Predictions are risky, but sometimes we feel they have to be made.
That’s how I felt after rereading Madeline Miller’s wonderful recent novel, based on her deep knowledge of Greek mythology (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2018). Circe has already been praised as a fascinating page-turner, but an attending metaphysician might see it as a corrective potion for women and all others who fear they are powerless to affect the future.
Miller endows the witch Circe, a character in Homer’s Odyssey, with an intimately candid voice, and observational powers that could resonate with the consciousness of many women today, especially those inspired by the #MeToo movement. Considered ugly by her mother and stupid by her siblings, Circe was mocked and unloved among the minor deities. She craved the approval and attention of her father, the Titan sun-god Helios—whose leadership of the Greek pantheon has been sidelined, but not entirely crushed, by Zeus and the Olympian gods—but she is ignored. Until she schools herself in sorcery.
When their fellow Titan, Prometheus, is brought to Helios’ castle to be tortured for the crime of showing mortals how to use fire, Circe stays behind, offering him a drink of nectar–which he accepts–to comfort him before he is dragged away to suffer eternal torments. Though nearly powerless among the gods, she seizes this chance to show mercy, an act of tremendous courage for which she could have been killed if anyone noticed. Without experiences such as this, Circe confesses, she might never have broken away from thousands of years of “dull miseries” (13).
Her voice is raspy like a human but her eyes glint like gold, so she is named Circe, or hawk. Miller has her narrate this myth-soaked fiction with the authority of one who calls out her own foolishness and ignorance. With a raptor’s hawk eyes she perceives the destructive pride of legendary heroes and immortals. As for the seeming truce between Titans and Olympians, she warns: “Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two” (16). She describes her life up to the episode with Prometheus as having been “murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it” (24). – Ah, the pull of individual initiative. Any relevance to current mortals? Do ancient myths of Titans and Olympians have anything to teach us about national leaders?
Circe’s brother openly described himself as a pharmakis, or sorceror/witch, and was not punished but given his own kingdom (Colchis, birthplace of his daughter, the witch Medea, of child-murdering fame), because he’d told his father that his powers had come to him by accident, that he had not worked for them. When Circe asked him to teach her, he refused. “Sorcery cannot be taught,” he told her. “You find it yourself, or you do not” (69). He also noted that “pharmakeia is not bound by the usual limits of gods” (70)—that is, it is accessible to mortals as well. In Miller’s version of Circe’s world, witchcraft consists first in the patient, trial-and-error study of plants and herbs for the properties that can heal or strengthen the abilities of humans. But foremost, the most decisive component is a strong, focused, determined will.
But unbridled will, especially for revenge, can have terrible consequences.
Unfortunately, as she is developing her craft, Circe falls in love with a mortal, Glaucon, and uses potions to turn him into a god so that she might have an immortal companion. But as soon as he becomes a god his attention turns to another nymph, more beautiful but entirely selfish and uncaring—Scylla. Furious at Glaucon for this betrayal, Circe transforms Scylla into a multi-headed, man-eating sea monster. Thereafter her witch’s conscience is burdened by the weight of knowing that her magic causes the horrific deaths of untold numbers of innocent seafarers. Her brother tells her to choose better after Glaucon, that she has “always trusted too easily” (76).
The shocking transformation of Scylla threatens the rule of Zeus, who insists that Circe be exiled and live alone. Helios obliges by sending her to Aiaia, a magical island in Titan territory. There she occupies a spacious mansion whose floors, dishes and laundry emerge clean each day by magic, and stores of food and wine are constantly replenished. She realizes that in carrying out this punishment, her father Helios has, despite Zeus’s order, equipped his daughter to rise in exile “higher than before” (80).
