I’ve always been fascinated by ancient mythology. As a writer of fantasy, it’s inherently pleasing to imagine a time when gods and monsters walked the earth, and it’s amazing to note just how long some classic monsters have existed in the public imagination. Today’s sorceress, the wise and wicked Circe, lives alone in a forest, brews evil poisons, and can turn men into pigs with a wave of her wand. By modern standards, she is instantly recognisable as a witch – and yet the character of Circe is more than 2800 years old.
Circe has appeared in a number of ancient Greek (and Roman) stories, but she’s best known for her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, as one of the many obstacles encountered by Odysseus on his long voyage home. Odysseus and his men have just escaped from an island of cannibalistic ogres when they are washed up on Circe’s shore; exhausted, the sailors make their way to the witch’s stone house in the centre of the woods. They are greeted at the door by mountain wolves and lions, who wag their tails and rub their noses against the men. Circe then welcomes the sailors through the gates and presents them with a feast of cheese, honey, and wine – but the food has been laced with a magic poison, and the men immediately forget their homes. With a final flourish, Circe waves her wand and turns the sailors into pigs, locking them up in her pigsties to await their fate.
It really is a delightfully evil set up, particularly given that the Odyssey was written more than a millennium ago. Unfortunately, the end of the story isn’t quite as good; Odysseus (who stayed behind) sets off to find his men, and meets the messenger god Hermes on the way. Hermes tells him all about Circe, and gives him a magic herb called “Moly” to protect him from enchantment. Odysseus then strolls into the stone house, eats the poisoned food with no ill effect, and then waves his sword at Circe until she agrees to turn the pigs back into men. It may well be the original deus ex machina.
Circe continues to prove her witchy skills, however, as she is able to provide Odysseus with all sorts of useful advice for his future journeys. First she tells him how to reach the port of the dead, so that he might commune with ghosts by offering sacrifices of food and blood. Later, she describes how to sail past the evil sirens, who seek to lure ships over the rocks with their wondrous songs:
“There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear. But if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you [to the mast], that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster!”
I really love these final passages. In my own writing, I like to question how a witch might have achieved her power; here, Homer indicates that Circe’s power is tied to her immense knowledge of the magical world, including the places and monsters which reside within it. This, for me, is the best answer that can ever be given. Humans, by definition, should not be magical – but a human who has learnt of magical beings might be able to harness some of that power for their own personal use, thus becoming a witch. So how did Circe learn the things she knows? I feel like there’s a great untold story here: of Circe’s own voyage to the dead men’s sea, where she met the sirens and other sea monsters, and learnt to control the winds themselves.
Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Where’s my notebook?
— Circe is most often pronounced “SUR-see,” or “KIR-kee” if you’re Greek. It’s certainly not pronounced “SUR-ss,” which is how I’ve said it for most of my life.
— I read Circe’s chapters in the Odyssey for the first time whilst researching this post. Before this, my favourite telling of the Circe myth may well have been a quest from the video game Age of Mythology. It’s not a very faithful adaptation, but playing the first stage of the mission as a pig was a novel twist on the usual formula. You can watch a YouTuber playing that mission in the video above.
— Depending on who you ask, Circe might be a witch, goddess, or nymph; she might even be the daughter of Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft. It’s all a bit confusing, and definitely another reason why an origin story would be useful.
— “Moly” is described in the Odyssey as having black roots and a flower as white as milk. (This note is mainly for myself, so that I can remember this authentically witchy plant for future writing.)
— Reading old myths and legends always makes me feel like I’m Indiana Jones, which only makes me want to read even more of them. I’ve never been to Greece, but I travelled to Egypt in 2010, and standing between the Sphinx and the pyramids was probably the closest thing I’ll ever have to a religious experience.
— In reading these posts, you might think there’s a witchy villain in every one of my books. Sadly, there isn’t; the villain in my first book is a vampire. But my series is called “The Witching Hours,” which hopefully does indicate that some serious witching is on the way …