Circe’s story begins on the day of her birth. Though a nymph (a lesser goddess) by lineage, Circe has difficulty relating to her mother, aunts, and numerous nymph cousins. Her mother, Perse, has an uncanny ability to play her surroundings to her advantage, and she used this skill to attract the attention of Helios, a god of the sun and a Titan, who believes that “the world’s natural order [is] to please him.” Feigning indifference toward Helios’s interest, Perse refused to be a mere fling. Instead, she made him promise not to bring other women to their hall, where only she will “hold sway.” Intrigued by the novelty of Perse’s demands, Helios agreed to her terms. For every child they have together, he gives her a strand of rare amber beads, which Perse flaunts before her sisters. However, the gods eventually forbid Helios and Perse from having more children after, as Circe explains, the other gods discovered “what the four of us were.”
When Circe is born, Perse is incensed by Helios’s prediction that Circe will fetch, at best, a human prince as a suitor. Repulsed by even the thought of mortals, Perse beckons Helios to come and “make a better [child].” As Circe grows, Perse’s distaste for her is obvious. Circe ends up in the care of an aunt, who names her “Circe” after a bird of prey due to the shrillness of her voice. When her aunt leaves, young Circe is left in a vast palace with her emotionally absent mother and irascible father. She learns to find freedom and amusement in her own solitude, though she struggles to escape her ever-present feelings of loneliness.
As a child, she eventually finds her place at her father’s feet and learns to handle the cruelty of her siblings Pasiphaë and Perses with quiet avoidance. Mortals seem to arouse her empathy, and she shows great interest when a group of human astronomers are put to death after Helios’s late chariot ride makes them miscalculate the sun’s path.
News circulates about Circe’s uncle Prometheus’s punishment for defying Zeus and conferring on mankind the gift of fire. Before all this, the world did not know of any divide among the gods, for only Titans ruled the earth. The Olympians only rose to power when the Titan Kronos, having swallowed his own children due to a prophecy, was defeated by the lone child he did not succeed in eliminating: Zeus. With a thunderbolt and poisonous herbs, Zeus made Kronos cough up all the children he had swallowed. They rose and rallied alongside Zeus, and thus began the battle between Olympians and Titans. Zeus emerged victorious, and the Titans were subjugated.
Hundreds of years have passed, but the wounds from that great battle remain, and the Titans see Prometheus’s punishment as indicative of reawakened Olympian aggression. They gather to discuss whether to come to the defense of Prometheus and possibly restore Titan rule. Helios dismisses these ideas, imploring his fellow Titans to accept Zeus’s rule as sufficient, at least for now. He points out to the assembly that Prometheus’s sentence is fitting for a god who has allowed himself to be brought low by his affection for mortals.
The punishment of Prometheus is a spectacle. Everyone is present to witness the Titan endure numerous rounds of lashings. Everyone knows a god re-heals, but no one has seen a god experience a cycle of pain like this. Hours upon hours pass, “but even gods cannot watch a whipping for eternity,” so finally, the ordeal ends. Circe approaches Prometheus after everyone else has...
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left. She offers him nectar and asks him about the mortals for whom he endured such a brutal punishment. Prometheus does his best to describe them, singling out death as something mortals all share. This encounter with Prometheus only strengthens Circe’s desire to learn more about mortals.
The next day, Prometheus is gone. Circe learns that he is now chained to a rocky precipice in the Caucasus. An eagle comes each noon to “tear out his liver and eat it steaming from his flesh.” Circe feels sorry for Prometheus, though she cannot help but listen raptly to every single detail of his bloody fate. She wonders how such great godly suffering could be caused by fragile mortals and thinks also of the mortals who have experienced suffering—and death—at the hands of the gods.
Perse gives birth to a son, Aeëtes. When Helios offers no prophecy for him, Perse loses interest in the child, and Circe takes him under her care. Circe and Aeëtes establish a deep connection, and she begins to feel less alone.
Just as prophesied, Pasiphaë, Circe’s sister, weds Minos, the “eternal son” of Zeus. Perse is revolted to learn Minos is still a mortal despite his divine lineage. On the wedding day, Titans, Olympians, and mortals fill Minos’s palace. Circe pursues the mortals with great curiosity and finds a group of them huddled together at the end of the hall. She hesitates to approach them, remembering stories from her cousins about the abuses mortals commit against one another. However, she also recognizes that mortals also carry the weight of “their own stories . . . of what happened to those who mixed with gods. An ill-timed glance, a foot set in an unpropitious spot, such things could bring down death and woe upon their families for a dozen generations.”
Aeëtes soon arrives and takes Circe to see the Olympians for the first time. Circe remembers that she’d always taken a particular liking to Athena; however, she finds that Athena is not among the Olympians there. Circe’s attention is instead drawn to Daedalus, a mortal inventor whom many consider “almost equal to a god.”
Aeëtes reveals to Circe that he is leaving for good. Helios has bequeathed him a kingdom, and he is slated to leave after the festivities. Circe is taken aback, and before she can convince Aeëtes to take her with him, he is gone.
Circe’s other brother, Perses, soon leaves his father’s palace as well, and Circe is left alone all over again, just as she was as a child. In her despair, she flees to a deserted beach she and Aeëtes frequented as children. Thinking back to Pasiphaë’s wedding, Circe wishes she had implored one of those mortals to take her as a wife. Just then, she notices a boat approaching.