Witches in History and Legend: Circe, the Mistress of Natural Magic and Metamorphosis

Updated on March 20, 2018
Ioana-R profile image

Alexa has studied faeries, witches and magical beings since she can remember. She hasn't seen one yet, but is a fervent admirer nonetheless.


Often reffered to as the godess of magic, nymph, fallen godess or just a simple witch, Circe travelled through history and her name is still alive today. She could harness the power of nature, brew dangerous potions or transform people into animals. Who was this legendary character?

Who Was Circe?

In Greek mythology, Circe is depicted as the beloved daughter of Helios, god of the sun, and Perseis, an ocean nymph. Other legends fail to mention the name of Circe's father, but they say she was the daughter of Hecate, goddess of witchcraft. Diodorus Sicilus writes:

Hecate, daughter of Perses, married Aeetes and bore two daughters, Circe and Medea, and a son Aigialeus.

Whoever her parents were, Circe was nonetheless a goddess. Later in history, literature and myth describe her as a powerful sorceress and Plinius calls her the most beautiful of all mortal women.


How Did Circe Become Mortal?

Taking into account her divine parentage, the question that naturally arises is how did Circe lose her immortality? The Greek tradition tells the following story:

The fair-locked goddess Circe was bathing in the ocean, along with the water nymphs, when Poseidon, the Olympian god of the sea, felt her magic touch and her beauty. He fell in love with Circe and took her as his lover. Together, they had a son, named Phaunos. Phaunos was a god of forests. In Nonnus Dionysiaca, Phaunos was described as one of the deities that accompanied Dionysus in his war against the Indians. Most ancient authors identified Phaunos with Pan.

Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and carnal love, had a gealous nature. She had been Poseidon's first lover and Circe was an unwanted addition to their couple. Aphrodite convinced Zeus, the Master of Plympus, to banish Circe and send her to live a mortal life.

Circe on the Island of Aeaea
Circe on the Island of Aeaea | Source

The Island of Aeaea

Valerius Flaccus wrote in Argonautica, that Circe arrived on her exile island of Aeaea by winged Dragons. He locates the island somewhere south of Elba, within view of the Tyrrhenian shore. However, mortal could not reach it easily, because Circe would protect her home with powerful magic.

The island quickly became Circe's lair. Nature, animals and spirits were all obedient to her will. As a border between the mortal world ad the domains of gods, the island was also an entrance to Hades, the land of the dead. It is said that the mythical island of Aeaea can still open a portal to the underworld.


Circe and Medea

Some authors identify Medea as Circe's sister, while others tell that Medea was Circe's niece. They were close kin and also friends.

Legend and history agree that the sorceress Medea was not in her right mind. She was a deceiver and killer, ready to sacrifice anyone around for her own interests. She even killed her two children with cold blood, just to obtain her revenge on Jason.

Medea did not actually fall in love with Jason, the Argonaut. She wanted to leave with him because of their common greed and wish to become king and queen. Before their marriage, Medea asked for Circe's blessing. Circe did not agree to bless the union. Instead, she cursed Medea for her irresponsible choice and banished her forever from the Island of Aeaea.

Mistress of Natural Magic

Natural Magic is the ancient discipline concerning the manipulation of the environment.

One of the two great divisions of Western magical practice, the other being ritual, or ceremonial magic. Natural magic deals with the magical powers of physical substances—herbs, stones, resins, metals, perfumes, and the like. It has generally been much less controversial than ritual magic, and has been practiced openly even at times when even a rumor of involvement in ritual magic was enough to cause imprisonment and death.

The principle governing natural magic in the Western tradition is the great Hermetic axiom “As above, so below.” Every object in the material world, according to this dictum, is a reflection of astrological and spiritual powers. By making use of these material reflections, the natural magician concentrates or disperses particular powers of the higher levels of being; thus a stone or an herb associated with the sun is infused with the magical energies of the sun, and wearing that stone or hanging that herb on the wall brings those energies into play in a particular situation.

Circe was the mistress of nature forces. She could call the elements in her aid whenever she needed to. Circe was well versed in the art of herbalism and she could use the plants on the Island of Aeaea to brew potent potions and deadly poisons. She was able to create and shape the meteorological patterns, such as creating rain, invoking changes in the course of wind, or even call upon thunder or earthquakes.

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Mistress of Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis, or transmutation, is the magical act of changing the physical properties of some creature, thing, or condition. It is also commonly known as alteration. Circe was known for her great ability to change people into animals and animals into fish or birds. However, she didn't posses the ability to alter her own appearance, from what we know.

Circe and Her Guests
Circe and Her Guests | Source

Circe and Odysseus

In Homer's “Odyssey”, Odysseus' crew accidentaly arrived on Circe's island and her “water mansion” in a clearing in a dense wood, around which prowled harmless lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic. She invited the sailors to a feast, but the food was laced with one of her magical potions, and she turned them all into pigs with a magic wand.

