The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Circe by Madeline Miller are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Circe by Madeline Miller.
Circe is born a God, the daughter of a Titan and a water nymph. However, she lacks the powers of her siblings and is less beautiful. They treat her unkindly, except for Aeëtes, but he is granted a kingdom and leaves.
Circe falls in love with Glaucos, a mortal fisherman. In hopes of making Glaucos immortal, Circe learns about illicit Pharmaka, herbs endowed with power that only grow where Gods have fallen. She transforms Glaucos into a Sea-God, but he soon becomes enamored with the beautiful but malicious Scylla. Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster.
Circe is exiled to the empty island of Aiaia for her use of witchcraft, and there she hones her knowledge of herbs and magic. One day, Daedalus, a famed mortal craftsman, arrives at Aiaia, requesting help for Pasiphaë, Circe's sister. In Knossos, Pasiphaë gives birth to a Minotaur. Circe uses magic to manage its hunger, and Daedalus builds it a labyrinthine cage. Daedalus is forced to help because they have his son, Icarus. Daedalus later tries to build wings to help his son escape Knossos, but Icarus flies too close to the sun and dies. Daedalus later dies from old age.
Next, Medea (Aeëtes's daughter) and Jason, arrive at Aiaia, asking to be cleansed. Medea has murdered her own brother and used magic to help Jason acquire a golden fleece. Circe warns Medea that Jason's feeling for Medea will wane now that she is no longer useful to him, and Medea angrily departs.
Later, Alke, the daughter of a lesser river lord, is sent to serve Circe, now known as the Witch of Aiaia, as a punishment. Soon, others adopt the idea and send their troublesome daughters there, too. One day, sailors show up. Circe offers them food, but the captain attacks her so turns them into pigs. Other sailors go to Aiaia when they hear of the island of Nymphs. At first Circe attempts to suss out if they are honest men, but Circe eventually assumes they are all dishonest and turns them all into pigs.
One day, Odysseus and his men arrive. He has an herb that prevents Circe from harming him. She finds him charming, sleeps with him and promises not to harm him. For a year, he stays as he mends his ship. Circe knows he is married, but she yearns for him to stay. Before he leaves, Circe sends him to a prophet and warns about the obstacles in his trip home (Scylla, etc.).
But Circe is pregnant and her mortal son, Telegonus, is soon born. Athena wants the child dead and offers her eternal blessings in exchange, but Circe refuses. Instead, Circe uses powerful magic to protect the island. Telegonus grows up, but longs to visit his father. Circe finally relents and helps him gather protections for the journey. She agrees to suffer eternal pain to acquire a deadly weapon, the tail of Trygon, a sea god. But Trygon ultimately doesn't extract the price and simply tells her to return it when she's done.
Telegonus leaves for Ithaca, but returns quickly because Odysseus is dead. Odysseus misunderstood his intentions and fought him instead, scratching himself on the Trygon's tail. Circe realizes that Athena wanted Telegonus dead to prevent this. Telegonus has also brought Telemachus (Odysseus’s other son) and Penelope (Odysseus’s wife) to the island. Penelope is worried Athena will claim Telemachus in Odysseus's absence and hopes for Circe's protection. Circe uses her magic to protect them, but Athena makes her demands. She wants Telemachus to leave and start an empire, but he has no desire for glory and power. However, Telegonus longs for adventure, and he accepts instead.
With Telegonus gone, Circe calls for her father, demanding that he talk to Zeus and release her from exile. She threatens to tell Zeus the Titans' secrets and start a war. Free to leave, Circe and Telemachus go to turn Scylla into stone, and Circe confides in Telemachus all her secrets. (Telemachus fills her in on what ended up happening with Medea — Jason married another. Medea kills the new wife and murders her children. A golden chariot whisks her home.) Penelope becomes an expert on herbs and becomes the Witch of Aiaia instead.
The book ends with Circe making a potion to bring forth her true self. She then has a vision of herself as a mortal, growing old with Telemachus. She drinks the potion.
