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"When they had eaten and drunk to their hearts' content, she waved her wand over them, and at once the poor wretches were changed into grunting pigs, which she shut up in pigsties and threw acorns and other food fit for swine before them. Although thus transformed and covered with bristles, they still retained the human mind."--Odyssey

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In Greek mythology, Circe or sərsē (Greek Κίρκη, falcon), was a Queen goddess living on the island of Aeaea. She thanks her fame to her transforming of Odysseus' men to pigs through the use of a magic potion in Homer's The Odyssey.



She is sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress, famous for her part in the adventures of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey.

By most accounts, Circe was the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun, and Perse, an Oceanid, and the sister of Aeetes, the keeper of the Golden Fleece, Perses, and Pasiphaë, the Wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur. Other accounts make her the daughter of Hecate.

Circe transformed her enemies, or those who offended her, into animals through the use of magical potions. She was renowned for her knowledge of drugs and herbs.

That Circe also purified the Argonauts for the death of Apsyrtus, as related in Argonautica, may reflect early tradition.

In ancient art

Although some scenes from the Odyssey remained favorites of the vase-painters, notably the visually dramatic episode of Polyphemus, the Circe episode was rarely depicted. In describing an unusual miniature fifth-century Greek bronze in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, that takes the form of a man on all fours with the foreparts of a pig, Dorothy Kent Hill expressed the artist's dilemma: how could an artist depict a man bewitched into a pig other than as a man with a pig's head? "An author can discuss the mind and the voice, but an artist cannot show them." In an Etruscan bronze mirror relief, a common barnyard pig is depicted at the feet of Circe: Odysseus and Elpenor approach her, swords drawn. The subject would be obscure, save that the names of the characters are inscribed in the bronze. Some Boeotian vase-paintings show a caricature version of the episode, acted out by dwarf pygmies with negroid attributes, and an aged and lame Odysseus leaning on a staff; they are the mute survivors of some rustic comedy tradition that is impenetrable to us.

Modern interpretations

Medical historians have speculated that the transformation to pigs was not intended literally but refers to anticholinergic intoxication. Symptoms include amnesia, hallucinations, and delusions. The description of "moly" fits the snowdrop, a flower of the region that contains galantamine, which is an anticholinesterase and can therefore counteract anticholinergics.


The phrase "Circean poison" has been used to refer to intoxicating things, such as applause.

Circe in the arts

The sorceress Circe is a figure from Greek mythology whose father was the sun (Helios) and whose mother was an ocean nymph. She appears in three separate stories. The best known is when Odysseus visits her island of Aeaea on the way back from the Trojan War and she changes most of his crew into swine. He forces her to return them to human shape, lives with her for a year and has a child called Telegonus by her. Her ability to change others into animals is further highlighted by the story of Picus, an Italian king whom she turns into a woodpecker for resisting her advances. Another story makes her fall in love with the sea-god Glaucus, who prefers the nymph Scylla to her. In revenge, Circe poisoned the water where her rival bathed and turned her into a monster.

In the eyes of those from a later age, this behaviour made her notorious both as a magician and as a type of the sexually free woman. As such she has been frequently depicted in all the arts from the Renaissance down to modern times. Among women she has been portrayed more sympathetically.

Literary themes

Reasoning beasts

animal cognition

One of the most enduring literary themes connected with the figure of Circe was her ability to change men into animals. There was much speculation concerning how this could be, whether the human consciousness changed at the same time, and even whether it was a change for the better. In the first century CE, Plutarch took up the theme in a lively dialogue -- known as "Ulysses and Gryllus " -- that was later to have several imitators. Contained in his Moralia is the Gryllus episode in which Circe allows Odysseus to interview a fellow Greek turned into a pig. There his interlocutor informs Odysseus that his present existence is preferable to the human. They then engage in a philosophical dialogue in which every human value is questioned and beasts are proved to be of superior wisdom and virtue.

The Gryllus dialogue was taken up by another Italian writer, Giambattista Gelli, in his La Circe (1549). This is a series of ten philosophical and moral dialogues between Ulysses and the humans transformed into various animals, ranging from an oyster to an elephant, in which Circe sometimes joins. Most argue against changing back; only the last animal, a philosopher in its former existence, wants to. The English poet Edmund Spenser also makes reference to Plutarch's dialogue in the section of his Faerie Queene (1590) based on the Circe episode which appears at the end of Book II. Sir Guyon changes back the victims of Acrasia's erotic frenzy in the Bower of Bliss, most of whom are abashed at their fall from chivalric grace,

But one above the rest in speciall,
That had an hog beene late, hight Grille by name,
Repined greatly, and did him miscall,
That had from hoggish forme him brought to naturall.

