Kirke, sorceress divine,
I claim your witchery, making it mine.
I believe that this is the year of Kirke (Circe in Latin). Here’s why: there is an unprecedented movement with women (and others) who are have realized that they are incredibly powerful. They are speaking out in their unique voice regardless of the risks and the wrath they incur. Every once in a while a novel comes along that captures the spirit of a moment in time. Madeline Miller’s Circe is doing just that. What is happening on the societal scale is also transpiring in the Witch World and Pagan Universe. Everywhere I look, I see bold statements of sovereignty erupting, from truth telling about sexism to new ways of practicing the Craft of the Wise. Indeed, this is Kirke’s voice coming through these individuals. Witches everywhere are feeling drawn to the Original Witch like never before. We are Kirke after she left the island, fully able to claim our power and change the world with our witchery. Like her, the powerful men, desperate to cling to all they possess, strive to keep us isolated. With Kirke’s power, we shall no longer succumb.
“Dread goddess of human voice.” – Odysseus
“Divine among goddesses.” – also Odysseus (They had a rough start to their relationship. He changed his mind about her.)
Kirke and Hekate
Of course, I need to remind you at this point that Kirke is one of Hekate’s witches. In one account by the ancient historian Diodorus, Hekate is Kirke and Medea’s mother. Hekate’s rise to dominance undoubtedly brings along her witch daughters. While Medea’s energy and archetype speaks to our shadow selves, Kirke summons us to boldly embrace the transformation found by speaking our truth.
NOTE: My personal practice includes Hekate and Her Four Sovereign Goddesses: Artemis, Medea, Persephone and Kirke. I employ their archetypes of wild, wounded, warrior, witch and wise one. Read more here.
The Very Condensed Version of Kirke’s Story
There are several different ancient sources for Kirke’s story. Homer’s Odyssey is a great place to start. I’m cobbling together the ancient stories with recent academic interpretations and tossing in elements of Madeline Miller’s brilliant book for good measure. Kirke was fond of a good tale and she would have done the same.
If we ignore the obvious correct story that Kirke’s mother was Hekate and go with the more commonly known myths, then she was born to Perseis (an Oceanid) and Helios, the sun himself. Kirke ended up with a human voice. Miller filled in the blanks on Kirke’s childhood by painting a dismal picture of mother wound and an absent father. She was a disappointment to them and they also feared her. Things happened.* She was ostracized by her family. Helios drove her in that fire chariot of his to an island in the far west, Aiaia (Aeaea). Hermes and Athena generally caused her trouble throughout her life. Helios never did her any favors.
* According to myth, Kirke turned a fair maiden into the sea monster Scylla because the guy she fancied and had turned into a sort of demi-god had a thing for the nymph. These were some of her earliest forays into transformation magic and truth revealing sorcery.
SIDE NOTE: Whether the mythical island of Aiaia has a geographical basis is less than clear. Most likely it was off the west coast of Italy. I found at least five different ideas about what actual island Aiaia could be based on. It makes sense that it was near the Strait of Messina since this is the likely literal location where the mythic battle between Odysseus and Scylla occurred. Regardless, in the myth it is located where the sun rises. As a daughter of Helios, she is doubly associated with the sun in this way. However, as a witch-daughter of Hekate (regardless of whether she is seen as Hekate’s biological offspring, as the Goddess of Witches, she is still her “daughter”) she is doubly associated with the Under World.
Island Witch Queen
Alone, abandoned and with problems all around, Kirke could have chosen to meekly go about her business. However, she instead became a woman “isolated by, but not ashamed of her powers” (Yarnall, 1994). Kirke taught herself to be a pharmakeia, expert in plant magic. She tamed the wild beasts on the island, including lions (panthers, etc.) and wolves. She took advantage of her isolation to develop her full capabilities.
