphrodite] was sitting on her [Medea’s] bed, changed as she was from heavenly shape and counterfeiting Circe, Titan’s [Helios’] daughter, with broidered robe and magic wand. But the girl, as though mocked by the lingering image of a dream, gazes perplexed and only little by little deems her to be the sister of her mighty sire; then in tearful joy she sprang forward and of her own accord kissed the cruel goddess, and first addressed her : ‘Circe! At last, scarce at last, cruel one! Restored to thine own–why did the yoked snakes bear thee hence in flight? What sojourning was more pleasing to thee than my father’s land . . .’ Then Venus [masquerading as Circe] checks further speech and thus rejoins : ‘Thou alone art the cause of this my journey; I come knowing long since thou art no longer a child; spare thy complaints, nor blame me who have chosen a better lot; nay, that now we may bear in mind heaven’s gifts, deem rather that this world is shared by all living souls, and shared too are the gods. Call that thy country where the sun goes forth and back again; seek not, my child, with unfeeling heart to imprison me in this eternal cold. I had a right–as thou too hast–to leave the unprofitable Colchians. And now am I Ausonian Picus’ royal consort, nor are my meadows there unsightly with flame-breathing bulls: in me thou beholdest the mistress of the Tuscan Sea. But what kind of suitors are the Sauromatae for thee, poor child? . . .’ Straightway she spoke in answer, scorning the goddess’ words : ‘Not so forgetful of great Perseis [Hekate] doest thou see me as to be driven, a hapless victim, into such wedlock.’ [I.e., she has her magic to fall back to avoid such a marriage.]”