Greek MythologyMythology

Circe’s Powers

Circe, the female entity that attempted to trap Odysseus on his journey home, is an interesting figure who seems to occupy two worlds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary specifically calls her “powerful sorceress” [fn]Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. The Oxford classical dictionary. 3rd ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003], 332 [/fn]and she is called “goddess” a few times (Odyssey 11.9 and 12.21). This sets her apart from other goddesses in the story because most of her actions come from the sorceress aspect, not the goddess. The nature of her magic, requiring touch to work and it being the only time in the Odyssey where this concept is used, lets her be viewed in a different light than, for example, Athena.

For Circe, sorcery is her drugs and potions, which are called “bewitching” several times(Odyssey 10.339, 349), and her wand, which is called “magic” (Odyssey 10.314). Hermes also refers to what she does with drugs as a “magic spell” (Odyssey 10.311) when he gives Odysseus the herb. She does with sorcery what other goddesses would do as a result of them being goddesses. For example, she turns men into pigs with a wand and drugs, while Athena altered Odysseus’s appearance through what seemed to be a pure force of will (Odyssey 13.446-455). To be fair, Athena used a wand. She touched him with it before she changed him, but, unlike Circe, it is not referred to as “magic,” and Athena changing him specifically uses the words “She changed him.” (Odyssey 13.447) This line makes the wand seem unnecessary, and the change comes off as simply another aspect of Athena’s divine nature.

The fact that Circe’s abilities come from sources outside of her divine nature is important because she is the only divine character to do that. It is worth noting that she does not lack godly powers. For example, she is twice said to have sent breezes to the ships (Odyssey 11.8 and 12.156), and these actions are apparently a part of her divine powers. This further emphasizes her use of sorcery as something outside of her nature.

It is unclear what role touch plays in Circe’s sorcery, but touch is obviously an essential aspect of it and shows up mainly with her wand. After Circe gave the men drugs, she struck them with the wand (Odyssey 10.255-56) as part of changing them. When Hermes warned Odysseus about the drugs, he also told Odysseus what to do after Circe struck him (Odyssey 10.314), and when she turned his men back, she did not use the wand, but she was directly said to have had it (Odyssey 10.414). In this case, the drugs were a more significant factor, based on the lines “The bristles they had grown after Circe had given them the poisonous drug.” (Odyssey 10.418-419) The wand, and by extension being touched by the wand, had some role in changing the men into lesser entities.

Despite the fairly significant role in the story, she remains a somewhat enigmatic figure with a range of unexplained powers and motivations. Modern fantasy fiction has a long tradition of magic-users being otherworldly and mysterious, and Circe may be the first example of that trope.

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