Two other Italians wrote rather different works that centre on the animal within the human. One was Niccolò Machiavelli in his unfinished long poem, L'asino d'oro (The golden ass, 1516). The author meets a beautiful herdswoman surrounded by Circe’s herd of beasts. After spending a night of love with him, she explains the characteristics of the animals in her charge: the lions are the brave, the bears are the violent, the wolves are those forever dissatisfied, and so on (Canto 6). In Canto 7 he is introduced to those who experience frustration: a cat that has allowed its prey to escape; an agitated dragon; a fox constantly on the look-out for traps; a dog that bays the moon; Aesop’s lion in love that allowed himself to be deprived of his teeth and claws. There are also emblematic satirical portraits of various Florentine personalities. In the eighth and last canto he has a conversation with a pig that, like the Gryllus of Plutarch, does not want to be changed back and condemns human greed, cruelty and conceit.

The other Italian author was the esoteric philosopher Giordano Bruno, who wrote in Latin. His Cantus Circaeus (The Incantation of Circe) was the fourth work on memory and the association of ideas by him to be published in 1582. It contains a series of poetic dialogues, in the first of which, after a long series of incantations to the seven planets of the Hermetic tradition, most humans appear changed into different creatures in the scrying bowl. The sorceress Circe is then asked by her handmaiden Moeris about the type of behaviour with which each is associated. According to Circe, for instance, fireflies ‘are the learned, wise, and illustrious amidst idiots, asses, and obscure men’ (Question 32). In later sections different characters discuss the use of images in the imagination in order to facilitate use of the art of memory, which is the real aim of the work.

French writers were to take their lead from Gelli in the following century. Antoine Jacob wrote a one-act social comedy in rhyme, Les Bestes raisonnables (The Reasoning Beasts, 1661) which allowed him to satirise contemporary manners. On the isle of Circe, Ulysses encounters an ass that was once a doctor, a lion that had been a valet, a female doe and a horse, all of whom denounce the decadence of the times. The ass sees human asses everywhere,

Asses in the town square, asses in the suburbs,
Asses in the provinces, asses proud at court,
Asses browsing in the meadows, military asses trooping,
Asses tripping it at balls, asses in the theatre stalls.

To drive the point home, in the end it is only the horse, formerly a courtesan, who wants to return to her former state.

The same theme occupies La Fontaine’s late fable, “The Companions of Ulysses” (XII.1, 1690), that also echoes Plutarch and Gelli. Once transformed, every animal (which include a lion, a bear, a wolf and a mole) protest that their lot is better and refuse to be restored to human shape.

Charles Dennis shifted this fable to stand at the head of his translation of La Fontaine, Select Fables (1754), but provides his own conclusion that

When Mortals from the path of Honour stray,
And the strong passions over reason sway,
What are they then but Brutes?
‘Tis vice alone that constitutes
Th’enchanting wand and magic bowl,
The exterior form of Man they wear,
But are in fact both Wolf and Bear,
The transformation’s in the Soul.

Louis Fuzelier and Marc-Antoine Legrand titled their comic opera of 1718 Les animaux raisonnables. It had more or less the same scenario transposed into another medium and set to music by Jacques Aubert. Circe, wishing to be rid of the company of Ulysses, agrees to change back his companions, but only the dolphin is willing. The others, who were formerly a corrupt judge (now a wolf), a financier (a pig), an abused wife (a hen), a deceived husband (a bull) and a flibbertigibbet (a linnet), find their present existence more agreeable.

The Venetian Gasparo Gozzi was another Italian who returned to Gelli for inspiration in the 14 prose Dialoghi dell’isola di Circe (Dialogues from Circe's Island) published as journalistic pieces between 1760 and 1764. In this moral work, the aim of Ulysses in talking to the beasts is to learn more of the human condition. It includes figures from fable (The fox and the crow, XIII) and from myth to illustrate its vision of society at variance. Far from needing the intervention of Circe, the victims find their natural condition as soon as they set foot on the island. The philosopher here is not Gelli’s elephant but the bat that retreats from human contact into the darkness, like Bruno’s fireflies (VI). The only one who wishes to change in Gozzi's work is the bear, a satirist who had dared to criticize Circe and had been changed as a punishment (IX).

There were two more satirical dramas in later centuries. One modelled on the Gryllus episode in Plutarch occurs as a chapter of Thomas Love Peacock's late novel, Gryll Grange (1861), under the title "Aristophanes in London". Half Greek comedy, half Elizabethan masque, it is acted at the Grange by the novel's characters as a Christmas entertainment. In it Spiritualist mediums raise Circe and Gryllus and try to convince the latter of the superiority of modern times, which he rejects as intellectually and materially regressive. An Italian work drawing on the transformation theme was the comedy by Ettore Romagnoli, La figlia del Sole (The daughter of the Sun, 1919). Hercules arrives on the island of Circe with his servant Cercopo and has to be rescued by the latter when he too is changed into a pig. But, since the naturally innocent other animals had become corrupted by imitating human vices, the others who had been changed were refused when they begged to be rescued.

