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Kirke

Κιρκη

Circe

The Dread Goddess

Kirke

Daughter of the Sun
Kirke and Odysseus
Kirke and the Golden Fleece
Kirke in The Odyssey (reference)
Other Text References

The Dread Goddess

Kirke is called the Dread Goddess for a very good reason ... she is a sorceress of the highest order ... her skill with drugs and potions can only be compared to that of the goddess Hekate (Hecate). Kirke uses her supernatural skills to transform humans into lower-order animals ... from Kirke's point of view, we humans are lower-order animals and transforming us into swine is not necessarily a step down the evolutionary ladder.

Kirke lives on the island of Aiaia (Aeaea) with Naiad Nymphs as her helpers ... her palace is set in a tranquil forest populated with docile animals that would otherwise be fierce if they had not been drugged into submission ... there is the strong possibility that the animals on Aiaia were once human beings that were changed into beasts to suit Kirke's whims.

We have two documented encounters between humans and Kirke but there were undoubtedly other hapless men and women who were stranded on Kirke's island, but their stories were lost along with their humanity when they were given Kirke's drugs. Odysseus and Jason survived Kirke's hospitality but only because they had the protection of an Immortal who was more powerful than Kirke.

Daughter of the Sun

Kirke is the daughter of Helios (Sun) and the Okeanid, Perseis, which would make her the grand-daughter of Okeanos (Ocean). Kirke was also the sister of King Aietes (Aeetes) of Kolchis (Colchis).

It was later believed that Kirke was the daughter of the Roaring goddess Hekate and King Aietes. According to that linage, Kirke would be the sister of the sorceress Medeia (Medea) and the brother of Aigialeus (Aegialeus). This speculation was put forth by Diodorus Siculus and contradicts the long held belief that King Aietes and Kirke were siblings, and that Medeia was Kirke's niece.

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Kirke and Odysseus

After the Trojan War was over (circa 1250 BCE), most of the victorious Greek commanders returned to their homes without incident ... King Odysseus of Ithaka (Ithaca) was not so lucky. After leaving Troy, Odysseus incurred the wrath of Poseidon (lord of the Sea) by maiming one of the god's sons. Poseidon swore vengeance against Odysseus but Zeus forbade killing Odysseus ... Poseidon had to be content with tormenting Odysseus and delaying his homecoming. As part of his ordeal, Odysseus and his comrades were forced to take refuge on Kirke's island.

Odysseus and his desperate crew went ashore on the island of Aiaia hoping to find food and water. Odysseus sent twenty-three men to explore the island. As the men walked from the beach they could hear sweet singing from Kirke's home in a forest glen. Wild lions and wolves (drugged by Kirke) came, wagging their tails, to greet the strangers. The sailors were charmed by Kirke's beauty and drank the potions she offered as refreshment. As Kirke's vile drugs took effect, the once valiant men began to change shape and were soon fully transformed into swine. Kirke herded them into pens and pig food was tossed on the ground before them.

The only survivor of the twenty-three men, Eurylochos (Eurylochus), ran back to Odysseus and urged that they set sail immediately. He told the story of the evil goddess and how they would all be turned into swine if they dared to stay on that dangerous island ... his warnings unfortunately took on an air of cowardice ... Odysseus almost killed him for it. Odysseus was not afraid and he was determined not to leave his men as swine but he would not risk any of the other men in a fight with Kirke ... Odysseus went to Kirke's palace alone.

Along the trail, Odysseus met the god Hermes in the guise of a young man. Hermes told Odysseus that he would help save the men Kirke had bewitched but it would be necessary for Odysseus to act decisively and carefully follow instructions or he too might be transformed into a beast. Hermes reached down and pulled a plant called 'moly' from the ground and said that mere mortals found it difficult to dig-up the plant but he, as a god, could do all things. Hermes explained that when Kirke offered Odysseus one of her dreadful potions he was to secretly put the 'moly' in the concoction to render it harmless ... to complete the spell, it would be necessary for Kirke to touch Odysseus with her wand ... at that moment, Odysseus was to draw his sword and hold the goddess hostage until she released Odysseus's men from their animal forms.

Odysseus accepted the 'moly' from Hermes and went boldly into Kirke's palace. She welcomed him with false sincerity and offered him one of her vile potions ... Odysseus put the 'moly' in the goblet and to Kirke's delight, drank it down. When Kirke thought the drug had taken effect, she tried to strike Odysseus with her wand but Odysseus drew his sword and sprang upon the goddess before she could defend herself. The astonished Kirke surrendered instantly. She released the twenty-two pig-men from their cage and ceremoniously anointed them with another one of her potions. The men seemed to be restored to their original forms but they were taller and more handsome than before they had been enswined.

