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The Odyssey

by Homer

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What are the epithets used for Circe in book 10 of The Odyssey?

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With a question such as this one, you'll need to recognize that, unless you can read Ancient Greek and have the Homeric original, you will be working with a translation, and as there have been numerous translations of The Odyssey over the years, this means that the answer to this question will be shaped by which translation you happen to be using. For this answer, I am drawing on the Robert Fagles translation, published by Penguin Classics in 1996. This translation is rich in its use of epithets and poetic turns of phrasing.

Perhaps the most notable epithet used in this version, in reference to Circe, is her identification as "the nymph with lovely braids." Additionally, you can observe her being referred to as "Circe skilled in spells." (On page 239, you'll find the following words: "I was nearing the halls of Circe skilled in spells, approaching her palace"). She is also is given the adjective "lustrous."

One thing that is interesting, and worth being aware of, is the degree to which these epithets can be reused across The Odyssey, in reference to different characters. You can see this with Calypso, who is also given the adjective "lustrous" and referred to within the poem as "the nymph with lovely braids." Epithets form a core part of The Odyssey's poetic language (a factor which should not be surprising, given its origins as part of the oral tradition, requiring memorization and recitation).

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The function of epithets in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey is at least two-fold. They assist in the consistency of the poem's meter, and, since the poem would be recited from memory, the epithets serve as mnemonic devices for both the performer and the listeners to keep all the characters straight.

In book 10, Circe is on her island of Aeaea when Odysseus and his crew, sailing home from the Trojan War, arrive. She is an enchantress or sorceress with vast knowledge of herbs that she uses at her discretion to attain what she desires. An epithet that describes her is "fair-tressed Circe." Fair is a synonym for beautiful, and tresses are hair, so it is fair to say that Circe possesses great beauty.

She is also referred to as "queenly Circe," connoting the power she has over men, observable when she turns the majority of Odysseus's crew into swine. Queenly also refers to the way a woman carries herself; the description prompts the reader or listener to picture a woman with natural dignity and a majestic presence. Moreover, Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse, a nymph of the ocean, and so the circumstances of her birth have supernatural elements. She is certainly more than a mortal woman.

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An epithet is a descriptive phrase or term applied to a person. The intent is to define that person according to their most obvious or recognizable attributes. In Ancient Greek texts, many of the epithets we see are phrases and terms that would have been widely used to refer to one particular figure or place, and we find these in multiple texts. One common one is "grey-eyed Athena," which is used so often that it is evident to us that Athena's grey eyes defined her in the minds of the ancient Greeks. The element drawn out by the epithet can also give us some indication of how a person was thought of: grey eyes suggest a piercing look and a shrewd, observant personality.

In book 10 of The Odyssey, then, we see Circe accorded the epithet "Circe of the lovely tresses." This is important because it immediately creates a particular image of this character and helps us to understand how she was perceived. Circe's long hair creates an initial impression of her as a beautiful and "lovely" woman. This impression, however, is something of a false one: although this is how she appears, she is in fact an extremely powerful sorceress capable of enthralling and controlling those who have been lured in by her appearance.

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Epithets are little nicknames or descriptive phrases that were used by Greek epic poets to tell their listeners about the characters and to preserve the meter of their poems.

In Book X, Circe is both a danger to Odysseus and his crew and, eventually, his lover who is devoted to him.  Although she is a very important character in this book, epithets are not really used to describe her.  In the first mention of her, we are told that Odysseus and his men came to the island

where Circe lives—a great and cunning goddess who is own sister to the magician Aeetes—for they are both children of the sun by Perse, who is daughter to Oceanus.

But this is not really an epithet because epithets are phrases that used along with the name of the person, not just descriptions that are tacked on after.

There is one epithet for Circe used in Book X.  Odysseus says that he "was near the great house of the enchantress Circe."  In this case "the enchantress Circe" can be seen as an epithet.  There is no other description of Circe in Book X that could be seen as an epithet.

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