Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1324
Circe greets the mortal on the boat and eagerly comes aboard. The man’s obvious anxiety around her is something Circe finds familiar: it’s how she feels in the presence of her father and grandfather. She comforts him by admitting her minimal divine powers and, thus, her harmlessness. When he tries to thank her for a good catch, Circe clarifies that this is not her doing. Nevertheless, the man remains in awe of her, and Circe feels a warmth she has never felt before.
The mortal, Glaucos, spends more time with Circe, telling her of his family and the hardships that greet them daily—all of which are novel to a goddess. Her fondness for him grows as she watches him overcome the ordeals of mortal life with human resilience, as opposed to the shrewd ease of gods. Circe decides to open up to him about her uncle Prometheus; however, this turns out to be a mistake, as Glaucos is unsettled and seems repulsed by the idea that Circe is generations older than him. She hurriedly takes it back, dismissing it as a joke.
One day, Glaucos arrives with a bruised face, having taken a beating from his father for not working hard enough at the nets. Circe tries to take care of him, but he sharply dismisses her with a reminder of her powerlessness and leaves her.
Circe runs to Tethys, her grandmother, and begs her to fill Glaucos’s nets. When it is done, Glaucos comes rushing back, thanking Circe profusely and singing her praise. He pays no attention when she explains it was her grandmother’s doing—not hers. He is so overcome with joy that he wishes out loud that he could be a god so he may repay her. Circe desires nothing more than to fulfill his wish, and she asks Helios about turning a mortal into a god. He reprimands her, telling her this is impossible. She turns to her grandmother, asks her the same, and, in desperation, mentions pharmaka—something she had heard of from Aeëtes “when he spoke of herbs with wondrous powers, sprung from the fallen blood of gods.” Tethys is clearly alarmed by this. She rises from her throne and orders Circe never to speak of this again.
Circe remains interested in pharmaka. She employs the wiles she had seen her mother use and beautifies herself before heading to where her uncles are gathered. Circe fawns over each one, extracting information about where the bloodiest battles of the gods took place, until she learns of one not far away.
Circe coaxes a wearied Glaucos toward this battle site. As he is always exhausted from work, he soon falls asleep. Circe proceeds to pluck the flowers surrounding him and lets them drop onto his chest, their scent and pollen enveloping him.
Despite her efforts, Glaucos remains asleep—and very much a mortal. Frustrated, Circe seizes the flowers and tears them, ripping them to a pulp. In her frenzy, she suddenly recalls “that the strength of those flowers lay in their sap, which could transform any creature to its truest self.” Seeing Glaucos’s mouth gaping open, Circe judiciously squeezes the sap into his parted lips.
Glaucos transforms into a god. He wakes up refreshed and eagerly asks Circe to take him to the gods. In the halls, Circe’s relatives gather around Glaucos, asking him over and over to tell the tale of his fateful transformation. Circe watches with love as he radiates pride in his newfound form. Granted his own palace, Glaucos is never without guests. He boasts to them of how he killed his father by smashing his boat and blessed his mother, who built him an altar. Glaucos displays even more “godly” behavior in the coming days: he guffaws like Circe’s uncles, polishes off his drink in golden goblets, and rescues entire ships. He also asks about Scylla, an alluring yet malicious nymph who seems to have caught his eye.
Circe notices Scylla more and more; where Glaucos is, Scylla is also. She lingers around Circe as well, purposefully flaunting her jewels before revealing that they are gifts from Glaucos, who has asked her to marry him.
On the brink of tears, Circe flees. She bursts into her father’s hall and asserts her desire to marry Glaucos. He laughs, telling her that Glaucos does not choose her. She storms Glaucos’s palace, waits for him, and begs him to reconsider, telling him that Scylla is filled with malice and does not truly love him. Circe professes her love, which prompts Glaucos to send her back to her quarters.
Circe is beside herself with grief. She sets off for the woods at dusk, filled with hurt over Glaucos and hate for Scylla. She gathers the potent flowers of “true being” and pours their sap into Scylla’s bath.
At dusk of the following day, Circe’s aunt Selene is narrating the story of how she witnessed Scylla transform into a gray-skinned creature with twelve legs and six heads that howled like a pack of rabid dogs before diving into the depths.
While her cousins gasp in horror, Circe is amazed by her sudden power. However, the disappearance of Scylla does not eliminate Circe’s problem. After the revelation, Glaucos turns to Helios for counsel on whom to bed instead. Over time, he beds countless nymphs, “siring children with green hair and tails,” without once ever considering Circe. Circe comes to the conclusion that there will never be a union between them. She goes to her father and declares that it was she who turned Scylla into a monster. She confesses to using pharmaka on Glaucos to turn him into a god, and on Scylla to turn her into a monster. Expecting punishment, Circe is surprised when Helios finds this preposterous, for he and Zeus have taken care of the flowers and made sure they were emptied of their power. Circe proudly refutes this, describing how she went about it and defending the power of the herbs—and in turn, her own power in using them.
Helios’s patience runs out. He rages, scorning Circe for her insolence and calling her the “worst of [his] children, faded and broken, whom [he] cannot pay a husband to take.” Circe, body burnt by his wrath, is forced to beg for his forgiveness. Circe hobbles to the woods, where she partially recovers, and sees the hill with the flowers. She grabs a handful—thinking to ingest them herself—but loses her resolve for fear of what her true self might be.
Aeëtes returns upon hearing of Circe’s use of pharmaka. When Helios again discredits this power, Aeëtes claims to also have the ability to harness the power of pharmakeia, employing herbs to bring about changes that exceed the laws of divinity.
To demonstrate, he heals Circe’s burns. Circe is surprised by Helios’s silence. To further prove his power, Aeëtes declares his willingness to give Zeus a much more formidable demonstration; and it is now that Circe realizes that Helios is, in fact, afraid. Circe learns that she, along with her other siblings, is a pharmakis—a witch.
Helios meets with Zeus to discuss this matter, and Circe and Aeëtes are barred from leaving the halls until their father returns. Aeëtes, meanwhile, tells Circe stories about the many things he’s conjured in his kingdom, emphasizing that sorcery cannot be taught, only personally discovered.
Helios returns, relaying that he and Zeus have agreed that the matter poses no threat so long as Perses resides far beyond their boundaries, Pasiphaë remains married to a son of Zeus, and Aeëtes agrees to be kept under watch in his kingdom. Circe, however, must be banished to a deserted island, never to return, on account of having confessed to using pharmaka destructively on her own kind.