Circe Summary & Study Guide

Madeline Miller
This Study Guide consists of approximately 79 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Circe.
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Circe Summary & Study Guide Description

Circe Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Circe by Madeline Miller.

The following version of this book was used to create your study guide: Miller, Madeline. Circe. Little, Brown, 2017.

This section includes a plot summary, as well as a summary of the literary history from which the author draws in her retelling of the Circe myth.


In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born; this is where Miller's novel begins. The daughter's name is Circe, and she is looked at as a strange child: she is not powerful, like her father, or beautiful, like her mother Perse. She is not like her siblings, the crafty Perses, the antagonistic Pasiphaë, and the cunning Aeëtes. No, Circe is odd looking and frail, more mortal in appearance than divine. After speaking with Prometheus and learning about the fate of mortal-kind, Circe meets and falls in love with a human sailor named Glaucos. Frightened by Glaucos' mortality, and by the precarity of his life, Circe provides the man with moly root — an herb which, legend says, sprouted as a result of the blood of Uranos, titan of the sky. Over night, Glaucos transforms into a god, and Circe realizes she does possess power: the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Glaucos quickly immerses himself in the social order of Helios' Halls, and sets out to marry a beautiful nymph named Scylla — which makes Circe extremely jealous. In spite, she feeds Scylla the same moly root, transforming the girl into a six headed, snake-like beast. Helios does not believe Circe when she admits to having tampered with Scylla's form, but when Aeëtes tells the man that his sons and daughters are Pharmaki — witches — Helios is all of a sudden unsure as to what he must do. After speaking with Zeus, who feels threatened by this new non-divine power, Circe is banished to a deserted island called Aiaia, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts, and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus. The bulk of the novel takes place on Aiaia, and can be divided into sections:

The first section, Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine, concern Circe's experimentation with pharmaka during her exile; alone on Aiaia, she spends her days harvesting roots and herbs, drying them, grinding them to a paste, and testing each meticulously in order to understand what sorts of spells they might craft. During this time, Circe becomes more comfortable in her own skin, and learns that she has a knack for transformative magics — a large theme throughout the novel. This section also presents readers with Circe's first romantic tryst: a sexual relationship with the messenger god, Hermes. Circe does not love Hermes, and Hermes does not love Circe; rather, each uses the other for stories and for information, making the relationship more of an exchange than anything else. At the end of Chapter Nine, a boat arrives on Aiaia requesting Circe's presence at Crete — the island where Circe's sister, Pasiphaë, lives.

The second section, Chapters Ten, Eleven, and Twelve, regard Circe's voyage to Crete. The main plot of this voyage concerns the Minotaur: an awful half-man, half-bull monster born by Pasiphaë, who lusts for attention and admiration. Circe helps her sister deliver the monster and, alongside Daedalus — a mortal man and engineer — successfully curbs the beast's hunger, imprisoning him deep beneath Crete. This section also concerns Circe's first sensual relationship: her affair with Daedalus, which is, unlike her relationship with Hermes, something like love. Both treat each other with mutual care and respect; both desire the best for the other, and go out of their way to ensure the other is happy. At the end of Chapter Twelve, Circe returns home to Aiaia, and hears, via Hermes, of Daedalus' fate: fed up with living on Crete, he fashioned a pair of wax wings with which he and his son, Icarus, used to escape the island. But Icarus, flying too close to the sun, singed the feathers of his device and plummeted into the sea, leaving Daedalus to die of grief in his wake. Circe is touched and intensely distraught over this loss, and of the precarity of mortal life more generally.

The third section, Chapters Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen, concern visitors to Aiaia. In Chapter Thirteen, Circe's niece Medea visits, desiring purgation from her crime: she and her lover, Jason, mutilated the body of Aeëtes' son and cast his limbs into the sea. After performing the ritual, Medea tells Circe of her life as Aeëtes daughter, and shows Circe how her brother's power has corrupted his moral compass. Medea also tells Circe that she plans on sailing to Iolcos, where Jason will be king, and they will be married. Circe warns Medea, telling the young witch that Jason's citizens — all mortals — will likely view Medea as a threat, and Medea becomes angered; after calling Circe lonely and desperate, she leaves the island, never to see her aunt again. In Chapter Fourteen, a number of sailors arrive on Aiaia requesting aid. Circe obliges, feeding the men and providing them drink, but when one group of sailors becomes increasingly aggressive — asking her where her husband is, and whether she lives alone — she spikes their wine with an herb, for precaution's sake. Hoping she can get away with not using magic, these hopes are dashed when a sailor rapes her, and in defence Circe turns the crew into pigs via a spell; the scene is significant because it provides context to Circe's characterization in Homer's Odyssey, which is perhaps the most famous text concerning the witch. In Chapter Fifteen, Circe is visited by Odysseus, who eludes her spell and charms her with his stories and his intelligence. As a result, Circe transforms his men back into humans, and offers to spend more time with the hero who would go down in history as the wisest of the Greeks.

