Pt. 8–Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

Variations on a Hellenic Magical Theme: Circe and Chiron


To Isaac Bonewits who left us on the morning of this posting (August 12, 2010). Isaac was in many ways like Chiron, a good mentor, a wise shamanic priest, a musician and composer, a liturgist, respected by his community, very knowledgeable, and an excellent teacher in a wide range of fields. Also like Chiron, Isaac was both a creature of and a lover of Nature–simultaneously a blend: a bit of a God and also quite an animal.

Introduction to Part 8

Welcome to Part 8 of Magic 299 and my ongoing examination of the philosophical, religious, and historical underpinnings of two related concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Magic(k)al and New Age communities. Again, these include the concept of “reality formation” (“We create our own realities”), and “responsibility assumption” (“we are 100% responsible for what happens in our lives”). I am digging into the the foundational ideas related to these concepts in the hopes that a deeper exploration might be of service as it will allow for a critical illumination of the modern views by examining their historical, spiritual and philosophical contexts and significance.

In Part 7 I mentioned that because a discussion of the history and contexts of the axioms of reality formation and responsibility assumption can’t really be seen as thorough without also considering at least some of the roots of magical and hermetic thoughts and practices, I was taking us back from the 17th Century CE where we’d left off in Part 6, to consider magic and religion around the Archaic and Classical Hellenic periods.

I closed Part 7 with a brief mention of the various indications I’ve seen of a distinction between types of Hellenic magical practices. These distinctions are similar to such dualistic divisions as: “Black vs. White Magic”,”sorcerers vs magi”, “‘power over’ vs. ‘power with’ magical approaches”, or “curanderas (healers) vs. brujas (witches)”. An expansion upon this observation is one aspect of this 8th entry in this Magic 299 series.

Dualistic Distinctions & Emic vs. Etic Perspectives

An understanding of these sorts of distinctions sheds light upon underlying attitudes that have a direct bearing upon the overarching axiomatic beliefs that are the topic of these multiple blog posts. How we (or Classical Hellenes) view historical or modern magical practices and any of their variations, dualistic or otherwise, is likely to be directly related to assumptions we and others might make about reality formation or responsibility assumption.

I feel it’s important to clarify that exploring distinctions between types of Hellenic magical practices by examining the academic and religious literature used to describe them is both complicated and muddy. The topic is the source of much disagreement between classicists, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of magic and religion. The complications and the disagreements are well beyond the scope of this discussion. The tendency to discredit or invalidate the practitioners of modern magical traditions and Pagan religions is also a factor in this topic. There is the problematic tendency to invalidate these particular religions by describing their understandings as a psychological problem, i.e. “magical thinking”. There is also the tendency to marginalize more recent religions which may have embraced reconstructive practices as a tool for internal justification or for their development of a more systematized religious thea/theology. This marginalization is often simply done by describing these more recent religious entities as “artificial religions”.

Examinations of ancient Hellenic magical distinctions are still further complicated by questions of objectivity raised by those who are not practitioners from modern magical subcultures. These are the disputes which can arise from conclusions drawn from an “emic” or internal perspective rather than from some form of “etic” perspective drawn from either participant observation or external viewpoints. As in any art, the perspective changes with distance. Such perspectives are even further clouded by historical and cultural gender distinctions between female and male magical practitioners and adepts. When such distinctions are filtered through the tendency in Middle Eastern monotheistic thinking and early Christian writing to demonize female practitioners of magic (“suffer ye not a witch to live”) while at the same time tolerating or even lauding the male practitioners (the three Magi and of course, Jesus himself); a look at what we think we know about Hellenic magic requires careful scrutiny. I will provide some links in a later post for further exploration for those who wish to undertake a more in-depth examination than I can offer in this blog.

I also note that my observations, analysis, and conclusions are not drawn from a purely “emic” or “etic” perspective but that I lean significantly towards the former while I have interests in employing techniques of the latter. The gift a Pagan priest or priestess can bring to such work is that of direct experience in the performatives of magical rites and the honed ability to intuitively understand and perceive magical semiotic clues that an academic scholar might not catch; the gift academia bestows is that of seeking a rigorous, non-credulous, objective viewpoint that can be supported by the data uncovered. Finding the balance between these is an interesting philosophical yoga.

