Ladies of Legend: Circe and Medea

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Circe is a sorceress from ancient Greek myth, the daughter of the sun god Helios and either his wife, the Oceanid Perse, or the goddess of dark magic, Hecate, depending on which version you believe. Given her life choices, I’m betting on Hecate.

 Circe’s name means ‘falcon’ and she was very beautiful, but with a destructive streak a mile long and a disastrous love life. When an Italian prince called Picus rebuffed her, she turned him into a woodpecker; when the sea god Glaucus preferred her half-sister Scylla to herself, Circe turned the poor girl into a terrifying sea-monster with twelve dog legs and six fanged heads. Though that particular curse is also attributed to the sea-nymph Amphitrite, it’s well within Circe’s abilities.

Another, less vicious example of her skills is the invention of a prophylactic draught using magical roots, allowing the drinker to be unaffected by disease. An Athenian princess called Procris made use of it to have a fling with Minos of Crete, since his wife Pasiphaë had cursed his sperm to become snakes, scorpions and millipedes when he took any lover but herself. The draught worked beautifully. Procris later died a violent yet completely unconnected death, because myths.

Circe ruled Aeaea, Island of the Dawn, a place rich with alder trees and oaks. Her palace at the centre was encircled by wolves and lions, but not for protection – the animals actually welcomed guests, because they were once humans themselves before she transformed them with her magic. Non-consensual transfiguration was one of Circe’s favourite hobbies, the other main ones being working at her loom and singing.

Her life intersected with that of Odysseus, the notorious adventuring king, when he came across her island after the fall of Troy. He sent a group of men to scout the land and Circe turned on the charm for them, spreading out a feast of cheese, barley, honey and wine. Only one man, Eurylochus, lingered outside, distrusting her motives. Sure enough, as soon as his friends started eating, Circe hit them with a wand and turned them all into pigs.

Odysseus was, naturally, livid. On his way to confront Circe he was intercepted by the messenger god Hermes and given a white flower called moly that would make him resistant to Circe’s magic. When her wand bounced uselessly off his shoulder, he drew his sword but she broke into dramatic tears and offered him a life of luxury on her island (plus a place in her bed) if he would let her live. Odysseus, I should point out, was en route at the time to his home of Ithaca, where his beautiful and very competent wife Penelope was patiently awaiting his return. Being a terrible husband, he agreed to Circe’s offer on the condition that she restored his men and did not plot against him again. They lived amicably enough for some time – long enough for her to bear three sons, Agrius, Latinus and Telegonus.

Eventually, however, Odysseus wanted to return home. Either she was already tiring of him too or had matured in her attitude toward relationships since the woodpecker incident, because Circe took the break-up exceptionally well. She sent him to see the seer Teiresias in Persephone’s Grove first, to predict what would await him in Ithaca – and yes, I mean that Persephone, this is the land of the dead – not only offering very precise advice on how to get there and what to do when he did, but also a sacrifical ram and ewe, and a favourable breeze to carry his ship. Odysseus was counselled by numerous spectres in the Grove, including his own dead mother Anticleia (who interestingly did not mention her daughter-in-law’s suitor infestation, possibly aware of how badly her hypocritical son would take that information).

Afterwards he returned to Aeaea for more of Circe’s excellent advice. Knowing his journey would take him past the Sirens, whose singing was even more perilous to hear than Circe’s own, she suggested the sailors plug their ears with beeswax and if Odysseus absolutely had to listen – she knew him pretty well by that point – she advised he be tied securely to the mast so he couldn’t do anything reckless. He eventually reunited with Penelope and his son Telemachus in Ithaca, but in Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, even this homecoming is not a happy ending, because Circe’s youngest boy Telegonus later mistakenly launched an attack on Ithaca, killed his father and married poor Penelope. In the same version of the story, Telemachus goes on to marry Circe. EW.

Circe was not Helios’s only child. Pasiphaë of Crete was actually her sister. The sun god also had a son called Aeetes, the king of Colchis, who in turn had a daughter called Medea. There is an argument to be made that much of what happened in Medea’s life was the result of divine argument. The very powerful goddess Hera developed a deep grudge against King Pelias when he had a woman killed in Hera’s temple, and recruited Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to her cause; Medea was their weapon of choice. I think we can credit the princess with some agency, however. She’s too ingeniously murderous to be anyone’s pawn.

And for another thing, Pelias was the kind of person to make enemies everywhere. Dethroning his half-brother, he claimed the throne of Iolcus and tried to rid himself of his nephew Jason too, promising to relinquish the throne if Jason brought home the legendary Golden Fleece. Jason pulled together an ancient Greek version of the Avengers, including big names of the day such as Orpheus and Heracles. They set off on a ship called the Argo to fetch the Fleece, encountering characters along the way such as the genocidal Queen Hypsipyle of Lemnos (with whom Jason had a lengthy affair) and King Amycus, who challenged any male visitor to a boxing match to the death. Though they lost a few friends on the way, the Argonauts eventually reached the palace of Aeetes.

