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

Updated on March 20, 2018
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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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      • threekeys profile image

        Threekeys 7 weeks ago from Australia

        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 image

        Alexa R 7 weeks 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. :)

      • threekeys profile image

        Threekeys 7 weeks ago from Australia

        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.