Linguistic Distinctions and Insights

Finally, I think it’s important to point out that prior to the use of the Greek word μαγικός (magikos) as discussed in part 7, there were other words in use both as titular or occupational categories, and these were used to describe specific magical practices. I’ll discuss this a bit further when we get to looking at various contemporary examples, but for the time being, I’ll simply note that there were words in use prior to around the 6th Century BCE when there was an increase in Greek borrowing (and fanciful embellishment) of ideas about the role of the magus, magi or magian. These flights of fancy and syncretism were drawn from Greek extrapolations of what they believed they understood about Iranian, Babylonian, and Chaldean religious and magical practices. Examples of the older pre-6th Century BCE words (and the associated ideas) include γόης (goēs), an archaic Greek word for a practitioner of magic. This word is drawn in turn from the even older góos which also can refer to a musician, or to music, or song, and which often particularly refers to songs of lamentation and poetry used in connection with death and dying, as well as work with associated secret rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. To help with an understanding of the association, it might help to think of modern ideas about the meaning of the English word “enchantment” and to consider the linguistic link between an enchanter and the word “chant”, drawn from the French”chanter”: to sing.

Magic, Music & Necromancy

There are multiple examples from all over the world (and many time periods) of the connection between magic and religion and sacred music, chanting, mantras, sing-song incantations and prayers, etc. The category for the sacred role of a singer of songs of lament or worship, as well as sung prayers and other requests for intercession in a magical Greek context, could clearly fall under the word góos as well as the later goēs which can also refer to sounds of ululation similar to modern Middle Eastern cries of mourning uttered at funeral rites.

There are necromantic influences at work and connections between Hellenic magical practices and myths (for example the descents of Heracles (a student of Chiron) and Orpheus into the realm of Hades. That Hecate and Hermes, two Greek divinities with strong associations to magic, are also both deities who are able to come and go in the Underworld is not coincidental.

Hellenic Magic in the Old Tales


The obvious and most useful way to look at Hellenic ideas about magic is to explore how magic is described in the existing ancient Greek stories and literature that are still available to us.These contemporary examples also shed light upon the distinctions between “types” of magical practitioners.

One of the oldest written examples of magical practice comes from Homer’s Odyssey which documents the encounter of Odysseus and Κίρκη (Kírkē), or Circe as she has come to be known. Kírkē is Greek for “falcon” and thus, while many of us are most familiar with her ability to transform men into beasts, it’s important to realize that she herself (like many of her divine relatives and counterparts) is directly associated with a particular animal.  Her name is itself onomatopoeic in the sense that it sounds something like the call of a falcon. We have already seen that there is a connection between sound and magic in Hellenic practice.

Circe is usually described as some variation on a sorceress or enchantress who lives surrounded with a variety of beasts and women on the island of Aeaea (itself a magical sort of word in that it is a palindrome).

While most of what we know of Circe comes from the Odyssey, Circe also makes an appearance in Ἀργοναυτικά (The Argonautika) which was written in the 3rd Century BCE by Apollonius Rhodius (Apollonius of Rhodes). This Hellenistic epic poem is a re-telling of the mythic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to find the Land of Colchis and to recover the Golden Fleece.

We are well advised to keep in mind that how such documents are translated and then described often imposes external and more recent ideas and assumptions (particularly monotheistic and competing religious thought) about magic and magical practice. These assumptions lead to descriptions of Circe “muttering incantations” for example, when an alternative, less loaded description might be “singing spells”, “chanting”, or even “speaking poetry”.

Depending upon who is doing the describing and translating (and when), Circe is variously described as a witch, a sorceress, a goddess or demi-goddess of magic, a nymph, and an enchantress. Her parentage is also differently described depending upon who is doing the telling, but she is usually seen as a descendant of the Titans, specifically a child of Helios (the Titan personification of the sun) and Perse, an Oceanid (aquatic goddess or nymph). Alternatively, Circe is described as a daughter of the Titan Goddess of magic, Hecate. It is highly likely that like Athena and the Egyptian sky Goddess Nuit, there are connections between Circe and much older bird goddesses of the greater Mediterranean region and Neolithic Europe.

