The readings of Greek Mythology, notably Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, sums up Circe as a ‘’witch who turned men into pigs.’’ She is also famous as Odysseus’s lover. She briefly appears in the Minotaur story, when the pregnant Pasiphae (Circe’s sister) calls upon the exiled Circe to help with the birth of the monster, fathered (famously, might I add) by a bull. She comes to the rescue of Jason and Medea (Circe’s niece) by providing them shelter on her island, Aiaia and cleanses them of their crimes.
Circe, in short, is always a cameo role in someone else’s story. As vital as she is to all these stories, she is forever relegated to the lower leagues, just as she is in life. Although the daughter of Helios, the Titan God of Sun, Circe is dismissed as unattractive and debased as a minor immortal, as a ‘’Goddess who speaks in human tongues.’’
In Madeline Miller’s book, Circe is given the stage to tell her story in her own voice and she begins at the beginning.
She explains her unhappy childhood, her ill and indifferent treatment at the hands of her family – her parents, her grandparents, her sister, and her brothers. For the most part of her life, she finds herself wounded and alone. Everyone, even those who once showed some affection to her, distance themselves from her after a while.
Followed by such indignation, she finds her solace in sorcery, using the herb ‘pharmatka’ to wield magic on those around her. In a desperate attempt to salvage her relationship, she turns a mortal, Glaucos, into a God and when he turns his attentions towards a beautiful sea-nymph, Scylla, she turns her into a raging monster. For this, she is exiled to Aiaia, where she is all alone. But she hardly considers this a punishment, after all, she spent all her life alone among people. And so it is here on Aiaia where she comes into her own. Her exile brings out her true powers, and this is how she ultimately comes to be known as the ‘Goddess of Witchcraft’ for all eternity.
The novel details Circe’s brushes with love, loss, friendship, and motherhood. But this is not just Circe’s story – through her we are acquainted with many other Gods and Mortals alike – from Aetes, Pasiphae, Hermes and Athena to Daedalus, Odysseus and Icarus and hence, the epic scope of the novel.
Endurance and Empowerment are the thriving themes of this book. Circe’s true virtue is that of persistence against all odds. She is a woman who will not be silenced, whatever the cost.
Picked up from the pages of the ancient myths, Circe is all too resonating with the woman of today. “Humbling women seems to be a chief pastime of poets,” says Circe, describing (rightly) the plight of her sex. “As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Madeline Miller takes it upon herself to make Circe a likable character, despite her failings. And she succeeds. Well, only slightly. In her determination of this conclusion, she overplays the emotion of the narrative almost too excessively. But the retelling reigns in its reconciling measure; why, it is us who conceptualised the Gods and among us, it was always the men who held power, so they conceptualised the Gods in their image. Isn’t it amazing to finally get a female perspective too?
While she is divine, Circe also lets her humanity shine through. Though descended from the Gods, she has several human-like traits. Through her, the author plays upon the contrast of divinity and humanity and cleverly puts it in the centre of the narrative. Gods, both Olympians and Titans, have mostly been portrayed here as vain, petty, destructive, malicious, and supremely proud. They spend endless eternities by arranging trivial strifes and massive battles among mortals. The Gods play with their powers, while humans suffer the consequences. They take pleasure in human frailty while Circe feels the pain of the loss of human life.
The juxtaposition of these concepts – divinity and mortality – is reflected through Circe, who is neither too divine, nor really human and therefore, alienated everywhere, except on her island, surrounded by her tamed lions and wolves. She sees things differently from this vantage point.
Being in conflict with her divinity is what, perhaps, results in her life-changing decision in the end, which took me by surprise. I, however, thought it to be quite fitting in the light of Circe’s psychological transformation throughout the narrative.
A beautifully feminist and deeply empathetic read – essential for the times we live in! Circe may be myth, but it is her spirit we must carry in our hearts.