The main characters in Circe are Circe, Telemachus, Odysseus.
- Circe, a minor goddess, uncovers her true power when she discovers witchcraft. Bolstered by her abilities as a witch, she punishes the human men who seek to hurt her, protects her mortal son from Athena, and finds the courage to stand up to powerful gods and Titans.
- Odysseus meets Circe on his journey home to Ithaca. They have a brief affair, which results in the birth of a son, Telegonus.
- Telemachus, Odysseus's first son, meets Circe after the death of his father. He rejects his father's values and lifestyle, and he and Circe develop a romantic relationship.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978
The characters in Circe are drawn from Greek mythology. Though Miller takes creative liberties with specific characters’ traits and plot points, her story is authentic to the greater oeuvre of classical works.
Circe, whose name is derived from the word "hawk," is the first-person protagonist of the novel, and the narrative follows a linear trajectory through her life. She is the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun and the mightiest of the Titans, and Perse, a weak but beautiful water nymph. When young, Circe struggles to define herself within the context of her father’s god-laden, ego-driven, appearance-oriented palace. When mature, Circe works to exercise free will when more powerful gods, and more physically powerful mortal men, exert authority over her life.
The turning point in Circe’s life is when she discovers her ability to use pharmaka, or witchcraft. Though she lacks her father’s godly might and her mother’s beauty, pharmaka allows Circe to exert control over her surroundings for the first time. She is no longer defined by her role as Helios’s weak and ugly daughter; instead, she becomes the witch queen of Aiaia, the deserted island that she is exiled to after the other gods discover her powers. Her abilities allow her to defend herself from both gods and mortals, warding her island against divine interference and turning predatory men into pigs. She summons a lioness as her familiar and signature companion, proving to the world that she, too, has teeth and claws.
Circe’s story intersects with those of many other famous figures from Greek mythology. However, rather than centering these stories, the novel filters them through Circe’s perspective. Each encounter teaches Circe a lesson about life and helps her discover new information about herself. Scylla, the nymph that Circe turns into a sea monster, teaches Circe the dangers of irresponsibly used power; Daedalus, the famed inventor, becomes Circe’s first mortal friend. His death represents Circe’s first real experience with mortality; Circe’s sister, Pasiphaë, teaches Circe how truly toxic Helios’s court was and how unfairly Circe has judged the other nymphs; Medea shows Circe the power of free will, and her bravery inspires both Circe and Penelope.
Known as the bewitching queen of Aiaia, Circe is most thoroughly characterized in book X of The Odyssey by Homer.
Helios is a Titan and the personification of the sun—many cannot even look at him because of his brightness. Though he has many extramarital affairs, he is married to Perse, a water nymph, who bears him four children: Circe, Pasiphaë, Perses, and Aeetes.
In Circe, Helios is portrayed as an ego-driven tyrant who lords over his palace and prized possessions. He is cold and conniving, more likely to pursue his own power and political gain than to consider the needs of his family or fellow Titans.
Throughout the novel, Helios acts as an antagonist, coming to symbolize the patriarchal world view that governs the ancient Greek world.
Pasiphaë is Circe’s younger sister. She is beautiful and cruel, often teasing Circe about her looks and her voice. Pasiphaë and her brother Perses are inseparable in their youth, though Pasiphaë later states that she is happy to be away from his cruelties. At her father’s command, Pasiphaë marries King Minos of Crete and bears him many children. When she fornicates with a bull, she bears the Minotaur.
In Circe, Pasiphaë develops Circe’s character. Initially, she acts as a character foil. She adheres to the social expectations within Helios’s court, while Circe remains aloof. When Pasiphaë requests that Circe attend her childbirth, she forces Circe to pass by Scylla. This forces Circe to realize the arrogance with which she initially used witchcraft, inadvertently creating a monster.
However, for all of Pasiphaë’s cruelty towards Circe, she is just as trapped within the patriarchal gender norms as Circe is. Unlike Circe, who was outcast for her inability to conform to court expectations, Pasiphaë embraced cruelty in order to obtain some degree of power.
Aeetes is Circe’s youngest brother. He is the king of the island Colchis and features most prominently in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Aeetes is the keeper of the Golden Fleece, the shorn coat of a golden ram. With the help of Medea, Aeetes’s magical daughter, Jason accomplishes the tasks Aeetes sets out for him, though Aeetes plots to kill him in the night in order to keep the fleece. Medea senses this, and she and Jason escape.
In Circe, Aeetes and Circe have a complex relationship. Initially, she is his primary caregiver and he gives her an occupation and reason to escape Helios’s court. Later, he reveals that he is skilled as both a seer and pharmakeia. Despite being her younger brother, he acts as a mentor to Cersei, correcting her early mistakes in magic and helping her understand the behavior of other gods. Ultimately, the relationship between the two ends after Circe helps Medea and Jason escape with the Golden Feece, which infuriates Aeetes.
Greek Mythology holds that in the war between the Titans and Olympians, Prometheus was one of the Titans, along with Helios, who sided with Zeus. However, Prometheus thought that Zeus treated mortals unfairly, so he gave them the gift of fire. As punishment, Prometheus is chained to a rock, cursed to have an eagle eat his liver anew each day.
In Circe, Prometheus is tortured by a Fury in Helios’s palace. When a young Circe takes pity on him, it is the first time in the novel that she defies her father’s orders. In conversing with Prometheus, her curiosity and sympathy towards mortals grows.
