Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
Start Free Trial

What role does Circe play in The Odyssey?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Odyssey, Circe is a sorceress. Odysseus and his men find their way to an island after fleeing from the Laestrygonians, a cannibalistic tribe. At first, they think the island is uninhabited, but then they discover that there is a beautiful woman, Circe, living in a hut on the island. At first, Circe enchants Odysseus's men and turns them all into pigs, but when Odysseus threatens her, Circe agrees to undo the enchantments out of respect for Odysseus. For a year, Odysseus and his men stay on the island with Circe.

Eventually, Odysseus decides that he and his crew must leave for Ithaca. Circe isn't especially happy about this—she is in love with Odysseus and doesn't want to lose him—but she also wants to prevent Odysseus from harming himself. To an extent, she prefigures Calypso, the nymph with whom Odysseus later spends time. Neither of them want to let Odysseus go; the difference is that Circe actually does let Odysseus go and also tells him how best to proceed to the next stage of his journey. It is Circe's advice which sends Odysseus and his men into a more fantastical stage of the journey—she tells Odysseus that he needs to go to the underworld to speak to the ghost of Tiresias, the prophet, in order to find out what he needs to do to get back to Ithaca.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Circe's an interesting case, because she plays a multifaceted role in The Odyssey, and represents one of the key dramatic encounters within Odysseus's return from Troy. In some respects, her appearance represents perhaps the major turning point within that series of adventures (which he recites for his Phaeacian audience). She is that critical within this smaller narrative.

When we first encounter Circe, she represents another threat Odysseus most overcome. Circe is a goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, who turns Odysseus's followers into pigs. With the assistance of Hermes, Odysseus is able to confront and defeat her. After Odysseus has overcome her, however, the nature of their relationship changes, as Odysseus and his men spend a year idle in her halls. After that year has passed, they will set off again on their attempt to return to Ithaca.

In this moment, Circe takes another role, this time as a guide. Remember, she is a goddess, and this means she possesses knowledge mortals cannot access. It is Circe that instructs Odysseus to descend to the Underworld, in order to speak with Tiresias. (She also provides him guidance as to how to achieve that feat.) Later, after he has returned from the Underworld, she will advise him further on the challenges still to come.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Odysseus discovers Circe’s house but chooses not to go there before informing his men. On the next day, he divides his men into two groups, and they cast lots to select the group that will venture to the house. The selection falls on Eurylochus, and together with his men, he makes his way to Circe’s home. On arrival, the men call out for the owner, and Circe emerges. All the men go in except Eurylochus. Circe offers poisoned drinks to the men, and when the poison takes effect, she turns them into pigs. Eurylochus, shocked and saddened, runs back and reports the matter to Odysseus.

Odysseus is forced to go to Circe’s house. Along the way, he meets Hermes, who offers him a protective charm that will work against Circe’s mischief. Circe tries to poison Odysseus, but she fails and instead falls in love with the valiant warrior. Odysseus takes advantage of the situation and has Circe reverse the spell on his men. 

They stay with Circe for a year before they feel the need to continue with their journey. Circe decides to help the men and informs Odysseus of what he has to do to safely get back home. She tells him to first visit Hades and seek out the Theban prophet Teiresias for information. She provides Odysseus with instructions on how to reach Hades, handle the ghosts of the dead, and obtain answers from the prophet to aid him on his way home. Upon his return from Hades, Circe provides Odysseus with further instructions on how to conduct his voyage.

It is clear from the story that without Circe’s help and direction, Odysseus’s journey to Ithaca would not have succeeded.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Circe is a witch or enchantress in the Odyssey.  She turned Odysseus' men to swine when they drank the sweet nectar she gave them.  Odysseus was the only one who drank the nectar and was able to remain human because Hermes gave him moli to eat to protect him from Circe's spell.  Upon surviving Circe's spell without being transformed, Circe then told Odysseus she would only turn his men back into their human form if he would take her to bed.  He did.  He stays on Circe's island a year before traveling to the Underworld.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team