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Note that these headers (The Beginning, Glaucos, Aiaia, etc.) are not in the book.
Chapters 1 – 3. Circe is the daughter of Helios (a Titan and Sun God) and Perse (Oceanid Naiad/Water Nymph). She is a god, but she is less beautiful and lacks the powers of her siblings, Perses, Pasiphaë, and Aeëtes. Perses and Pasiphaë are unkind to her. Aeëtes is relatively nicer and he finds a deserted shore where they play together, but he eventually leaves when Helios grants him a kingdom (Colchis). Pasiphaë is married off to Minos (demigod) of Knossos and Perses goes off to Persia.
Drama roils the gods when Prometheus (a Titan) is punished for giving mortals the gift of Fire. The other Titans are angry that Zeus is punishing him, they feel he is sending them a message. They are itching for war.
Chapter 4-5. Circe visits her and Aeëtes’s shore and finds Glaucos, a mortal and a fisherman, who is captivated by her. She falls in love with him. She pleads with Tethys (Titan of Fresh Water) to bless him so he can fish without worry. Circe’s desperation to make Glaucos immortal leads to her curiosity about Pharmaka — herbs with powers, grown where the blood of gods have fallen — though it is illicit to speak of them.
Through a makeshift potion, she transforms Glaucos into a sea-god. Others believe it is the work of the Fates, and Glaucos the God is welcomed and adored. He falls for the beautiful but malicious Scylla (nymph) and plans to marry her. Circe, heartbroken, turns to her herbs to transform Scylla into a sea monster, but it fails to win back Glaucos.
Chapters 6-8. After Circe admits her use of witchcraft, it’s soon clear all her siblings also possess these abilities, though only Circe is deemed to have acted improperly. Helios and Zeus decide she is to be exiled. Circe is left on an island (Aiaia) with a palace. Helios chooses an island that was once bathed in the blood of a Titan. She learns to use herbs, and hone her abilities in transformation and illusions. She summons a lion familar. Hermes comes to visit and they become lovers.
Knossos and Daedalus
Chapters 9-12. A ship carrying Daedalus, a famed mortal craftsman, appears. He tells her Pasiphaë requests her help. Circe agrees. On the way, Circe uses her magic so they can get past the straits where Scylla the monster resides. In Knossos, Pasiphaë gives birth to the Minotaur. Circe uses a spell to manage its hunger, but it still must feast on human flesh each harvest. Daedalus builds its labyrinthine cage. Daedalus is bound to Knossos because they have his son, Icarus. Circe meets Pasiphaë’s daughter Ariadne who is hopeful and kind.
Circe bonds with Daedalus, and when she leaves he gives her a gift of a magnificent loom. Circe learns to weave. Later she hears that Daedalus built wings to help him and his son escape Knossos, but Icarus flew too close to the son and died. Daedalus passes away from old age.
Hermes reports that Ariadne is dead, which upsets Circe. Ariadne had to flee after aiding Theseus in slaying the Minotaur. She was then killed by Artemis (Olympian Goddess) for unclear reasons.
Medea, Jason and the Nymphs
Chapters 13-14. The mortal daughter of Aeëtes (Medea) and Jason arrive at Aiaia to ask Circe (the Witch of Aiaia) to cleanse them. Medea murdered her own brother and used magic to help Jason acquire a golden fleece, which he needs in order to claim his place as the King of Iolcos. Medea describes how inhumane Aeëtes has become, killing mortals for sport. Circe warns Medea that Jason’s feeling for Medea will wane now that she has outlived her usefulness, like Glaucos’s did for her. Medea angrily departs. Aeëtes arrives shortly in pursuit but also departs angrily when he learns Circe has let her go.
Next, Alke, the daughter of a lesser river lord, has been sent to serve Circe for a year as punishment. Soon others latch on to the idea and send other daughters as punishment. Circe dislikes having them around. Circe and Hermes tire of each other, and her lion passes away. One day, sailors shows up. She generously feeds them. When they realize she is alone, the captain attacks her, and she turns them into pigs.