In classical mythology, Glaucos is born a human, but then is then transformed into a sea god. He falls in love with the beautiful nymph Scylla, and asks Circe to make Scylla fall in love with him. Instead, Circe falls in love with him herself.
In Circe, Circe falls in love with Glaucos when he is a mortal. Transforming him into an immortal sea god is her first use of pharmaka. When he rejects Circe in favor of the beautiful Scylla, Circe transforms Scylla into a sea monster. Glaucos proves to be just as vain and superficial as the other gods, acclimating to the patriarchal norms of the palace and quickly moving on from Scylla.
Once a beautiful sea nymph, Circe transforms Scylla into a six-headed sea monster out of jealousy over Glaucos’s affection. Scylla was immortalized in The Odyssey as one of the monster’s Odysseus must survive on his journey home.
In Circe, Scylla’s role is more nuanced. Formerly a beautiful and beloved nymph in Helios’s court, her transformation and instantaneous rejection by the other gods reveals the shallow and fickle nature of the gods. As Circe later regrets transforming Scylla, Scylla becomes a symbol of Circe’s initial hubris with the mysterious art of pharmaka.
Daedelus is a mortal and a master craftsman. He lives at the court of King Minos and Pasiphaë, and he builds the labyrinth that houses the Minotaur. In order to protect the secrets of the labyrinth, King Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son, Icarus, in a tower. Daedalus builds them wings to escape, though Icarus flies too close to the sun, falling to his death when the wax holding his wings together melts.
In Circe, Pasiphaë sends Daedalus to fetch Circe from Aiaia and bring her to Crete. Daedalus and Circe are lovers during Circe’s brief stay in Crete, and she mourns his and Icarus’s deaths. Before Circe departs from Crete, Daedalus gifts her a handcrafted loom and weaving materials.
Circe's niece Medea is Aeetes’s daughter and a powerful witch in her own right. When Jason and the Argonauts arrive to win the Golden Fleece, she helps Jason accomplish the tasks before him. When Aeetes plots to keep the fleece anyway, Medea flees with Jason, killing her brother in order to delay her father’s pursuit. Medea and Jason sail to Aiaia for absolution, though Circe is horrified by their behavior.
In Circe, Circe feels a strong tenderness for Medea, warning her against the cruelty she will face when she reaches Jason’s home and inviting her to stay on Aiaia. Circe is shocked when Medea refuses, and Medea’s departure reinforces Circe’s feeling of loneliness in exile on Aiaia. However, Medea’s confidence in choosing to leave her immortal family inspires both Circe and, later, Penelope.
The famed protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus left his home island of Ithaca to plunder the hallowed heights of Troy. After ten years of fighting, Odysseus and his Greek comrades are victorious in sacking Troy, though Odysseus’s journey is far from over. It takes him ten years to travel home, ten years of trials and temptations that force him to confront his pride, hubris, and hesitation to trust his fellow mortals. Odysseus arrives on Aiaia as part of his journey home. He must persuade Circe to transform his shipmates from swine back into men, and he must follow her advice to succeed on his quest. Circe falls in love with Odysseus and bears his son, Telegonus, after his departure from Aiaia.
In Circe, Odysseus’s character takes on new dimensions after he returns home. Telegonus and Telemachus both tell Circe that he became a paranoid, restless, miserable man after returning to Ithaca after the war. When Telegonus arrives in Ithaca, Odysseus mistakes him for a thief. Odysseus tries to take Telegonus’s spear and dies after grazing himself with its poisoned tip. His death prompts Telemachus and Penelope to journey to Aiaia.
Penelope is Odysseus’s wife and Telemachus’s mother. She remains loyal to her husband during his twenty-year absence. In that time, she is plagued by suitors who pressure her to remarry. She refuses, employing a number of creative strategies to fend off her suitors.
In Circe, Penelope takes action in the wake of Odysseus’s death. Instead of traveling to be with her cousin, Helen of Sparta, she asks that Telegonus take her and Telemachus to Aiaia. There, she develops a friendship with Circe and learns the arts of pharmaka. She ultimately chooses to reside on Aiaia by herself after Circe leaves, craving the independence that she never had as Odysseus’s wife.
Athena is a daughter of Zeus and the goddess of strategy, wit and cunning. She is Odysseus’s mentor, guiding him and aiding him through the trials and tribulations of his journey.
In Circe, Athena is a menacing figure, threatening Telegonus’s safety and pressuring Circe to kill him. After Odysseus’s death, she guides Telegonus in his pursuit of founding a new land.
Telegonus is the son of Circe and Odysseus. Initially, he signals hope and companionship for Circe. However, as he grows, she comes to truly understand the fragility of the mortal body and the grief that would follow a loved one’s death. The fear of living for all eternity, grieving for her mortal son, is a primary motivation for Circe to opt for mortality over immortality at the novel’s resolution.
Telemachus is the son of Penelope and Odysseus. In The Odyssey, he is a wayward teenager who must grow up as he searches for his father and defends his home.
In Circe, Circe first meets Telemachus after Telegonus brings him to Aiaia in the wake of Odysseus’s death. Initially, Circe worries that Telemachus will kill Telegonus to avenge Odysseus. Later, they fall in love. Both Telemachus and Circe choose to give up glorious destinies—Telemachus as a founder of cities, Circe as an immortal, bewitching goddess—in favor of the routine pleasures of mortal, family life.