Odysseus set out to rescue his men, using the holy herb “molly” given to him by Hermes to protect himself from Circe's potions, and following Hermes’ advice as to how to avoid Circe’s magic and seductions. Having freed his fellows, Odysseus and Circe became lovers, and he and his men remained on the island for a year feasting and drinking wine, after which Circe assisted him in his quest to reach his home.

Later poets extended the story, one version being that Telegonus, Circe’s son by Odysseus was sent by Circe to find Odysseus, who had long since returned to his home on Ithaca, but on arrival Telegonus accidentally killed his father. He brought the body back to Aeaea, taking Odysseus' widow Penelope and their son Telemachus with him, and Circe made them immortal and married Telemachus, while Telegonus made Penelope his wife.

Looking beyond the sorcery and danger of being turned into swine, Circe played the role of a double standards illustration. Odysseus becomes Circe’s lover, but in the scope of the story we are supposed to understand and forgive him even though his wife Penelope resists all suitors and remains faithful until her husband’s return.

Perhaps Circe is the temptress at the root of all tales that include an unfaithful husband who simply didn’t mean to do it. Circe is a witch, a sorceress, a furious woman, which means we can lay all the blame upon her, scorn her, and judge her.

Depictions of Circe in History

Other Witches in History

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The Character of Circe in the Odyssey, by JD McClymont

Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress, by J.Yarnall

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Alexa R


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      • profile image


        3 months ago

        Medea represented one of the most a powerful woman. She was intelligent, dangerous, and determined and refused to conform to the ideal of loyalty expected of women toward their male family members. She chose her own husband instead of allowing her father to arrange her marriage; she also betrayed her father, murdered her brother and her husband's uncle, and tried to kill her stepson(Theseus). When her husband discarded her, she destroyed his life. Her sons helped her, and the citizens of Corinth killed them, according to one version, or else Medea killed them by accident. Only in the theater play by Euripides (and subsequent adaptations from other authors) does she kill them as revenge on Jason. Long after, Jason is pursued by Medea, resulting in his death and resurrection, much as Medea, for love of Jason, is said to have killed and rejuvenated him. In the Jason and Medea reconciliation version, at the end of the story, Jason (mortal man) becomes a god. (more powerful than Medea - Medieval scholars thought Jason was “really” Jesus). Medea, no one tells the story of her death, but say that she married the Greek hero Achilles and lived with him in a paradise known as the Isles of the Blessed.

      • profile image


        5 months ago

        Jason and Medea in Corinth - another version of myth.

        During the reign of Medea in the Corinth, it was often visited by King Aegeus of Athens. At that time, Medea had two sons with Jason. She was to cure Aegeus of his sterility. Aegeus liked Medea and he urged her to leave the Jason and come to Athens. Neither Medea was indifferent to this courting, especially because Jason often went to various heroic adventures and neglected her as a woman. Jason was younger and more beautiful, but Aegus was more charming. Medea to hesitate, but slowly tilted toward Aegus.

        Medea has adopted seven boys and seven girls, who helped her in ceremonies and rituals. The Corinthians were beginning to become unhappy by being ruled by a foreign woman and so plotted against Medea. They planned to kill her seven boys and seven girls and so the children took refuge in the sanctuary Hera Akraia. However the Corinthians didn’t respect the goddess and they killed all fourteen of the children on the altar. The Medea was very angry, and it was blamed for this by the Kreon (a very important and powerful person in the Corinth), who was the leader of the opposition against her rule. Medea kills Kreon and his daughter(In this version, she was not in any way tied to Jason), with her use of magic. So began a rebellion against her, in which her personal guard and soldiers were defeated by rebels. She then leaves for Athens, fearing the revenge of the Corinthians, but leaves her children (two sons). She believes that their father will protect them, but friends of Kreon kill them (stoned them to death) and spread a rumour that this was done by Medea before she left for Athens. By escaping, Medea deprived the Corinthians of a victim whom they could punish, so they turned against Jason. Jason wanted to kill him, but they did not dare to do it, because he was a great hero with many friends who would revenge him. They banished Jason from Corinth.

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        5 months ago

        In the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea is the daughter of King Aeлtes of Colchis and a paternal granddaughter of the sun-god Helios. Following her failed marriage to Jason while in Corinth, for one of several reasons depending on the version, she marries King Aegeus of Athens and bears a son Medus. After failing to make Aegeus kill his older son Theseus, she and her son fled to Aria, where the Medes takes their name from her, according to in the Pausanias' Description of Greece.According to other versions, such as in Strabo's Geographica and Justin's Epitoma Historiarum Philippicarum, she returned home to conquer neighboring lands with her husband Jason, one of which was named after her; while another version related by Diodorus Siculus in Bibliotheca Historica states that after being exiled she married an Asian king and bore Medus, who was greatly admired for his courage, after whom they took their name.