Eventually, visitors showed up on the island. Including Jason and Medea who were fleeing due to their murderous ways. Kirke gave them absolution and cleansed them, thus permitting them to continue on their journey. Things didn’t work out well at all for those two. You can read more about it in my article on Medea. Soon others found their way to Aiaia’s shores, most notably Odysseus and his crew. Communicating with all these mortals was made so much easier since she had that human voice, although she was “liga” or shrill voiced according to Homer. Let’s pause here to consider this point: a powerful witch woman who needs no one and speaks her truth is regarded as shrill by a bunch of guys. Some things never change. Or do they? Is that why Kirke is calling to so many right now?
NOTE: She had nymphs helping her.
Kirke & Odysseus
Kirke’s relationship with Odysseus was incredibly complex. Things started out rough when she transformed his men into pigs (that awesome true self revelation spell of hers). Hermes had inserted himself into things as well by telling Kirke that Odysseus was coming and by giving him a potion to protect against Kirke’s swine spell. Moly, that some historians believe to have been garlic, was given to Odysseus and also used extensively by Kirke in her potions. She may have also made philtres, aka lotion potions, to keep Odysseus around longer. Eventually, through her prophetic powers, she tells Odysseus that he has to make a journey to the Under World. She instructs him on the necromancy necessary to raise Tiresias from the dead. Which is necessary for Odysseus to complete his quest. Odysseus comes back to her island and then has to go off to kill Scylla. Circe instructs him on how to accomplish this as well. Kirke has a son, Telegonus, by him. Other stories say they had more children and maybe that he stayed there with her, although the more common story is that he eventually returned to his wife, Penelope.
Kirke’s Cult and Influences
There were ancient cults devoted to Kirke that practiced necromancy and pharmakeia. Other ancient mythic witches besides Medea involved her in their magic (along with Hekate) . “Sisters of Kirke” include Simaetha, Helen, Calypso and The Sirens (Ogden, 2002). The Marsi were an Italian magical race descended from her. She was the original witch in Greek myth.
Homer was likely influenced by existing goddesses when he brought Kirke to life in The Odyssey. One interpretation of her name – “hawk” -potentially references hawk/vulture goddesses in Asia Minor. Some translations have her name meaning “circle” which is a less likely translation, but is reflective that this interpretation was common prior to the 20th century. This was all about how she trapped – “encircled” men. The meaning of Kirke’s name and how she is viewed is greatly influenced by the time in which she is being studied.
She was reviled as an evil enchantress in art and literature for centuries, although this began to change around the beginning of the twentieth century.
One of her major themes, besides all manner of witchcraft, is longing as expertly imagined by the poet H.D:
But I would give up
rock-fringes of coral
and the inmost chamber
of my island palace
and my own gifts
and the whole region
of my power and magic
for your glance. – from Circe by H. D. (1886 – 1961)
“And then the demon goddess lightly laid
Her wand upon our hair, and instantly
Bristles (the shame of it! but I will tell)
Began to sprout; I could no longer speak;
My words were grunts, I grovelled to the ground.
I felt my nose change to a tough wide snout,
My neck thicken and bulge. My hands that held
The bowl just now made footprints on the floor.
And with my friends who suffered the same fate
(Such power have magic potions) I was shut
Into a sty.” – from – Ovid, Metamorphoses
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, she was a powerful witch, highly skilled in necromancy, prophecy, illusion and magical herbalism. Turn to Kirke to connect with your internal eternal witch and to petition her favor over all sorts of magic. Her ancient tools included the wand, the chalice (for those potions), the loom (she was quite a weaver of spells and more) and the blade. Her home and one version of her parentage has her firmly associated with the sun, although her powers were chthonic. She is thus both an Upper World and Under World goddess, yet another way that she represents opposites. She was both the transformer of those who were very basic (nasty men into pigs) and the mud (she had some pretty base motives herself). Kirke found her strength through weakness. She was skilled in change and in revealing things exactly as they were and accepting the inevitable (Odysseus had to leave no matter how she felt about him). She was maiden and mother. She was wise and innocent.
Kirke’s darkness is evidenced through the cannibalism that her guests unwittingly engaged in when dining on pork that had once been human. This is symbolic of the ways that the power hungry can consume themselves, with a bit of magical intervention. This theme is one that I’ll leave you to contemplate more.