The fourth section, Chapter Sixteen, Seventeen, and Eighteen, concern Circe's most famous liaison: her relationship with Odysseus, which lasted the period of one year. Chapter Sixteen focuses on the time they spend together on Aiaia, dining, performing domestic tasks, sleeping together, telling stories. Some such stories include Odysseus' triumph at Troy, as well as his successes on the battlefield. But only Odysseus tells stories; Circe is never asked about her life. Toward the end of the year, Aiaia is visited by the god Apollo, who provides Odysseus with a prophecy concerning his nostos or homecoming; as such, he leaves the island to perform his task, which is narrated by Circe in Chapter Seventeen. Odysseus briefly returns to Aiaia to gather his belongings and thank the witch for her generosity, and as he leaves for the final time, it is revealed that Circe is pregnant with his son, who is born by caesarian section during Chapter Eighteen. The son's name is Telegonus, and his youth is narrated within the remainder of the section. Circe notes that from the moment he was born, it seemed as though fate were trying to cut short his life; pots would fall from high shelves when he stood near them, scorpions would crown from under cracks while he dozed. Eventually Circe realized that these threats were created by a god, and after threatening this figure the witch is confronted by Athena, who demands Telegonus' life. Refusing the goddess of wisdom, the chapter ends with Circe recognizing that to keep her son alive, she must create a spell so powerful that not even the gods can challenge it.

The fifth section, Chapters Nineteen, Twenty, and Twenty One, concern this same spell, as well as events from the beginning of the Telegony — a series of narratives surrounding the accidental murder of Odysseus by his son, Telegonus. In Chapter Nineteen, Circe crafts a spell that cloaks Aiaia in a mist suffused with the energy of the underworld; because Athena is not a messenger goddess she cannot cross through, and thus is Telegonus made safe from the tampering of the gods. The remainder of the chapter concerns Telegonus' growth from infant to man, and the narrative climax comes when Aiaia is visited by a group of sailors whose ability to travel and see the world greatly allures Circe's son. In Chapter Twenty, Telegonus makes a boat and asks his mother if he might sail to Ithaca to meet his father, Odysseus. After much deliberation, Circe assents, but on one condition: she can magically enchant his vessel to protect it from Athena, and can provide Telegonus with a weapon with which to protect himself if need be. This weapon is crafted with Trygon's tail: a long poisonous barb belonging to one of the oldest and most deadly sea titans in the world. Accepting Circe's conditions, Telegonus departs, leaving his mother alone on Aiaia for the first time in years. In Chapter Twenty One, Telegonus returns to Aiaia with Penelope and Telemachus — Odysseus' wife and son — because his father has died by accidentally touching Telegonus' spear. Circe is distraught, but acts a good host for her guests, providing them with food and a place to sleep during this trying time.

The sixth section, Chapters Twenty Two, Twenty Three, and Twenty Four, concern the middle section of the Telegony, and revolve around Circe's budding relationship with Penelope and Telemachus during their stay on Aiaia. In Chapter Twenty Two, Circe begins to spend time with Telemachus, revealing in her some romantic feelings; Circe also, through conversation with Penelope, realizes why the two have fled to Aiaia: because Athena has expressed the desire to use Telemachus as a vessel through which to colonize a distant land, and Penelope wants her son to remain safe. In Chapter Twenty Three, the relationships fostered in Chapter Twenty Two are furthered as the period of two weeks pass; these weeks end when Hermes arrives and requests, on behalf of Athena, an audience with Telemachus. Chapter Twenty Four narrates this audience. It is revealed that Athena wants Telemachus to sail east to colonize a newly fertile land. Telemachus rejects the offer but Telegonus accepts, and he sets sail at the end of this section.

The seventh section, Chapters Twenty Five, Twenty Six, and Twenty Seven, wrap up the Telegony. In Chapter Twenty Five, Circe requests an audience with her father, and bargains for her freedom; as a result, she leaves Aiaia with Telemachus in tow in order to complete two errands. The first errand sees the two sail to Scylla's cove, where Circe feeds Scylla a salve that turns her to stone. This allows Circe to finally be free of the guilt she has felt over the past centuries for turning the nymph into a ravenous monster. The second errand sees the two sail towards Helios' halls; stopping on an island just outside, where Circe once met Glaucos, she harvests as much moly as she can find. The two then sail back to Aiaia to speak with Penelope, which takes place in Chapter Twenty Six. And in Chapter Twenty Seven, after making a potion of pure moly root, Circe drinks with the hope of becoming mortal so she may marry and live with Telemachus until the end of her days. Though the novel does not confirm Circe's transformation, it is implied that she succeeds.

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