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        5 months ago

        The perfect text about the goddess Circe. I congratulate you on the good text.

        Something about Euripides:

        Euripides gained a reputation as a misogynist (and although one legend has him being torn apart by dogs at death, another claims it was women), for he liked exploring abnormal mental states:

        Hippolytus: stepmother Phaedra in love with her stepson

        Andromache: a "barren" jealous wife plans the murder of her husband's concubine and son

        Sthenoboea: a "Joseph and Potiphar's wife" plot

        Aeolus: a brother and sister in love

        Auge: a girl bears an illegitimate child in a temple

        Medea: a mother murders her two sons

      • profile image


        5 months ago

        Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides, based upon the myth of Jason and Medea. (not mitology, not religius practice, not history). Everyone can make a theater play and proclaim for mythology. After all, Medea, was the most popular Ancient Greek play in the United States in the twentieth century. Wouldn’t the ancient Athenians find that it spoke to them, as well? And the answer is no – evidently they did not. Euripides didn’t take first prize in that year’s competition. He didn’t even take second prize. He finished dead last. As you can probably well imagine, a lot of people have responded to Euripides, and his portrayal of Medea over the ages. And probably the most famous response to Euripides in general was by a man who knew him – the younger comedic playwright, Aristophanes.And again, that was a quote from Aristophanes' play Thesmophoriazusae, which is a satire that essentially accuses Euripides of being a misogynist.The Roman writer Aulus Gellius, who lived during the 100s CE – long after Euripides, obviously – but anyway, the later Roman wrtier Aulus Gellius wrote about the playwright Euripides in his travelogue of Athens - in a book entitled Attic Nights. Gellius wrote that:Euripides is said to have had a strong antipathy toward nearly all women, either shunning their society due to his natural inclination, or because he had two wives simultaneously – since that was legal according to Athenian decree – and they had made marriage abominable to him . So, according to this later Roman historian, and Euripides’ contemporary, Aristophanes, Euripides had a staunch, and unapologetic dislike of women. In fact, misogynistic sentiments pervade many of Euripides’ plays. Women are maligned as “devisers of evil” in the play Medea. They’re called a “source of sorrow” in Euripides’ version of Orestes. Stepmothers are made to look wicked in Euripides’ plays Ion and Alcestis.Remember that Euripides’ version of Medea was a single man’s take on an old ancestral story – an adaptation of a myth that had been around before he came along. Now, anyone who does remakes, or sequels, or prequels, usually has some innovations of his or her own to add. Euripides had one. And here’s the kicker. Scholarship generally agrees that Euripides invented Medea’s murder of her children .In making Medea a child killer, Euripides conscientiously invented a story for her that had not existed before. There were actually many stories about Medea. There is also a version: Jason and Medea reconciled, returned back to Colchis, and as having there restored Aeëtes to his kingdom, and lived happily ever after. Source: Strabo Geography, Justin Epitome, Tacitus Annals, Pompeius Trogus history.

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        5 months ago

        Jason and Medea in Corinth - original story and mitology. (short version) Aeetes came from Corinth: It is said that the land of Ephyra or Ephyraea, which later was called Corinth, was given to Aeetes by his father Helius, whereas Asopia, which is a district in the neighboring region of Sicyonia, was given by Helius to his other son Aloeus. Aeetes, however, did not remain in Corinth , but instead emigrated to Colchis, the land at the eastern end of the Black Sea. On leaving for Colchis, Aeetes entrusted the kingdom to Bunus, the son of Hermes and Alcidamea, and when Bunus died, Epopeus, who some call son of Aloeus, brother of Aeetes, extended his own kingdom to include Corinth. These are the reasons why, when later the Colchian princess Medea came to Hellas, she became Queen of Corinth. What happened to Jason and Medea, after Pelias' death. They were set to have settled on the island of Corfu.Corinthus, son of Marathon, had died childless, the Corinthians had sent for Medea, because her grandfather Helius was the founder of the city of Corinth. Once when they had no king: the Corinthians invited Medea from Corfu and granted her the throne. So Medea settled in Corinth and had made Jason, as king of Corinth. As soon as her children were born, Medea took them to the sanctuary of Hera where she buried them, believing that if they were buried there they would become immortal. In the end, she discovered that her hopes were unfounded. Jason discovered the strange murders, and refused to reconcile with Medea(She begged him to forgive her), so he gone to Corfu or other city. Medea didn't stay in Corinth, giving the kingdom to Sisyphus.Afterwards Medea left for Athens where she married King Aegeus, father of Theseus. Accidental death of the children at the hands of Medea, but there is no suggestion that she deliberately kills the children. There is no antipathy towards Jason and there is no suggestion in evidence that Jason leaves Medea for another woman. There is another version: The second version of events has the Corinthians kill the children. where he says that the Corinthians were beginning to become unhappy by being ruled by a foreign woman and so plotted against Medea.

