The nature of Circe can sometimes be hard to interpret. While Homer said she was a goddess, other writers called her an enchantress or even a witch.
Circe’s father was Helios, the god of the sun, and her mother was usually named as a nymph. Circe would therefore have been a minor goddess, but her powers and personality seem unlike those of the usual classes of minor divinities in the Greek pantheon.
With the evolution of Greek mythology, Circe became increasingly out of place. Later moral standards further influenced the view of her story, making her seem like a much more negative character.
So how did Homer’s goddess because the femme fatale of modern thought?
Circe’s status as a goddess is sometimes difficult to discern in both ancient and modern texts.
In the Odyssey, Homer described her as a fair-haired goddess. Her parents were the sun god Helios and an Oceanid nymph named Perse.
This would have most likely made Circe a minor goddess or nymph, as her mother had been one of that type.
Often, however, Circe was not described as a goddess or even a nymph. She was called a witch, a sorceress, or an enchantress.
This characterization continues to this day, with most retellings of the Odyssey and the Argonautica showing Circe as a practitioner of magic who was of a distinct type from the other goddesses of the pantheon.
By the turn of the first millennium, the characterization of Circe as a witch was even more complete than it had been in the classical period. A few writers claimed her mother was the witch-goddess Hecate instead of an Oceanid.
The writer of the Argonautica made a different connection between Circe and the goddess of witchcraft and magic. He claimed that Circe and Hecate were sisters, both daughters of Helios.
In this story Circe featured as the aunt of the infamous human witch, Medea. The three most well-known sorceresses of Greek mythology were bound by family ties as well as their powers.
While both Medea and Circe were referred to as enchantresses or sorceresses, ancient texts still made it clear that Circe had powers beyond those of a human witch. In one play, for example, she restored Odysseus to life when his body was brought to her island.
If Circe could properly be considered a goddess, however, why is she more commonly called an enchantress?
The abilities of Circe are characterized much differently than those of most goddesses in Greek mythology.
In the Odyssey, Circe is clearly not as powerful as the major goddesses of Mount Olympus. She stays on her own island and is uninvolved in the affairs of the outside world.
These are traits characteristic of a nymph, who was bound to her specific place or element, but Circe’s powers were also greater than those of the nature goddesses.
Circe shows a level of shrewdness and wisdom beyond that of most nymphs, who were usually characterized as innocent maidens.
She also had knowledge that extended beyond her island and its nature. When telling Odysseus to seek answers in the Underworld, for example, she is able to teach him the necromantic magic needed to pass through its gates unharmed.
In addition to her necromantic abilities, Circe also used herbs and potions in her magic. This gave her more in common with a human practitioner of magic like Medea than the naturally powerful goddesses.
Circe seemed to belong to a different class of goddesses that was not seen elsewhere in Greek mythology.
Before Homer’s time, magic like that of Circe may have been more common in early mythology. Before the types of deities became as well-defined as they were in later eras, the goddess of Aeaea would not have seemed as incongruous.
In fact, there are several characters in Homer’s works that seem to blur the line between different types of divinities. Aeolus was a human king who was given god-like attributes, for example.
While Homer understood Circe to be a goddess, later writers had more difficulty in reconciling her powers with those of the types of goddesses they recognized. She was neither a nymph nor a daimone, the two types that made up the majority of minor deities.
Along with the types of goddesses, the interpretation of Circe also changed over time. While Homer made her an inviting and sympathetic character, other Greek authors and philosophers took a more negative view.
Circe’s magic kept Odysseus from his duties to both his country and his family. While his time on Aeaea was pleasant, it was not viewed in a positive light.
Writers began to interpret Circe in a darker, more moralistic light. Her spells and Odysseus’s abandonment of duty were seen as allegories for the vices of gluttony, excess, drunkenness, and lust.
While many Greeks took this view of Circe, it was even more prevalent in the Christian era. Modern interpretations of the character are often clouded by the words used to translate Homer’s works.
For example, Homer used the term polypharmacos to describe her knowledge of many herbs and charms. In some translations, however, this is simplified with terms like “witch,” “enchantress,” or “spell-caster” that have a different connotation in modern English-speaking societies.
Circe’s actions were no longer those of a comforting and hospitable goddess, but of a dangerous woman who used magic to entrap men. Like Medea, she was seen as a more negative and menacing witch.
The modern view of Circe continues to be that of an enchantress rather than a goddess. While Helios was her father, the moralistic attitudes attached to the goddess of Aeaea have painted her as a dangerous figure rather than a benevolent divinity.
Circe was, by all definitions, a goddess in the Odyssey. Most ancient sources agreed with Homer that she had been born to the sun god and an Oceanid nymph.
Classical Greek thought tended to group minor goddesses into one of two categories, however – the personified daimones or the nature spirit nymphs.
Circe’s characterization and powers seem to fit neither of those categories. Like other seemingly out of place characters in Homer’s writings, it’s probably that her story was told before the Greek pantheon had become as organized and hierarchical as it was in the Classical era.
The changing interpretations of Circe’s character reflected more than just a narrower view of the types of goddesses, however. Shifting moral attitudes also affected how the goddess of Aeaea was portrayed.
While Homer showed her in a benevolent light, later authors and philosophers saw their own moralism in the tale. They saw Circe as a necromancer who led Odysseus and his men into vice and abandonment of their duties.
Circe today is usually described as a witch or enchantress rather than a goddess due to the unusual powers she possessed and the moralistic views attached to them.