In Homer's Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her sorcery; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus' crew to a feast of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions and drunk from an enchanted cup. Thus so she turned them all into swine with her magic wand or staff after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset and thus not entering the mansion of Circe, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ship.
Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus to use the herb moly to protect himself from Circe's wizardry and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were going to attack her. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.
Odysseus followed Hermes' advice, freeing his men and then remained on the island for one year, feasting and drinking wine. According to Homer, Circe suggested two alternative routes to Odysseus to return to Ithaca: toward Planctae, the "Wandering Rocks", or passing between the dangerous Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, conventionally identified with the Strait of Messina. She also advised Odysseus to go to the Underworld and gave him directions.
Later Greek literature
Towards the end of Hesiod's Theogony (1011ff.), it is stated that Circe bore Odysseus three sons: Ardeas or Agrius (otherwise unknown); Latinus; and Telegonus, who ruled over the Tyrsenoi, that is the Etruscans. The Telegony (Τηλεγόνεια), an epic now lost, relates the later history of the last of these. Circe eventually informed him who his absent father was and, when he set out to find Odysseus, gave him a poisoned spear. With this he killed his father unknowingly. Telegonus then brought back his father's corpse, together with Penelope and Odysseus' other son Telemachus, to Aeaea. After burying Odysseus, Circe made the others immortal. According to Lycophron's Alexandra (808) and John Tzetzes' scholia on the poem (795 - 808), however, Circe used magical herbs to bring Odysseus back to life after he had been killed by Telegonus. Odysseus then gave Telemachus to Circe's daughter Cassiphone in marriage. Some time later, Telemachus had a quarrel with his mother-in-law and killed her; Cassiphone then killed Telemachus to avenge her mother's death. On hearing of this, Odysseus died of grief.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.72.5) cites Xenagoras, the 2nd century BC historian, as claiming that Odysseus and Circe had three sons: Rhomus, Anteias, and Ardeias, who respectively founded three cities called by their names: Rome, Antium, and Ardea. In a very late Alexandrian epic from the 5th century AD, the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, her son by Poseidon is mentioned under the name of Phaunos.
In the 3rd century BC epic, the Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius relates that Circe purified the Argonauts for the death of Absyrtus, maybe reflecting an early tradition. In this poem, the animals that surround her are not former lovers transformed but primeval 'beasts, not resembling the beasts of the wild, nor yet like men in body, but with a medley of limbs.'
Three ancient plays about Circe have been lost: the work of the tragedian Aeschylus and of the 4th century BC comic dramatists Ephippus of Athens and Anaxilas. The first told the story of Odysseus' encounter with Circe. Vase paintings from the period suggest that Odysseus' half-transformed animal-men formed the chorus in place of the usual Satyrs. Fragments of Anaxilas also mention the transformation and one of the characters complains of the impossibility of scratching his face now that he is a pig.
Some say she was exiled to the solitary island of Aeaea by her subjects and her father Helios for killing her husband, the prince of Colchis. Later traditions tell of her leaving or even destroying the island and moving to Italy, where she was identified with Cape Circeo.
The theme of turning men into a variety of animals was elaborated by later writers, especially in Latin. In Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas skirts the Italian island where Circe now dwells, and hears the cries of her many male victims, who now number more than the pigs of earlier accounts:
- "The roars of lions that refuse the chain,
- The grunts of bristled boars, and groans of bears,
- And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors' ears."
Ovid's Metamorphoses collects more transformation stories in its 14th book. The fourth episode covers Circe's encounter with Ulysses (lines 242-307). The first episode in that book deals with the story of Glaucus and Scylla, in which the enamoured sea-god seeks a love filtre to win Scylla's love, only to have the sorceress fall in love with him. When she is unsuccessful, she takes revenge on her rival by turning Scylla into a monster (lines 1-74). The story of the Latin king Picus is told in the fifth episode (and also alluded to in the Aeneid). Circe fell in love with him too; when he preferred to remain faithful to his wife Canens, she turned him into a woodpecker (lines 308-440).
The gens Mamilia - described by Titus Livius as one of the most distinguished families of Latium - claimed descent from Mamilia, a granddaughter of Odysseus and Circe through Telegonus. One of the most well known of them was Octavius Mamilius (died 498 BC), princeps of Tusculum and son-in-law of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus the seventh and last king of Rome.
Medieval and modern literature
Giovanni Boccaccio provided a digest of what was known of Circe during the Middle Ages in his De mulieribus claris (Famous Women, 1361-1362). While following the tradition that she lived in Italy, he comments wryly that there are now many more temptresses like her to lead men astray.
There is a very different interpretation of the encounter with Circe in John Gower's long didactic poem Confessio Amantis (1380). Ulysses is depicted as deeper in sorcery and readier of tongue than Circe and through this means he leaves her pregnant with Telegonus. Most of the account deals with the son's later quest for and accidental killing of his father, drawing the moral that only evil can come of the use of sorcery.
The story of Ulysses and Circe was retold as an episode in Georg Rollenhagen's German verse epic, Froschmeuseler (The Frogs and Mice, Magdeburg, 1595). In this 600-page expansion of the pseudo-Homeric Batrachomyomachia, it is related at the court of the mice and takes up sections 5-8 of the first part.
In Lope de Vega's miscellany La Circe - con otras rimas y prosas (Madrid 1624), the story of her encounter with Ulysses appears as a verse epic in three cantos. This takes its beginning from Homer's account, but it is then embroidered; in particular, Circe's love for Ulysses remains unrequited.
As "Circe's Palace", Nathaniel Hawthorne retold the Homeric account as the third section in his collection of stories from Greek mythology, Tanglewood Tales (1853). The transformed Picus continually appears in this, trying to warn Ulysses, and then Eurylochus, of the danger to be found in the palace, and is rewarded at the end by being given back his human shape. In most accounts Ulysses only demands this for his own men.
In her survey of the Transformations of Circe, Judith Yarnall comments of this figure, who started out as a comparatively minor goddess of unclear origin, that "What we know for certain - what Western literature attests to – is her remarkable staying power…These different versions of Circe's myth can be seen as mirrors, sometimes clouded and sometimes clear, of the fantasies and assumptions of the cultures that produced them." After appearing as just one of the characters that Odysseus encounters on his wandering, "Circe herself, in the twists and turns of her story through the centuries, has gone through far more metamorphoses than those she inflicted on Odysseus's companions."
Depictions, even in Classical times, wandered away from the detail in Homer's narrative, which was later to be reinterpreted morally as a cautionary story against drunkenness. Early philosophical questions were also raised whether the change from a reasoning being to a beast was not preferable after all, and this paradox was to have a powerful impact in the Renaissance. In later Christian opinion, Circe was an abominable witch using miraculous powers to evil ends. When the existence of witches came to be questioned, she was reinterpreted as a depressive suffering from delusions. Circe was also taken as the archetype of the predatory female until her cause was taken up by women authors, who raised the question of whether this view had more to do with male fantasies than with the truth.