Circe the Enchantress
A transformative column about folklore and tabletop RPGs
There is no witch or sorceress more famous in Greek mythology than Circe. Best known for transforming Odysseus’ crew into swine in the Odyssey, Circe has been depicted in a myriad of ways throughout history—powerful, charismatic, beautiful, dangerous, commanding, deceitful, seducer, outcast, goddess, witch, and more.
Circe is a figure who can just as easily help as hinder, which makes her the perfect character to use in your role-playing game.
A Quick Synopsis
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a beautiful sorceress who lives on the secluded island of Aeaea. An enchantress, she has the power to change humans into animals with the use of drugs and incantations. From her actions, we can intuit she does not like visitors, as she transforms Odysseus’ crew into pigs when they land on her island1. But she’s not just a villain either; after Odysseus bests her (with help from the gods), she shares both practical and esoteric knowledge with the hero that is vital in returning him home.
A Divine Sorceress
Always remember that Circe is not merely a sorceress; she’s also a divine being in her own right. Typically she is described as the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse (which makes her the aunt of Greek myth’s other most famous sorceress, Medea). She has the temperament of a god too, quick to act against those who anger or commit a perceived wrong against her. But that doesn’t mean she cannot be reasoned with—just that any mortal foolish enough to try must be especially careful.
Circe might be attended by nymphs, if she doesn’t live alone. She is certainly accompanied by her menagerie of animals, most famously lions, swine, and wolves. These creatures are drugged and docile, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine Circe summoning them to defend herself.
Oaths & Surrender
Circe is a shrewd negotiator and liar, but also practical. She will never fight to the death and will surrender when she knows she’s lost. That doesn’t mean she won’t turn on her enemies as soon as she has the upper hand, however, driving a dagger into the back of those of someone who has agreed to spare her. Hermes warns Odysseus to have her swear an oath while he has her at swordpoint; if made to higher powers, she is bound to obey it.
Madeline Miller’s Circe is positioned as misunderstood and struggling with her position between mortals and the divine, not as unfeeling as her more divine brethren. Her Circe transforms others into animals in (mostly) self-defence. Perhaps those looking for a less antagonistic take on the character can find inspiration there.
Part of Circe’s power as a sorceress is her mastery of herbs and potions. Most famously, she brews a potion to make Odysseus’ crew susceptible to her transformative magic—it’s only after she drugs them that she uses her wand to transform them into swine. This fits with her other famous transformation, depicted in the Waterhouse painting used above. As Ovid recounts, in a fit of rage at being rejected by the man she loved for another, Circe poisoned the bath of the nymph Scylla and transformed her into a sea monster2.
From a role-playing perspective, you can play up this knowledge of potions. Perhaps Circe is your setting’s equivalent of a master alchemist and could be beseeched by your party when they need to know a unique recipe or the location of a plot-critical herb. There’s a lot of potential for tension if they need such an item to help defeat a monster Circe herself might have created!
To protect against Circe’s potions, Hermes gives Odysseus a herb called Moly: "The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; […] Dangerous for a mortal man to pluck from the soil, but not for the deathless gods." The scholar Ptolemaeus elaborates on its origins, saying it grew from the blood of a slain giant3.
Those looking to confront Circe would do well to arm themselves with this herb ahead of time. The fact that Moly sounds similar to Molly is a coincidence, but if you wanted to play up the idea that Circe’s poison is blocked by the presence of psychoactive drugs in one’s system, more power to you.
Using Circe in Your Game
As a powerful sorceress and divine figure, Circe fits well in any fantasy setting. She can be renamed and used as inspiration, or transplanted from the world of Greek myth entirely as is.
Circe isn’t thrilled that people keep docking their boats or washing up on her island, but she’s always welcoming of new pets.
A Dreadful Foe
In any setting, Circe presents a grave threat to any party she comes into opposition with. Perhaps the PCs need to rescue someone from her menagerie or retrieve a magic item in her possession. Alternatively, Circe can be making moves in the mortal world that need to be stopped.
In an urban fantasy game, she could be an immortal crime lord who polymorphs her enemies, or a witch threatening mortals falling through a crack in reality into her pocket dimension. In a Cthulhu-esque plot, perhaps she’s gathering victims for a ritual to summon a ‘divine’ parent into this world. Or in a cyberpunk setting, she could be a hacker who uses a virus to trap the minds of her victims in VR—until someone pays the ransom to free them, of course.
A Dangerous Ally
In the Odyssey, Circe tells Odysseus how to reach the underworld and the ritual he must perform to communicate with the dead. Later, she tells him the two paths he might take to return home. Given her incredible knowledge of the esoteric and supernatural, as well as potions and herbs, Circe can be an invaluable source of advice for a party. She is not one to part with such information freely, however, and will require a gift or favour rivalling the importance of the information she can provide. The party also needs to make sure they get through the first negotiation without being turned into animals (Circe, always the gracious host, will of course be providing food and drinks).
Armor Class: 1 
Hit Dice: 10** (45 hp)
Attacks: 1 x dagger (1d4 + poison) or 1 x spell
THAC0: 14 [+5]
Move: 120’ (40’)
Save As: Magic-User 12
Morale: 8 (surrenders at 15 or less hp)
▶ Arcane Spells: Cast spells as a 12th level magic-user.
▶ Divine Immunity: Only harmed by silver weapons or magic. Unharmed by any form of poison. Immune to mind-affecting spells and magic causing polymorph, insanity, or death.
▶ Poison: Causes a deep sleep for 1d3 turns and all saves versus spells and wands to automatically fail (save versus poison with a –2 penalty).
▶ Wand of Pharmakon: Spells casts that target victims of her poison do not consume spell slots.
▶ Summon: Can summon 1–3 lions and 2–6 wolves from the surrounding area. These arrive in 1d4 rounds.
Circe’s poison is typically disguised in food and drink. This allows for a greater dose than that coating her dagger, which might inflict an even greater penalty. Consuming the herb Moly grants immunity to the poison and a +2 bonus to all saving throws against magic for the next hour.
And that’s it for Circe! Next week we’ll pivot from monsters and people to delve into a specific type of location you can use in your game.
Thanks for reading and special thanks to R.A. Harvey for being my Classics consultant!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever used a figure like Circe from mythology in a game before? Not a major god like Zeus or monster like the Hydra but a specific person?
~ A.C. Luke
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See Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey.
See Book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Rahner, Hugo. 1971. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. Biblo & Tannen Publishers: New York.