Chapters 15-17. When others hear of the island of nymphs, more sailors appear and she turns them as well, unless she believes them to be honest men, but eventually she simply knows that they are not.
A ship of men arrive and she turns them. Their captain Odsseus comes looking. Circe finds him disarming and witty. She realizes he has the herb Moly which prevents her from harming him, and that Hermes must have given it to him. For fun, she sleeps with him, and makes an oath not to harm him. After, they talk and she changes his men back.
He asks to stay for a month to mend their ship, which turns into a season, and then a year. Odysseus recounts the war (Trojan War) and their travels (Cyclops, etc.). He tells her about how he angered Athena. Circe grows closer to him. She knows he must eventually return to his wife and to Ithaca, but she yearns for him to stay.
Apollo appears briefly to deliver to her a prophesy about Odysseus — it is a vision of him in Ithaca, dashing her hopes. She also sees that he must visit Teiresias, a prophet in the house of the dead. Odysseus visits him. Circe tells him more about what faces on the journey home (Sirens, Scylla, etc.) and they bid farewell.
Chapters 18-20. Circe is pregnant. Weakened, she sends everyone away and casts a spell to prevent others from visiting. She has a son, Telegonus. She fears for him because he is mortal.
One night, Athena appears. She wants the child dead and even offers her eternal blessings in exchange. Circe refuses, and realizes that the Fates have forbidden Athena from directly killing him. Before Athena leaves she tells Circe she will regret it if she does not let the child die.
Circe brews a powerful potion to compel the island to protect Telegonus and keep Athena away. The boy grows up to be curious and idealistic. Hermes secretly helps him to builds a boat and he wishes to sail to Ithaca to visit his father. Circe is certain Athena will kill him en route and initially forbids it, but realizes it is futile and helps him to prepare and gather protections instead.
Circe pays a visit to Trygon, a sea god, and asks to fight him for his tail which has a deadly poison. He tells her he’ll give it to her if she will suffer its poison for the rest of her life. She agrees. He tells her she can have it and does not demand the price. She must return it to him when she is done. She uses this to form a weapon for Telegonus. Telegonus departs for Ithaca.
Telemachus and Penelope
Very quickly, Telegonus returns. Odysseus is dead. He tells Circe that Odysseus misunderstood his intentions and didn’t give him a chance to tell him who he was. Odysseus attacked him, grabbing his spear and scratching himself in the process. Circe realizes this is why Athena wanted Telegonus dead. Odysseus had angered her and she had wanted him to grovel, but he had always been as her favorite.
Telemachus (Odysseus’s other son) and Penelope (Odysseus’s wife) are with him. Circe is suspicious of their presence. Eventually Penelope tells Circe the truth — that she was worried Athena would come to claim her son (now that Odysseus is gone) and hoped Circe, a witch and god, could protect them here on Aiaia.
They are happy together for a while, but Hermes brings word that Athena beckons and demands that Circe remove her protective spells. She lies and says she needs three days, so Penelope and Telemachus have time to discuss. Athena inevitably appears, beckoning Telemachus to be whisked off to start an empire in the west. Telemachus, who has seen the how power and war effected his father, has no desire for glory and power and refuses. Athena turns to Telegonus, who is eager for adventure and accepts.
Chapters 25. With Telegonus gone, Circe calls for her father. She demands he talk to Zeus and release her from her exile. She threatens to tell Zeus the Titans’ secrets and start a war.
Free to leave, Circe and Telemachus travel to Scylla and Circe turns her into stone. The also go back to her deserted shoreline to harvest moly. Circe confides in Telemachus all her secrets (which she never did with Odysseus) about her past. (He also tells her what ended up happening with Medea — Jason married another. Medea kills the new wife and murders her children. A golden chariot whisks her home.)
They return to Aiaia, and Circe finds that Penelope has taken what she has taught her about herbs to delve more into witchcraft. She agrees to take up the mantle of the Witch of Aiaia. Circe uses the moly to make a potion to bring forth her true self. She has a vision of herself becoming mortal and living a life and growing old together with Telemachus. She drinks the potion.