To show her good faith, Kirke opened her doors to the dispirited sailors and gave them every comfort she could offer. After the entire crew had been rested and nourished, Kirke told Odysseus that his journey would now take him to the House of Hades (lord of the Underworld). She said that Odysseus must consult with the soul of the seer Teiresias the Theban to find out how he could finally appease Poseidon and return to his home.

Kirke said that in order to reach the entrance to the Underworld, Odysseus and his crew would have to sail the treacherous waters between the precincts of the man-eating, six-headed Skylla (Scylla) and the ship-devouring whirlpool Charybdis. She warned Odysseus that he could survive the passage but she also warned him not to be too bold and accept whatever fatalities the two supernatural creatures inflicted on his crew.

A tragedy took place before Odysseus and his men could leave Aiaia. The youngest member of the crew was named Elpenor ... he was not noted as a valiant or worldly man but he was a survivor of the Trojan War and had thus earned the respect of Odysseus and the other men. After drinking too much wine, Elpenor went to the roof of Kirke's palace to sleep ... when he awoke in a stupor he fell from the roof and broke his neck. Meaning no disrespect, Odysseus failed to give Elpenor a proper burial before leaving the island. When Odysseus was at the entrance to the Underworld, he encountered the 'shade' of Elpenor ... the spirit of the young man begged Odysseus to return to Aiaia and perform the funeral rites that would allow his soul be at rest.

Upon returning to Kirke's island, Odysseus retrieved the body of Elpenor and prepared to resume his homeward journey. After her Naiad handmaidens had given food and comfort to Odysseus's crew, she warned him that he would face a new danger when he left her island. Kirke told Odysseus that he must avoid the island of Thrinakia (Thrinacia), which is sacred to Helios (Sun), or his homecoming would be sadder than he could imagine. Kirke knew that Odysseus's voyage would be one of hardship and sorrow but she had given him all the comfort and advice her divine prescience could offer. She gave Odysseus a favorable wind and sent him on his way.

Kirke and Odysseus had three children: Agrios (Agrius), Latinos and Telegonos (Telegonus).

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Kirke and Odysseus

Kirke and Odysseus

Kirke and the Golden Fleece

A generation before the arrival of Odysseus on her island, Kirke received two other desperate travelers. Jason and Medeia (Medea) arrived on Aiaia in search of absolution for the murder of Medeia's half-brother, Apsyrtos. After Jason and Medeia had stolen the Golden Fleece from Kolchis (Colchis), they were pursued by a fleet of ships led by Apsyrtos. Realizing that they could not avoid a confrontation with Apsyrtos, Medeia pretended to surrender and lured her half-brother into a trap where he was cold-bloodedly murdered by Jason. Medeia was Kirke 's niece and hoped that her sorceress aunt could absolve her of this terrible crime.

Before the arrival of Jason and Medeia, Kirke had been troubled by nightmares where the walls of her palace were dripping with blood and flames consumed the drugs she used to bewitch strangers who happened to land on her island. As she was recovering from this nightmare, Jason, Medeia and the Argonauts arrived. They could see the dread look on the face of the goddess and knelt before her in a manner befitting supplicants.

Kirke saw that a curse was upon them and performed rites of purification. She held a sow above them, cut its throat and made Jason and Medeia wash their hands in the blood. With the assistance of the Naiads, Kirke placed atonement cakes without wine, flour, oil and honey in the hearth. After praying to Zeus and the Eumenides (Furies), Kirke asked Medeia to tell the story of her plight and asked questions to clarify Medeia's explanations. Medeia carefully did not tell her aunt about the murder of Apsyrtos but the divine Kirke was not fooled by the deception. Kirke told Medeia that the wrath of King Aietes would soon overtake them and that she would not inflict any more suffering upon them but she was adamant that Medeia and Jason leave her island at once and endure whatever fate Zeus and the other Immortals were sure to mete out.

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Kirke in The Odyssey

(listed by book and line)

The line numbers listed here correspond fairly well with the Lattimore and Murray/Dimock translations of The Odyssey. Other translations (Fitzgerald, Fagles et al) do not correspond as well but, with a small amount of effort, you should be able to find the reference you need regardless of the translation you use.

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Other Text References

Theogony

Catalogues of Women and Eoiae

(Loeb Classical Library vol. 57, Hesiod)

Epigrams of Homer XIV

The Telegony

The Returns

The Argonautika by Apollonius of Rhodes

The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus

Description of Greece by Pausanias

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