In addition to Circe’s chthonic associations with animals, and her earthy/watery/solar connections, Circe was most certainly  an herbal adept. She is described as a practitioner of pharmakeia, which is often translated (primarily in versions of the Bible, which of course contains a religious compilation of documents from a religion in direct competition with Hellenic/Hellenistic religions) as “sorceress” or “poisoner”. A better indication of what the word Pharmakeia actually meant is found when we consider the related word pharmakon which is the source of our modern words pharmacy and pharmaceutical. I believe we are running into the classic (pardon the pun) revisionist interpretation of a powerful female herbalist, healer, witch or medicine woman as an evil sorceress. The related ancient Greek word pharmakon has multiple meanings which include an “herb” or “drug” (in Homer the distinction between whether this is a healing or poisonous substance is made by the use of an adjective), a medicine or healing remedy, a potion or philter (substance altered by some form of enchantment, spell, or charm), a poison, and sometimes a type of concoction used in tinting as a paint or dye. All of these definitions of pharmakon are clearly related in that they require a knowledge of the use of plants and similar substances (whether for good or evil is secondary to this distinction).

In essence (oops, another pun), pharmakeia involves knowledge of the use of plants in a variety of ways. A practitioner of pharmakeia then, might be better understood as an “herbal mage”.

Circe’s home on Aeaea is described as a palace surrounded by a dense wood, additionally surrounded by and filled with all sorts of animals including bears, wolves and lions, as well as the pigs with which many of us may be more familiar. One interesting aspect of this is that whether the animals were types that were normally considered to be domesticated or wild, they were all described as behaving in the manner of pets, acting friendly and docile, wagging their tails, and fawning upon newcomers.These animals were, at least in some cases, thought to be the drugged and/or transformed targets of Circe’s magical will.

As a child of the Titans, Circe clearly seems to have magical powers beyond that of a mere mortal pharmakeia. In addition to her ability to transform Odysseus’ men into swine, she is prescient, and Homer ties her to a later necromantic episode where Odysseus follows instructions for a spell given to him by Circe which allows him to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  In the Odyssey, we see that Circe must have been extraordinarily skilled in the use of herbs, potions and enchantments. Circe either actually transformed those who insulted her into pigs, through the use of her magical potions, or the drugs she administered made people think that they had been transformed.

In the case of Odysseus’ crew, when they come upon her palace while looking for provisions for the ship, Circe invites them to a meal in which she serves a cheese and grain pottage flavored with honey and wine and containing one of her magical potions. It is not clear from the story what would have happened if her guests had shown restraint rather than stuffing themselves on the meal “like pigs”, but with the exception of one, they did gorge themselves on the feast and were then turned into the beasts Circe felt they most resembled. Circe manages these transformations through some combination of the use of a pharmakon and a magical stick, quite possibly the first description of the use of a magic wand.

The crew member who had refrained from the repast bears the tale of his companions’ fate to Odysseus who had remained at his ship, and he then sets out to effect a rescue. An important aspect of the ensuing encounter between Circe and Odysseus is that while she transforms his crew into pigs, she is unable to transform Odysseus himself, due to the intervention of the God Hermes, who Odysseus has encountered along the way. Hermes provides Odysseus with a magical herb called moly which prevents the transformation. Hermes also instructs Odysseus to threaten Circe with attack after she attempts to transform him. Finally, Hermes warns that Circe (who was reputed to be very beautiful) would then attempt to seduce Odysseus and that he would be wise to refrain from her sexual wiles, but that if he does not refrain and wishes to retain his manhood he will have to get Circe to vow not to harm him prior to making love with her. Odysseus subsequently remains with Circe for over a year as her lover and according to Hesiod’s Theogony he sires three sons with her.