The king was not at all inclined to give up the Fleece. Jason could only take the treasure if he first completed three tasks: matching Aeetes’ fire-breathing bulls in plowing a field, taking the Fleece away from its guardian serpent and lastly, sowing a dragon’s teeth and defeating the warriors that grow from them. Jason did not have a hope. Medea, however, was a sorceress like her aunts and had fallen head over heels for Jason. To survive the bulls, she gave him a magical ointment that protected his skin from their heat. For the next task, she met him at midnight in a grove sacred to Ares, the god of war, where Jason swore to marry her, be faithful to her and take her away to Greece in exchange for the Fleece. Her engagement gift to him was to sing the fearsome guardian serpent to sleep, allowing Jason to claim his prize.

Remember how Circe was reputed to be Hecate’s daughter? Medea was Hecate’s priestess. In Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, the goddess of dark magic manifested triplefold in the tradition of maiden, mother and crone: Persephone, goddess of spring and queen of the Underworld, being the maiden, the harvest goddess Demeter as the mother, and Hecate herself as the crone. The concept of this triptych certainly adds an interesting depth to Circe’s familiarity with Persephone’s Grove.

Jason managed to defeat the warriors of the dragon’s teeth with his own trickery and ruthlessness. With Medea aboard, the Argo ses sail for home, pursued by the warships of Colchis. Medea was prepared. According to one version of the story, the pursuit was led by her half-brother Apsyrtus, who tried to make a deal with Jason to keep the Fleece if he left Medea behind, and was killed by the lovers instead. In an uglier version, Apsyrtus was a baby snatched from his cradle by the fleeing Medea, who butchered him and threw the pieces into the sea so that her father would leave off the chase to collect the remains of his son.

The Greek gods might be capricious and brutal, but the only one willing to forgive such an act was Hecate; all the others turned against Jason and Medea after that. Medea took her lover to Aeaea for a ritual cleansing from her rather unwilling aunt. Though Circe wouldn’t allow them in her house, she performed the purification.

The return journey to Ioclus was just as demanding and eventful as the way to Colchis, and Medea’s magic proved a decided asset. Upon arriving home, Jason found his father Aeson deathly ill and Medea once again showed her skills by ordering the old man dismembered and boiling him…back to life…in her magic cauldron. Improbable as this sounds, it worked. Even his youth wasrestored. Hoping to receive a similar treatment, Pelias submitted to the same ritual, but she did not perform the same magic and he was left very dead. That she had his daughters do the dismembering is a particularly nasty touch.

As a result, she and Jason were both exiled to Corinth by Pelias’s son Acastus. For a decade their love remained strong and Jason was faithful, as he promised. Then, unfortunately, he got it into his head to marry Princess Glauce of Corinth instead, putting aside Medea by claiming their marriage was invalid. All Medea’s passionate arguments meant nothing to him. So, being Medea, she sent Glauce a poisoned dress that burned the bride, her father and their entire castle to the ground. She then stabbed her own sons to death. Devastated, Jason either committed suicide, or – in one even more morbid version – lingered on as a broken and forsaken man until a piece of his own mighty and now decaying ship fell on his head, killing him. Talk about heavy-handed metaphors.

And still Hecate stood by her priestess. Medea escaped the scene of carnage in a chariot pulled by dragons and went to Athens, where she married King Aegeus and had a son named Medus with him. Unfortunately for her, Aegeus already had an heir, though he didn’t know it until Theseus – he of the Minotaur episode – turned on the doorstep. Medea tried to have Theseus killed, but his influence won the day and Medea was exiled with her son. Aegeus, surprisingly, survived the break up. Well, Medea didn’t kill him, anyway. Theseus managed to bungle up that one all by himself.

Having sort of run out of banishment locations, Medea went home to Colchis. In her absence Aeetes had been dethroned by his brother Perses, whom Medea promptly murdered so her father could take back the kingdom. Medus went on to be a king as well. As for Medea, she claimed a place called Aria and called everyone ‘Medes’ in her own honour. There is no reference to her death in these stories.

I have a particular aversion to the phrase ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. It makes it sound like female anger is a baseless hysteria, almost a joke. Revenge is unisex. Circe knows precisely how to get what she wants. Medea is a woman with no priority higher than her own survival; she’d wade through any amount of blood to get where she wanted to be. To quote Moriarty from the TV show Elementary, “As if men had a monopoly on murder.”

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!