Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
A ship comes in bearing Medea and Jason. They humbly ask Circe to help cleanse them of evil acts they have been forced to commit. They ask that Circe do this not through ordinary magic, but through katharsis, the powerful “cleansing by smoke and prayer, water and blood.” The cleansing ritual forbids Circe from asking about the nature of their transgression, but she agrees to cleanse them. After it is done, Circe realizes that Medea is of her kin, for she has the sun’s goldenness about her. Medea is Aeëtes’s daughter and thus Circe’s niece. As they dine, it is clear to Circe that Medea is deeply in love with Jason—to a fault. Medea is blind to the fact that Jason appears to love himself even more. Still, Medea is adamant she will be his queen one day, especially after having helped him acquire the golden fleece.
This golden fleece is the key to the throne of Iolcos. Jason relays how his uncle seized the throne from his father. The throne will only be turned over to Jason, the rightful heir, if he succeeds in procuring the golden fleece owned by the great sorcerer Aeëtes. He explains Aeëtes’s impossible conditions for its acquisition: the yoking of two bulls that breathe fire and the plowing and sowing of a vast field where merciless warriors spring from seeds scattered upon the ground—both of which must be accomplished in a single day.
Medea takes over the narration of events, recounting how she helped Jason triumph in this impossible task. When Aeëtes did not yield the golden fleece and told Jason he must defeat an immortal dragon as a final test, Medea did not waver. She cast a spell to put the dragon to sleep, and they were finally able to fetch the fleece and flee the island. Jason married her on his ship, though Circe notices Jason’s odd reaction as Medea recounts this last detail.
Medea then discloses the reason they required cleansing. Once on the ship, they realized Aeëtes, enraged, was pursuing them. To lose him, Medea had to do the unthinkable: She commanded Jason to kill her younger brother (Aeëtes’s heir), whom she had taken with her. She then cut the body into pieces and threw the remains into the sea, knowing that Aeëtes would be forced to stop and give her brother a proper burial.
Medea then gets up and secretly slips a sleeping potion into Jason’s wine. With Jason now asleep, she then speaks more openly to Circe about the matter. She justifies to Circe her act of murder, as well as her love for Jason. Circe cannot bear to hear any more and attempts to dissuade Medea from heading to Iolcos with Jason, noting the way he flinches from her. Circe argues that this path can only lead to disaster for Medea, a foreign witch who murdered her own brother. Circe implores her to stay with her on Aiaia instead. Medea, lost in her love and consumed by passion, is obstinate. She defends her choice and, in anger, reveals her own observations about Circe’s pitiful loneliness and selfishness before storming off of the island with Jason.
Some moments later, Aeëtes himself arrives. He learns that Circe let Medea slip from her grasp and flies into a rage before heading back out to sea.
Still reeling from her confrontation with Medea, Circe admits to herself that Aeëtes’s daughter might be right after all. She is lonely. To her surprise, she wakes the next day to a nymph, who says she has been sent to Aiaia as punishment for falling in love with a mortal.
Soon enough, word spreads among the gods that Circe’s island is “a good place to send difficult daughters.” Aiaia is soon crawling with defiant, spirited nymphs. Circe finds this intolerable and demands that Hermes tell her father to remove them. Hermes accuses her of being dull, and they have a falling out. Hermes no longer finds Circe entertaining, and she is out of patience for him.
Circe also loses her loyal lion, who eventually dies after serving her for the last hundred years. In her loneliness, Circe turns to singing to keep herself company. Her singing catches the attention of a group of sailors who arrive on her island looking hungry and lost. Circe, overjoyed to have company—especially mortal company—lays an abundant feast before them. As the night draws on, however, she realizes they are not noble men. To safeguard herself, she slips one of her concoctions into their wine. In the face of danger, all she would need to do is utter a special command for the spell to take effect.
The captain, believing Circe to be alone and unprotected, tries to have his way with her. He pins Circe to the wall by her throat, leaving her unable to utter her magic command. He defiles her violently before finally letting her go. Enraged and finally free, Circe utters a different command, turning the captain and his men into pigs and later slaughtering them.
Men continue to arrive on Aiaia. Circe could cast an illusion spell over the entire island to keep them away, but she does not. Instead, she welcomes them, as she did the first group of sailors, and lays a feast before them, waiting for the right time to transform them. If the men behave nobly, Circe lets them go free. The majority, however, mean her ill and are thus turned to swine. The nymphs look on in silence as Circe unleashes her rage upon these men. Circe is emboldened by her disgust, remarking that “men make terrible pigs.”
The fateful day comes when Odysseus arrives at Aiaia’s shores with his men. Circe welcomes him, and it does not take long for her to notice that he is different. He takes in details others normally ignore. He tells her of his experiences in war, and from him, Circe learns that the gods fought among mortals at Troy. Odysseus and his crew spent ten years fighting at Troy and are now desperate to return home. He mentions his wife—a detail which, to Circe, truly distinguishes him from the others who have come to her island.
Both Circe and Odysseus remain guarded as they converse. They each try to outsmart the other but are equally matched: Odysseus knows not to drink Circe’s wine and carries moly to protect him from her powers, but she has transformed his men to pigs and holds them hostage. They are at an impasse. Odysseus reminds her a bit of Daedalus, though she senses a “roil” within him that Daedalus never possessed. Intrigued, Circe proposes a truce, seeking to earn his trust and offer hers in return. She swears an oath by the River Styx that she, goddess and witch of the island, will not harm him.