        Jason, the Greek hero who captured the Golden Fleece after making a great journey to the East. In later Greco-Roman religious practice, this hero somehow acquired a series of temples across the East as well as a mountain in Iran, Mt. Jasonium (Strabo, Geography, 11.13-14). He was also recognized as the conqueror of Armenia before the Trojan War (Strabo, Geography, 11.14; Justin, Epitome, 42.2-3). Pompeius Trogus that Jason “set out on a second voyage for Colchis, accompanied by a numerous train of followers (who, at the fame of his valour, came daily from all parts to join him), by his wife Medea, whom, having previously divorced her, he had now received again from compassion for her exile” (Epitome 42.2). Then, to make amends to Medea’s father for stealing the Golden Fleece and treating his daughter badly, he “carried on great wars with the neighbouring nations; and of the cities which he took, he added part to the kingdom of his father-in-law, to make amends for the injury that he had done him in his former expedition” (Epitome 42.3). This, Trogus and Justin affirm, is the reason that that Jasonia exist across the East, in honor of Jason’s conquest of the entire region.In the end, Jason becomes a god.Thus we read in Strabo that temples and cult of Jason were spread over the whole do Asia, Media, Colchis, Albania, and Iberia, and that Jason enjoyed divine honors also in Thessaly and on the Corinthian gulf. Justin tells us that nearly the whole of the east worshipped Jason and built temples to him, and this confirmed by Tacitus (Annals vi,34). Thus, the healer and savior god Jason was worshipped widely throughout the Roman Empire long before the purported advent of “Jesus Christ.” The name (more correctly Iason) means "healer," and Jason is possibly a local hero of Iolcus to whom healing powers were attributed. The ancients regarded him as the oldest navigator, and the patron of navigation. By the moderns he has been variously explained as a solar deity; a god of summer; a god of storm; a god of rain, who carries off the rain-giving cloud (the golden fleece) to refresh the earth after a long period of drought.

        Princess Medea has been called daughter of Hecate since she served this goddess as her priestess and sister of of the Dread Goddess Circe. She thereby acquired an intimate knowledge of drugs and spells. Her father Aeetes, who had been king of Ephyraea (Corinth) before he emigrated to Colchis, was brother of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete. Aeetes & Asterodia - Apsyrtus, Aeetes & Idyia - Chalciope, Aeetes & Hecate - Circe and Medea.

      • Ioana-R profile imageAUTHOR

        Alexa R 

        6 months ago

        Hi Ivan! Thank you for your comment! I find your explanations very useful. As you know, mythology is a fluid territory and unfortunately one can never say what really happened and if it actually happened at all. Please enjoy my article form the sources I've studied and I can't wait to read yours in return!

      • profile image


        6 months ago

        Learn mythology, my friend ! Based on Greek and Roman historians or on religious practice, not on theater plays.(like Euripides – Medea). The story of Jason and Medea is very complex and has many different elements. e.g: In the original story, Medea was the Queen of Corinth. Euripides’ inventions: 1.This deliberate murder of her children by Medea to be Euripides’ invention. 2. No suggestion in evidence that Jason leaves Medea for another woman before the Medea (by Euripides). Because of these inventions and disgraces of the legendary hero Jason and his wife queen Medea, it is believed Euripides died by being ripped apart by a pack of wild Macedonian dogs (or a pack of red-eyed hellhounds). Later writers represent Jason as having in the end become reconciled to Medea, as having returned with her to Colchis, and as having there restored Aeëtes to his kingdom, of which he had been deprived. Medea was honoured as a goddess at Corinth, and was said to have become the wife of Achilles in the Elysian fields.

      • profile image


        14 months ago

        Its a interesting book. You wonder how they did it. TlHow Culper and others observed such detail and connected the dots.

        The way the health system is everyone may just need to go back to knowing their herbs etc in trying to heal themselves preventively cause healthcare costs are/will be too unfordable

      • Ioana-R profile imageAUTHOR

        Alexa R 

        14 months ago

        Hello Charmaine,

        Herbalism is an interesting magical school and is also very tangible, appliable to everyday life. It's one of my favorite arts. Esthetical and useful. I am going to look for that book myself. :)

      • profile image


        14 months ago

        Enjoyed reading about Circe, Alexa.

        When you mentioned "herbalism" and "transformation" my mind travelled to JK Rowland's interview where she said the plant and herbal information she found about her Mandrake figures in Harry Potter, came from the Culper's 1600's Herbalism book, which I have also.

        Maybe its time to pick up this book again?

        Interesting read, Alexa.


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