Circe: A goddess for all young women

There’s always two sides to a story. And more often than not, we believe the side that shouts the loudest. Whether it’s in court, in tabloid headlines, argued out across social media, or broadcast on reality TV shows, the he-said she-said divides society in many moral and ethical situations. And, somewhat unsurprisingly, it’s been like this for centuries.

In much of Greek mythology, Circe is presented as the powerful witch who turns men into pigs. Who pardons the unspeakable acts of Medea. Who creates Scylla the monster in a fit of jealous rage. She’s a combination of every female stereotype: a jealous banshee; a man-hating spinster; an irresistible temptress. And, like nearly all women in history, she’s silenced. She’s a footnote in the history of man.

Well, until Madeline Miller came along and wrote my favourite book of 2019.

From her unhappy childhood and subsequent banishment, to her involvement in some of Ancient Greece’s most memorable moments, Circe tells her story.

“You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.”

Circe’s childhood is desolate. Her desperation to be loved and to fit in is raw on the page. It’s only the doomed Prometheus who recognises her kindness for what it is, rather than the weakness the other gods believe it to be.

Her siblings inherit their parents’ cold, calculated ways. And maybe that’s what makes them more godlike, more divine — I haven’t read enough Greek mythology to know. Pasiphaë is calculated. Perses perverse. Aeëtes powerful. Circe is different. Her conscience keeps her powers in check — and it’s this that differentiates her from the immortals. When Circe later reunites with her sister, Pasiphaë, I thought maybe the two would combine forces to defeat their brothers. However, that would be far too neat a narrative. Circes can’t forgive herself for accidentally unleashing Scylla on humans — let alone Pasiphaë’s deliberate destructive efforts.

And that brings us to the first mythological tourist spot: the Minotaur.

“No on spoke of Pasiphaë any more. Now, at a stroke, she made her fading star shine again. All the world would tell the story of the queen of Crete, maker and mother of the great flesh-eating bull.”

Miller has two qualities that set her writing apart from most historical fiction: a way of storytelling that enchants and consumes the mind. And such a deep knowledge of Greek mythology that she can subvert, twist and mould it to fit her narrative, without it seeming like ticking off names on a mythological bingo card.

As well as being present at the birth of the Minotaur, Circe is part of Daedalus and Icarus’ story; she cleanses Medea and Jason; she creates the notorious Scylla; and most notably, she welcomes Odysseus and his men to her island.

Aside from brief lessons at school and university, I haven’t read much Greek mythology. So having these links to other stories and figures helped to frame Circe’s place. It’s motivated me to read more of the source material (I tried, and quickly failed, to read The Iliad about ten years ago).

“Daedalus did not long outlive his son. His limbs turned grey and nerveless, and all his strength was transmuted into smoke. I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Circe has an obsession with mortals and mortality. Her first dalliance with a mortal man, Glaucos, leads to the discovery of her powers. He rejects her love and sacrifice and, once again, we see Circe pushed aside.

Other encounters are as damaging. The ship-loads of men who arrive on her shores aren’t simply turned to pigs because she doesn’t like men. It’s because she’s fed up of them raping and assaulting her. And you can’t blame a woman for defending herself.

“They never listened. The truth is, men make terrible pigs.”

Now, I’ve never turned anyone into a pig. But we’ve all been there: someone has upset you to the point where you can’t even call them a name — it’s an insult to the beast you’re referring to.

Circe’s self-defence crops up in other retellings, like Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: “Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she’d turned his men into pigs — not a hard job in my view…”

It’s amazing that the ‘why’ is left out of so many retellings. Does anyone really read stories like this and not think ‘well, why has she done that? What’s happened to cause such a reaction?”. This has made me so keen to read more source material, to see if anything other than ‘she’s a mad witch’ crops up.

Feel free to recommend where I should start!

“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If i had ever believed it, I no longer did.”

Mortals help Circe learn about herself. They help her develop and mature. And despite her powers growing stronger, she’s more human than ever. She pines for Daedalus’ love. She was infuriated by the nymphs wasting her time and doing nothing. She even runs out of nappies when Telegonus is a baby.

Her desire to be human runs throughout. She risks the gods’ wrath by being kind to Prometheus after he’s punished for helping them. She’s enthralled by any sightings of mortals or ships when living in her father’s court. And she often ponders the idea of immortality; and never in a positive way. Even her voice, which the gods can’t bear to hear, is simply another link to her affinity with people.

By the end of the story, Circe has truly grown into herself. She understands what she wants and why. She stops wishing to be accepted by the gods, and rejects her father in a way that had me cheering as I read. And finally, after wanting her to tell them to fuck off throughout the entire book, she does.

“My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. I thought once the gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

Circe, the witch of transformation, has change in her blood. She changes from a character the gods only acknowledge to bully, to one they fear. She has held everything in her hands — from prophecies and death to pure love. And the question that plagues her throughout — what her true self is — is finally answered.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that swept me up so entirely as Circe did. I barely emerged from it for the two days I spent reading it.

Circe may be a powerful witch, a daughter of Helios; but she’s the most human character I’ve read in a long time. She makes mistakes, plenty of them. She’s weak when she should be strong. She lets people use her and mistreat her. But she learns and she grows. She faces her past and she doesn’t run from her mistakes. She attempts to defy the Furies and the gods who try to dictate her life.

“My skin was glowing, my teeth set. My lioness lashed her tail.
Does no one have the courage? Will no one dare to face me?
So you see, in my way, I was ready for what came.”

Circe is, without a doubt, the role model that adult-me needs. Her quiet rage, her inner strength. Her open heart and endless love. And her ability to bounce back every single time she’s knocked down.

It’s these lessons, along with the novel’s pace and language that kept me transfixed. I was obsessed with her decisions and her development. And while the lack of dialogue and action may put others off, I was too vested in the story to notice.

The easiest five stars I’ve ever given.

Rating: *****


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