While Madeline Miller’s novel is fantastic, the narrative she presents is not entirely new. Margaret Atwood (and others) reclaimed and re-imagined Kirke’s story starting in the 1970s.
“Ask at my temples,
Where the moon snakes,
Tongues of the dark
Speak like bones unlocking,
Of a future you won’t believe in.
Ask who keeps the wind,
Ask what is sacred…” – from Circe/Mud Poems by Margaret Atwood
Kirke as The Goddess of Right Now
Kirke’s emerging themes over the past few decades expose her in a more positive light: that of a powerful witch making the most of her situation. She used her unique voice to work her magic. She is the goddess for right now because we are all Kirke after she left the island. We have the opportunity to use our powers honed in exile to bring about change in the world. She has returned to remind us all that it is within our power to do so.
Correspondences and More
Kirke is associated with many plants, including the aforementioned moly that’s maybe garlic or possibly mullein. Use mandrake to invoke her. Dittany of Crete is favored by Kirke. Other botanicals include nightshade and traditional witch herbs, including mugwort. She is associated with bronze, gold and onyx.
Correspondences and More
While researching this article, I tried to find popular magical references and methods for working with Kirke. There really isn’t much. If you know of a source I’ve missed, please get in touch. Within the context of modern paganism, she has been at the fringes. For example, she isn’t even mentioned in Llewellyn’s Book of Correspondences. Fortunately, individual practitioners have been connecting with her. Now that she has gained cultural attention with Miller’s novel, she is sure to rise in popularity. Below are tables I’ve pieced together with her themes, correspondences, epithets and companions for you to use in your own witchery. I’d love to hear about how you understandand work with Kirke.
Witchery with Kirke
The original witch’s true self was only fully revealed after triumph over trauma. The witch phase is a time of personal growth when we successfully defeat our wounds and reclaim our innate wildness. Some people don’t achieve this, so their years are spent in stagnation. Or worse, they know the witch is inside of them, but she never gets to stand in her power. It can be difficult, but remember “where there’s a witch, there’s a way.” Sovereignty requires curiosity, risk-taking and openness (tempered with the boundaries of the warrior). Kirke’s true self witchery is unbeatable, call upon her assistance in revealing yours. Hopefully you won’t turn into a pig. – from Five Sovereign Goddesses: Artemis, Medea, Persephone, Kirke & Hekate (including a ritual)
I love to connect with Kirke while wild foraging and when I need to work some serious magic, especially for getting to the truth. A simple technique is to do some phylactery, wearing a charm made of plants associated with her. Call upon Kirke when you need to speak your truth. Also strongly associated with wild animals as well as domestic ones, she can be involved in animal spirit work. In this regard, she controls the beasts so go into such a ritual/journey with this mindset. Rule over those lions and wolves.
* Don’t rant about how I am calling all men pigs. It’s Kirke’s story. Not everything is about you.
You need to listen to Circe by Wendy Rule.
Homer’s The Odyssey
The alternative story with Hekate as her mother can be found in Disodorus, Siculus IV 1-18, translation by C. H. Oldfather (1935). Part of Harvard’s Loeb Series of Classics.
There’s a brand new translation of The Odyssey by a woman:
Bruce Louden (2011). Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East
Daniel Ogden (2002). Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Source Book.
Judith Yarnall (1994). Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress
Circe by Madeline Miller: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35959740-circe
Circe is also a character in the popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians young adult series.
Margaret Atwood’s Circe/Mud Poems can be found in this anthology available from Amazon.
More about the Strait of Messina, Scylla and Charybdis: http://atlantipedia.ie/samples/tag/scylla-and-charybdis/
Watch Ulysses (Odysseus in Latin) starring Kirk Douglas and the stunning Silvana Malgano as both his wife (Penelope) and Circe.
The pigs perspective: Austin Dobson (1875) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Littell%27s_Living_Age/Volume_127/Issue_1640/The_Prayer_of_the_Swine_to_Circe