Also in England, Austin Dobson engaged more seriously with Homer's account of the transformation of Odysseus' companions when, though

Head, face and members bristle into swine,
Still cursed with sense, their mind remains alone.

Dobson's “The Prayer of the Swine to Circe” depicts the horror of being imprisoned in an animal body in this way with the human consciousness unchanged. There appears to be no relief, for only in the final line is it revealed that Odysseus has arrived to free them.

Sexual politics

With the Renaissance there began to be a reinterpretation of what it was that changed the men, if it was not simply magic. For Socrates, in Classical times, it had been gluttony overcoming their self-control.

But for the influential emblematist Andrea Alciato, it was unchastity. In the second edition of his Emblemata (1546), therefore, Circe became the type of the prostitute. His Emblem 76 is titled Cavendum a meretricibus; its accompanying Latin verses mention Picus, Scylla and the companions of Ulysses, and concludes that ‘Circe with her famous name indicates a whore and any who loves such a one loses his reason’. His English imitator Geoffrey Whitney used a variation of Alciato's illustration in his own Choice of Emblemes (1586) but gave it the new title of Homines voluptatibus transformantur, men are transformed by their passions. This explains her appearance in the Nighttown section named after her in James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Written in the form of a stage script, it makes of Circe the brothel madam, Bella Cohen. Bloom, the book’s protagonist, fantasizes that she turns into a cruel man-tamer named Mr Bello who makes him get down on all fours and rides him like a horse.

By the 19th century, Circe was ceasing to be a mythical figure. Poets treated her either as an individual or at least as the type of a certain kind of woman. The French poet Albert Glatigny addresses “Circé” in his Les vignes folles (1857) and makes of her a voluptuous opium dream, the magnet of masochistic fantasies. Louis-Nicolas Ménard's sonnet in Rêveries d'un païen mystique (1876) describes her as enchanting all with her virginal look, but appearance belies the accursed reality. Poets in English were not far behind in this lurid portrayal. Lord de Tabley's "Circe" (1895) is a thing of decadent perversity likened to a tulip, ‘A flaunting bloom, naked and undivine... With freckled cheeks and splotch’d side serpentine, A gipsy among flowers’. That central image is echoed by the blood-striped flower of T.S.Eliot's student poem “Circe’s Palace" (1909) in the Harvard Advocate. Circe herself does not appear, her character is suggested by what is in the grounds and the beasts in the forest beyond: panthers, pythons, and peacocks that ‘look at us with the eyes of men whom we knew long ago’. Rather than a temptress, she has become an emasculatory threat.

Several women poets make Circe stand up for herself, using the soliloquy form to voice the woman's position. The 19th century English poet Augusta Webster, much of whose writing explored the female condition, has a dramatic monologue in blank verse titled "Circe" in her volume Portraits (1870). There the sorceress anticipates her meeting with Ulysses and his men and insists that she does not turn men into pigs — she merely takes away the disguise that makes them seem human.

But any draught, pure water, natural wine,
out of my cup, revealed them to themselves
and to each other. Change? there was no change;
only disguise gone from them unawares.

The mythological character of the speaker contributes at a safe remove to the Victorian discourse on women's sexuality by expressing female desire and criticizing the subordinate role given to women in heterosexual politics.

Two American poets also explored feminine psychology in poems ostensibly about the enchantress. Leigh Gordon Giltner's "Circe" was included in her collection The Path of Dreams (1900), the first stanza of which relates the usual story of men turned to swine by her spell. But then a second stanza presents a sensuous portrait of an unnamed woman, very much in the French vein; once more, it concludes, 'A Circe's spells transform men into swine'. This is no passive victim of male projections but a woman conscious of her sexual power. So too is Hilda Doolittle’s “Circe”, from her collection Hymen (1921). In her soliloquy she reviews the conquests with which she has grown bored, then mourns the one instance when she failed. In not naming Ulysses himself, H.D. universalises an emotion with which all women might identify. At the end of the century, the British poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote a monologue entitled Circe which pictures the goddess addressing an audience of 'nereids and nymphs'. In this outspoken episode in the war between the sexes, Circe describes the various ways in which all parts of a pig could and should be cooked.

