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Circe, the First Witch of Greek Mythology

deadliest women greek mythology circe clytemnestra
“Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus,” by John William Waterhouse, 1891. Circe was among the deadliest women in Greek mythology. Credit: Public Domain

Witches have had a long and elaborate history, even back to ancient Greece. Thanks to Homer and his epic adventure tale the Odyssey, we met Circe, who has often been identified as the first witch in Greek mythology.

Circe was one of the most dangerous women a man could come across. She was known for seducing men, luring them to her island, and never letting them go.

When men, driven mad by their desire to touch her, visited the island, she caught them off guard and used a spell to transform them into pigs, trapping them forever in their ignominious bodies.

Circe in Homer’s Odyssey

In the Odyssey, Homer describes how Odysseus and his companions, after finally leaving the country of the Lestrygons (cannibal giants) alive, see the island of Aeaea, the land of Circe. Odysseus ordered half the crew to disembark, and he stayed in the ships with the rest.

Circe
Circe surrounded by her bewitched animals. Credit: Public domain.

Circe invited the sailors to a banquet, enchanted the food with one of her potions, and then used her magic wand to transform them into pigs. The only one who managed to escape from her was Eurylochus, who from the beginning suspected a betrayal. He notified Odysseus and the others who had stayed on the ship of the witch’s tricks.

Odysseus goes alone to rescue his crew, and while he was thinking of a plan to free them, Hermes (the messenger for the gods) appears to him, who reveals the secret to overcoming Circe’s magical arts: he should add to the wine that she provides him a magical plant called moly, which will make him immune to any spell.

When Circe was unable to turn him into an animal, Odysseus forced her to return his crew to human form. Circe would eventually fall in love with Ulysses and help him on the journey home after he and his crew spent a year with her on the island.

Other legends

Near the end of the poetic work of Hesiod called the Theogony, it is mentioned that Circe had three sons from Odysseus: Agrio, Latino, and Telegonus, who ruled the Tirsos (the Etruscans).

Later authors usually name only the latter as their son, who, when he reached adulthood, was sent by Circe to find his father. In a fight between the two, Telegonus mortally wounds Odysseus with a poisoned spear. Knowing that he was the murderer of his father, he and Penelope took the corpse to the island of Circe, and later they both march together to the Islands of the Blessed.

In the epic Argonauticas from the 3rd century BC, Apolonio de Rodas narrates that Circe purified the Argonauts with the death of Apsyrtus, perhaps reflecting an ancient tradition. In this poem, the animals that surround her are not her lovers, but primitive beasts.

Circe also fell in love with Pico, a famous fortune teller from ancient Italy. As it is said, Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens, was preferred by him, and when the sorceress found out, she transformed him into a woodpecker, however retaining the prophetic powers that he had possessed as a man.

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