Another factor (alluded to above) that is important when considering Circe is that she is not depicted in the same way in all ancient sources in which she appears. In some tales she herself appears to not only be affected by, but also pays a price for her magical work. In the Argonautika, for example she is described as suffering from nightmares with visions of her palace walls drenched in blood, but her role in the tale, while still indicative of her magical and herbal abilities is not so much as a sorceress annoyed by swinish sailors but more as a priestess conducting rites of the Gods for visiting supplicants (the Argonauts) seeking purification for a murder which has offended the Gods. The Argonauts are sent to Circe specifically to lift the equivalent of a curse that will prevent them all from achieving their goal. Circe’s practices then, indicate her familiarity with a variety of magical and religious rites and a constant in all the tales is that there are all manner of strange beasts about.
Circe is certainly not the only Hellenic divine or magical figure to transform a hubristic or rude transgressor into an animal, the myths are rife with such tales which serve as the magical “Miss Manners” advice for their time. Circe’s pottage is also not the only case where choosing to eat a particular food results in dramatic consequences. Persephone’s eating of pomegranate seeds in the underworld is an example (and Hermes as a necromantic God of Magic is involved in this tale also). The object lessons are usually extremely clear.
What is significant for us in our desire to understand early magic and how it might provide the grounding for later magical thought (including reality formation) is that in Homer’s description we find that an early pre-Classical example of Greek literature describes three important elements of later Hellenistic magical systems: we find the use of a magic wand, a magical potion, and the development of a relationship with a God who reveals an occult magical prophylactic remedy. We also, therefore can form the related conclusion that for the ancient Hellenes it was believed that not only is it possible to effect events through the use of our wills, but that there are specific procedures and tools for doing so, and that there is a divine and mythical connection that can aid in intentional causality.

By the time of Ovid we see in his Metamorphoses that Circe is capable through ritual language and the use of pharmakeia to call forth storms and darkness, summon Titanic powers, and through her necromantic abilities and songs bring forth earthquakes, make the woods move, etc. Her direct magical powers in all the tales that mention her reveal strong chthonic ties, and there is definitely a sense that these powers over the earth are in the wilder, lawless, and more dangerous aspects of the natural world.

We have already touched upon the homogeneity (within regional variation) of Hellenic ideas about magical and religious ability and possibility–that there was a predictable foundation of shared perceptions about what both the Gods and mortal magical practitioners might magically achieve within the all powerful edicts of Fate as realized in the natural world. Included in this larger structural homogeneity, as I’ve also mentioned, there is a dualistic association within the natural world as to intent within possible magical spheres of operation. In other words, one might almost ask of an ancient Hellenic mage, quoting Glinda, the Good Witch of the South: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” For the Hellenes, this distinction could be described as either indicative of the wilder, more dangerous, bestial, unrestrained, and outlaw qualities of Nature, or the more beneficial, bounteous, graceful expressions of the natural world. This dichotomy is sometimes described as Apollonian and Dionysian.


Descriptions of Circe blur these distinctions to some extent, but if we turn to the magical activities of Chiron we find that while most centaurs were depicted as behaving in the former, far more unpredictable and wild magical realm, Chiron was clearly an expression of the latter graceful, restrained and dignified magical path. He was, as we will see, the foster son of Apollo.

Like Circe, in Hellenic myth Chiron remained remote, isolated from access by most Greeks. The location of his isolation was a cave on Mount Pelion, a lovely forested mountain in  central Greece rising above the sea in the area of ancient Thessaly .

Also like Circe, Chiron was a chthonic semi-divine immortal. Chiron was the first centaur, a hybrid, blended creature, half horse and half God. Unlike the later tribe of Centaurs he cared for, Chiron had different parentage, he was the son of the Titan Chronos and Philyra, and the grandson of the protogenos of the sky Uranus and the Earth mother Gaia. Rejected at birth for his bestial appearance, he was fostered by the divine lunar and solar twins Artemis and Apollo and developed a magical mastery of diverse fields including a vast knowledge of hunting, herbal knowledge and medicine, gymnastics, music and prophecy. The ancient Greeks reverenced him in his role as an unparalleled teacher, guide and mentor to some of their greatest heroes, demi-gods, and Gods including Jason, Heracles, Actaeon, Achilles, Castor and Pollux, Aristaeus, Peleu, Orpheus, and Asclepius. Usually brought to him in their youth or infancy, Chiron fostered and trained each of them, preparing each in turn for the heroic, healing, or magical roles they were destined to play. He prepared Achilles for the Trojan war, Heracles for his trials, and Jason for his quest for the Golden Fleece.

While each pupil’s instruction clearly differed, there was a similar magical significance in each of their relationships with Chiron. Compared with the mortal and human population from which each of these divine or semi-divine students were drawn, each was seen as fated to become a hero and their nascent magical abilities were nurtured carefully by their wise and gentle tutor.

A really fascinating discussion of Chiron byHelen Pilinovsky looks at him in relationship to anthropological ideas about Greek magic and can be found here.