Another indication of the progression in interpreting the Circe figure is given by two poems a century apart, both of which engage with paintings of her. The first is the sonnet that Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in response to Edward Burne-Jones' "The Wine of Circe" in his volume Poems (1870). It gives a faithful depiction of the painting's Pre-Raphaelite mannerism but its description of Circe's potion as 'distilled of death and shame' also accords with the contemporary (male) identification of Circe with perversity. This is further underlined by his statement (in a letter) that the black panthers there are 'images of ruined passion' and by his anticipation at the end of the poem of 'passion’s tide-strown shore Where the disheveled seaweed hates the sea'. The Australian A. D. Hope's “Circe - after the painting by Dosso Dossi", on the other hand, frankly admits humanity's animal inheritance as natural and something in which even Circe shares. In the poem, he links the fading rationality and speech of her lovers to her own animal cries in the act of love.

There remain some poems that bear her name that have more to do with their writers' private preoccupations than with reinterpreting her myth. The link with it in Margaret Atwood's "Circe/Mud Poems", first published in You Are Happy (1974), is more a matter of allusion and is nowhere overtly stated beyond the title. It is a reflection on contemporary gender politics that scarcely needs the disguises of Augusta Webster's. With two other poems by male writers it is much the same: Louis Macneice's, for example, whose “Circe” appeared in his first volume, Poems (London, 1935); or Robert Lowell's, whose "Ulysses and Circe” appeared in his last, Day by Day (New York, 1977). Both poets have appropriated the myth to make a personal statement about their broken relationships.

Parallels and sequels

Several Renaissance epics of the 16th century include lascivious sorceresses based on the Circe figure. These generally live in an isolated spot devoted to pleasure, to which lovers are lured and later changed into beasts. They include the following:

  • Alcina in the Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland, 1516, 1532) of Ludovico Ariosto, set at the time of Charlemagne. Among its many sub-plots is the episode in which the Saracen champion Ruggiero is taken captive by the sorceress and has to be freed from her magic island.
  • The lovers of Filidia in Il Tancredi (1632) by Ascanio Grandi (1567–1647) have been changed into monsters and are liberated by the virtuous Tancred.
  • Armida in Torquato Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1566-1575, published 1580) is a Saracen sorceress sent by the infernal senate to sow discord among the Crusaders camped before Jerusalem, where she succeeds in changing a party of them into animals. Planning to assassinate the hero, Rinaldo, she falls in love with him instead and creates an enchanted garden where she holds him a lovesick prisoner who has forgotten his former identity.
  • Acrasia in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, mentioned above, is a seductress of knights and holds them enchanted in her Bower of Bliss.

In addition, it has been argued that Titania in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600) is an inversion of Circe. Titania (daughter of the Titans) was a title by which the sorceress was known in Classical times. In this case the tables are turned on the character, who is queen of the fairies. She is made to love an ass after, rather than before, he is transformed into his true animal likeness.

It has further been suggested that John Milton's Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle (1634) is a sequel to Tempe Restored, a masque in which Circe had figured two years earlier, and that the situation presented there is a reversal of the Greek myth. At the start of the masque, the character Comus is described as the son of Circe by Bacchus, god of wine, and the equal of his mother in enchantment. He too changes travelers into beastly forms that 'roll with pleasure in a sensual sty'. Having waylaid the heroine and immobilized her on an enchanted chair, he stands over her, wand in hand, and presses on her a magical cup (representing sexual pleasure and intemperance), which she repeatedly refuses, arguing for the virtuousness of temperance and chastity. The picture presented is a mirror image of the Classical story. In place of the witch who easily seduces the men she meets, a male enchanter is resisted by female virtue.

In the 20th century, the Circe episode was to be re-evaluated in two poetic sequels to the Odyssey. In the first of these, Giovanni Pascoli's L'Ultimo Viaggio (The Last Voyage, 1906), the aging hero sets out to rediscover the emotions of his youth by retracing his journey from Troy, only to discover that the island of Eea is deserted. What in his dream of love he had taken for the roaring of lions and Circe’s song was now no more than the sound of the sea-wind in autumnal oaks (Cantos 16-17).

This melancholy dispelling of illusion is echoed in The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938) by Nikos Kazantzakis. The fresh voyage in search of new meaning to life recorded there grows out of the hero's initial rejection of his past experiences in the first two sections. The Circe episode is viewed by him as a narrow escape from death of the spirit.

With twisted hands and thighs we rolled on burning sands,
a hanging mess of hissing vipers glued in sun!...
Farewell the brilliant voyage, ended! Prow and soul
moored in the muddy port of the contented beast!
O prodigal, much-traveled soul, is this your country?"

His escape from this mire of sensuality comes one day when the sight of some fishermen, a mother and her baby enjoying the simple comforts of food and drink, recalls him to life, its duties and delights. Where the attempt by Pasolini's hero to recapture the past ended in failure, Kazantzakis' Odysseus, already realising the emptiness of his experiences, journeys into what he hopes will be a fuller future.

See also

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