The Character of Circe in the Odyssey

By McClymont, J. D. | Akroterion, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

The Character of Circe in the Odyssey


McClymont, J. D., Akroterion


One of the most noteworthy incidents in the Odyssey is the visit of Odysseus to Aeaea, where the enchantress Circe turns his crewmen to animals. Circe is the most well-known witch-figure in Greek mythology, and indicates an early presence of belief in magic in classical literature. As an enchantress, however, she is not merely a special effect in a heroic story. There is more to her than meets the eye. There is an overly simple image of Circe as a typical example of witchcraft, which we can trace in Perkins' Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft. For this seventeenth century author, Circe is viewed as a historical example of the sort of black witch in which he believed (Anglo 1977:10), and this "evil-witch" idea certainly has precedent in classical literature, if we consider the story of Meroe in Apuleius as a malevolent figure, who turns Aristomenes into an animal (Frangoulidis 1999:381). There is a certain sexual overtone to Apuleius' story--Aristomenes watches or looks on the woman and becomes an animal; and we may expect Circe's transformation of men into animals to have a similar significance. Yet in ancient literature Circe can be portrayed in a more positive light: for example as the "golden" Circe who is the daughter of the sun god (Weber 1999:326).

Circe as witch or magician

In exploring the question, "Who is Circe?" we may start by asking: "What is a witch or a wizard anyway?" Definitional debates about magic versus religion yield a possible answer, that whereas religion relies on divine intervention, with magic there is more emphasis on personal control by the magician (Hutton 1991:289-90). Though magic does not exclude divine influence (Od. 10.277 ff, 289-292), this influence is not a miraculous or supernatural interference with the course of nature but is a part of nature, which the magician employs for his/her own purposes.

An apparent consequence of this in Homer, important for the Odyssey, is that the magician is assimilated to any divine influence that he / she comes into contact with. The power of the gods accessed in magic is natural, and so is the activity of the magician. The powers of a magician and of a god are both natural, and thus similar. Hence Circe is already reckoned a goddess (10.571-574) and similarly the shapechanger Proteus is counted among the gods (4.384-386, 397). Nor, similarly, is it surprising that Aeolus, whom we meet in the Odyssey (10.2, 19-22) as possessor of a magic wallet controlling the winds, is in later literature viewed as a god in his own right. In Aeneid 1.76-80 Aeolus is permitted to feast with the gods and is given the godlike office of power over the winds generally, not merely isolated winds controlled by witchcraft (Aeneid 1.81-86) and is thus presumably a god in his own right. Moreover, in the Metamorphoses (11.561-562) Aeolus is "invoked" by his daughter Ceyx and is thus in the position of a god. Ehwald (1966:269) identified Ceyx's father as Aeolus, while Otis (1966:233, 244) identified Aeolus and Lucifer as gods, and saw a theological significance, in terms of the indifference of the gods, in the apparent lack of interest they showed in Ceyx's death. Thus the Homeric magician Aeolus was later divinised; while the magicians Circe and Proteus were divine already. In the Homeric worldview a magician or witch is not an enemy of the divine, ranged against it as darkness against light. It is more correct to say that the Homeric magician or witch by his / her art becomes a divinised or god-like human.

If divine influence is a part of that nature which magic users try to make use of, then any magic user is dabbling with the sphere where the gods are at work and to that extent is playing the god. Yet not all who play the god, so to speak, with magical assistance become gods in the proper sense. Odysseus, though he uses magical medicine to defend himself against Circe (Od. 10.292), and although he has the heroic title of "god-like" (7. …

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