Pilinovsky discusses how Chiron’s more beneficial sort of magic:

“…can be seen in the fact that he taught various chosen human heroes the potential beneficial qualities of the natural world — the arts of astrology, botany, healing, hunting, martial arts, and the uses of their own innate, natural talents, gifted by the gods through either lineage or patronage. It is interesting to note that, as those supranatural gifts had to be bestowed by the gods, so too was it necessary to obtain a formal introduction in order to be granted the benefit of his wisdom. His pupils were always brought to him, either by the gods or by previously favored mortals who had already made his acquaintance through their own patrons…Chiron alone was seen to bridge the gap between nature and civilization, two-fold as it were, acting as a living conduit for those properties of the natural world which might benefit civilization by teaching others to utilize them. The knowledge that was instinctual to him was passed along, once removed, to his pupils, and through them, to the rest of the world.”

Chiron ensured that in addition to riding, shooting, music, dance, and gymnastics, each of his students were taught to be honest and honorable–to be of general good conduct. All his charges were educated in the arts of herbal use and the mixing of potions, in the singing of incantations, songs of healing, and prophesy. At the same time, to each student he passed along a different branch of knowledge, and he tailored each pupil’s educations appropriately.

It was Chiron who first placed Hermes’ lyre into the hands of Orpheus, who grew up to be chief among poets and musicians and was reputed to have made the very rocks melt and the trees cry.  He taught celestial navigation to the great Argonaut, Jason, while Ascelpius was taught to master the herbal and healing arts for his role as the eventual god of healing. Aristaeus was taught to master astrology and prophecy, and Achilles, Actaeon and Heracles were prepared for the hunt, for strength and for war. In the course of Heracles’ education, Chiron was injured by a poisoned arrow which he’d taught Heracles to prepare by dipping in the blood of a hydra.

Chiron’s wound (whether to his foot or knee depending upon the source) was terribly painful, and Chiron is an early representative of an important magical archetype, that of the wounded sacred healer. Despite his abilities, Chiron was unable to cure himself, but was also, as he was an immortal, unable to die through natural means. This wound that will not heal combined with his immortality, meant that he would be forced to suffer forever, with no end to his agony.

Eventually, Chiron was granted the ability to die by Zeus, but in addition to the relief of unrelenting pain, even his death served the greater good of knowledge because he took upon himself the tortures of Prometheus who’d given fire to mankind and in this way Prometheus was thus freed of his own endless torture and punishment.

An important insight can be found in Pilinovsky’s discussion of the relationship between Heracles, Chiron and Prometheus. She notes that Chiron can be:

“…seen to represent the bridge between man and the knowledge to be found in nature — ironically enough, in Greek myth, it is this half-human creature who was always represented as being well-kempt and dignified, who throughout Greek myth was seen as being the epitome of gentility and knowledge… Prometheus, the creator of man who tried to free him from the tyranny of the gods, first mitigating sacrificial requirements by tricking Zeus into accepting less than his due, and then by giving men fire and allowing them to gain the knowledge necessary for true civilization. Prometheus can be seen as the symbol of future knowledge, of the totality of human accomplishment. Chiron’s death removed the need for an intermediary, directly linking the symbol of man’s wildness, and the symbol of potential knowledge. From this point onward, it seems, man would be expected to learn about the world surrounding him using the tools which he had been given, not least among them his wits. Even in death, Chiron continued to be a symbol of knowledge — and the sacrifices that it is worth.”

For our purposes, in looking at the Hellenic magical roots of reality formation and responsibility assumption, we can see that Chiron is representative of a naturalistic, chthonic and shamanistic magic; Chiron is a symbol of heroic initiation and the mythical nature of healing, wisdom, and ritual education and knowledge. We also see that early on there was a fatalistic irony and limitations to even great practitioners of magic–the healer cannot heal himself of a wound that in one sense he set in motion for himself. Later questions about personal responsibility for reality formation can be seen in this. Did Chiron create the reality of his wound by teaching Heracles the magical art of dipping an arrow in the hydra’s blood? Or is Chiron just as subject as all the Gods and the human race to a deterministic greater fate or to some other operating principle such as chaos?

In Part 9 we’ll continue our look into foundational Hellenic magical themes and the personification of types of Hellenic magic.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *