Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157
Helios delivers Circe to the deserted island. He remains emotionally unaffected by his daughter’s exile. Circe does not mind, for she has little to weep for in the absence of the gods. She finds an old but finely built house on the hilltop. The forest beyond catches her attention. Though she is drawn to its wildness, she fears the woods for what unimaginable things might lurk there.
She spends her first day exploring the inside of the enormous house. By evening, she comes to terms with her fears, the greatest being her powerlessness without “those flowers, oceans away” that had lent her strength. In the event of danger on the island, all she will be able to do is scream.
After spending a grueling night overcoming her terrors, Circe finally begins to feel a budding strength. Determined to survive, she steps out into the woods and acquaints herself with everything they have to offer, learning from the wide variety of flora and fauna. As fascination begins to replace fear, she takes some of the forest’s blooms home. She then proceeds to experiment with different methods for their preparation.
Her brewing mistakes are numerous; nevertheless, Circe remains steadfast. Her power first appears with an acorn. She rubs different salves on it, murmuring incantations, in an attempt to make it sprout—but to no avail. It is only when she recognizes that she truly desires and wills for the acorn to be a strawberry that she unleashes her true power as a pharmakis.
She devotes herself to honing her powers and, in the process, discovers their limits: “However potent the mixture, however well woven the spell, the toad kept trying to fly, and the mouse to sting. Transformation touched only bodies, not minds.” Her mind leaps to Scylla, who might be somewhere with her nymph self still alive and trapped within her monstrous form.
In an encounter with a large boar deep in the forest, Circe stands her ground and wills it to scamper away. She then uses this same will to summon her own familiar, a lion, and she begins to understand the boldness and confidence with which her brother carried himself in the presence of the other gods. She finds she is no longer dependent on the meager strength of a few flowers—instead, she can rely on the sustainable power of her sorcery.
Circe meets Hermes, a son of Zeus. He tells Circe he has stolen a lyre and that he needs a place to stay. Circe lets him in. She is well-aware of his nature—charming, quick-witted, manipulative—and so she and her lion remain wary of his presence.
After Circe sings for him, Hermes reveals that her voice is not that of a screeching bird, but that of a mortal. He also reveals the name of the island she inhabits: Aiaia. Circe recognizes this name, for it is the place where her father pledged loyalty to Zeus. Directly above it is where he “vanquished a Titan giant, drenching the land with blood.”
Circe and Hermes become lovers. Circe knows it is “his nature to seek out answers, to press others for their weaknesses.” She uses this to her advantage and asks him for news about the outside world.
One day, she asks Hermes how far her island is from the hill of potent flowers that she used on Glaucos and Scylla. It is the only question he refuses to answer. She asks him why the gods are so angry with Prometheus for helping mortals. Hermes explains that gods feed off of the weaknesses of mortals; the more unhappy mortals are, the more offerings the gods receive. Empowering mortals, as Prometheus did, makes them less dependent on divine power. According to Hermes, this explains Scylla’s predicament as well. Now a monster, she wreaks havoc from a cave next to a strait. Ships that must pass are doomed to either perish in the whirlpool opposite the strait or in the belly of Scylla. Though Zeus could easily turn Scylla back, he will not. “Monsters are a boon to gods,” Hermes explains. “Imagine all the prayers.” Hermes then tells Circe of a prophecy he has heard: a man named Odysseus will one day arrive on her island.
One evening in the forest, Circe discovers “moly”—a small white flower that sprang from the blood of the giant her father had slain. It is a cursebreaker that carries “the unyielding power of apotrope, the turning aside of evil.”
Hermes informs Circe that a ship is coming. It is Daedalus, who comes as a messenger of Circe’s sister, Pasiphaë. Pasiphaë desires that Circe be present when she gives birth to her child, as she is in need of Circe’s powers. She has asked Helios to lift Circe’s exile for this journey; she has also instructed Daedalus to tell Circe that he and his mortal sailors must pass the straits to get back—the very place inhabited by Scylla. Circe recognizes her sister’s cruel cunning: Pasiphaë knows Circe will be tempted to sail back with the mortals to, hopefully, protect them from Scylla. In the end, Circe agrees. She asks Daedalus why he is compliant toward her sister, to which he vaguely responds that Pasiphaë has something of his that prevents him from leaving.
The next morning, they set off. In preparation for the encounter with Scylla, Circe commands the guard captain, Polydamas, to hand over his cloak and tunic. Using a concoction she has prepared, Circe transforms herself into her brother Perses, whom Scylla once loved. Hoping this may have an effect on the monster, they brave the straits until they reach the most dangerous part.
Circe cries out to Scylla—who hovers ominously over their ship—declaring herself to be Perses. She proclaims that, as Perses, she has sailed an entire year to find Scylla and has brought a cure to bring her back to her old form. This succeeds in stalling the monster at first, for it seems to listen. Circe then opens the bottle of her strongest concoction and utters the spell to change Scylla back. However, she doesn’t change back; instead, the spell seems to anger the monster. Scylla attacks the ship’s stern, and just as she is poised to give the fatal strike, the ship escapes her reach. They realize that they are all safe, for they are past Scylla’s grasp.
Circe is deep in thought: perhaps Scylla did not truly recognize Perses, for her eyes were empty, her old self no longer there. It seems the monster stopped only out of curiosity, not recognition. When Daedalus and the sailors thank Circe profusely for keeping them all alive, she snaps at them for their foolish gratitude, for it is she who made a monster out of Scylla in the first place. She now realizes that Scylla can never be changed back.