by Madeline Miller
Published in April 2018, by Little, Brown and Company
Most readers know of the mythological witch, Circe, from her appearance in The Odyssey, in which she turns the wily Odysseus’s men into swine before seducing Odysseus himself and keeping him on her island of Aiaia for a year before he breaks away from her to sail once more for his home of Ithaca. But Circe has a longer story that winds through many Greek myths, the threads of which Madeline Miller weaves into a single shining tapestry of a story.
Circe is a daughter of the Titan, Helios, and a Naiad, Perse. For centuries, the immortal and naive young nymph wanders Helios’s sterile halls. She has three siblings, but only one of them, Aeëtes, seems to care about her. He tells her stories and opens her mind to the world– and to the mysteries of the magic in their blood. But Aeëtes does not stay in Helios’s halls forever, and soon Circe is alone. Until one day, she encounters a handsome young mortal man named Glaucos. She falls in love with him and upon realizing that his mortal body will soon age and die, she begs the gods to make him immortal. She is told this is impossible. Undaunted, Circe calls on her family’s ancient stories and on the magic of her own blood to make Glaucos a god, imagining that he will still love her and that they will marry.
Gods are fickle, though, and Glaucos’s eye falls on another nymph, Scylla. In a fit of jealous rage, Circe transforms the beautiful Scylla into a monster. For her crimes, Zeus and Helios exile Circe to the island of Aiaia, imagining that the loneliness will be a fit punishment.
Instead, Aiaia becomes a refuge from the sneers and insults she endured for so long. And while Aiaia is poor in gold, it is rich with the plants Circe needs to fulfill her magical potential. In time, the young nymph learns to craft spells and brew potions to become a powerful sorceress. Over the years, she encounters the legendary craftsman Daedalus, the Minotaur, the heroic Jason and treacherous Medea, and Odysseus himself.
“Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. The boy who sang it was unskilled, missing notes more often than he hit, yet the sweet music of the verses shone through his mangling. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Though the Greek myths have been around for over 2,700 years, they have mostly been told and retold by men, emphasizing the gods’ militaristic aspects and leering over naked nymphs and goddesses who, as the god Hermes jokes, ‘are so bad at running away’. The myths are filled with women being raped or assaulted, being seduced by heroes and discarded. Women turning into trees or stones to avoid being raped. Groups of women going mad and tearing unlucky men apart.
It hasn’t been until recently that women have taken a turn at reinterpreting these stories, with Miller’s being among the most well-known of the past ten years. The Song of Achilles accepts the loving homosexual relationship between the great hero Achilles and his lover, Patroclus– a story that many male translators downplay or ignore altogether. In Circe, a seductive and dangerous woman is given a full life, one where she faces her weakness– or is forced to face them– and grows because of it, developing wisdom and strength through experience. She begins her story as an ignorant girl and ends it as a woman who can look even the great Athena in the eye and declare, “You don’t know what I can do”.
Circe is not a sweeping tale of battles and adventures. She is witness to no grand events, she carries no sword. Hers is a wholly domestic story of hearth and home and how she finds her true self in soil and forests of Aiaia. Her strength lies in her ability to face her internal demons and overcome them, and to not let her godhood blind her to what humanity has to offer.