How many women find themselves in a much less exalted exile, where they must find their own lodging, clean everything, prepare food, and build not only a life but an identity? Circe’s first night alone is an epiphany in itself, where she realizes how many things she feared. Just being able to survive until the next morning, she is aware that “the worst of [her] cowardice had been sweated out,” and decides not to become like a bird bred in a cage, “too dull to fly even when the door stands open” (81). Similar to many mortals in other circumstances who have to push through their own ignorance, Circe explains:
Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands. (83)
Even after she has learned which plant have what properties, nothing goes right unless she pays full attention, and gives her best energy to it. What is it about attention, we ask, that it alone empowers someone who lacks sufficient divine power? Whatever that is, even a lowly, rejected, isolated and basically ignorant woman has it. By rights, Circe should never have come to witchcraft, because all the gods “hate toil, and are spared all forms of drudgery due to their power,” and witchcraft is “nothing but drudgery.” “Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again” (83) — So why bother, unless you happen to be human? Circe’s answer:
For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who loved me a little did not care to stay. Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt. (84)
Through her many years of solitude and loneliness, her island is visited by various types of desperate men—some honestly shipwrecked, whom she helps; others led by cunning, cruel leaders who eat her food, drink her wine, and, seeing she has no man to protect her, are ready to rape and even kill her if she resists. Ring any #MeToo bells? So she develops a potion to add to their wine that turns them into pigs. Too bad some of us mortals can’t do the same, except by identifying them as such.
When the famous warrior Odysseus shows up at her door, abandoned by his patron goddess, Athena, he is the first man who really listens to her, and becomes the closest thing Circe has known to a friend and lover. Except that he is married to the loyal Penelope, and intends to return to her and to Ithaca, the island where he is heir to the throne. Odysseus entertains her with stories of the Trojan War, its heroes and losers, and his keen understanding of his men and their weaknesses—knowledge as important as awareness of their strengths. He is honest about his own treachery, lies, and betrayals–promising to spare a captured spy, and killing him after he’d divulged all his valuable secrets–sneaking into a rival army’s camp and slitting the sleeping soldiers’ throats.
Circe’s experience seems comparable to that of so many women who learn from men the complexities of warfare, the brutality of which that destroys all purity of honor and heroism. Odysseus’s tales confirm to Circe that there are no glories in war, especially when men serve the egos of gods and goddesses in competition for glory.
The great god Apollo appears to Circe before Odysseus leaves, forcing her to be silent as he gives her a vision of Odysseus at the entrance to the underworld, where he faces the blind prophet Tiresias and the spirits of Achilles, Ajax, Hector and other warriors he’s seen die on the battlefield. Rather than feel honored by this vision from Apollo, Circe is enraged and humiliated: “I wanted to tear him with my nails. The gods and their incomprehensible rules. Always there was a reason you must kneel. …How many times would I have to learn? Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. …at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished” (230).
The gods she resents, evidently, are those who interfere with others’ lives, denying powers of choice and personal agency. We don’t see them as gods these days, but aren’t powerful interests still imposing their own rules on our lives? What kind of powers can we muster to break free of them?
Before Odysseus leaves, Circe gives him instructions and potions that will protect and enable him to meet with Tiresias and return to Ithaca. She does not know yet that she is pregnant by him. When it is time to give birth, she feels the gods are preventing her child from being born, so she cuts herself open and pulls the infant out screaming. When it is clear the boy will survive, the great goddess Athena appears, commanding Circe to give up the child, without explaining why she intends to kill him. Although Athena offers to give Circe another man who will give her another son, plus her eternal favor and protection, Circe refuses, thinking to herself (and us): “Athena had no babe, and she never would. Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.”
Athena belittles Circe’s “weeds and little divinity,” and vows to take her son in the end. It is very moving that after Athena leaves Circe alone with her infant son, the witch calls out into the empty air: “You do not know what I can do” (251). It is one of the great messages of Miller’s novel. What Circe cries out is more for herself than for Athena’s ears. She has to assure herself–and us–that the powers that try to control us for selfish ends should never underestimate our determination to protect those we love. The will, driven by love, is stronger than others’ lust for power and fame. …It’s just that we need to overcome self-doubt, and do not ourselves know how much we can do.
When Telegonus is15 Circe tells him about his father, and from then on all he dreams about is sailing alone to Ithaca to find Odysseus. Rightly terrified that he will be killed by Athena, Circe is so determined not to lose her son that she descends into the darkest depths of the sea to challenge Trygon, the ancient creator-god, to lend her the use of his poisonous tail, known to be capable of killing a human with the slightest contact, and of making a god suffer unending pain. No gods had ever succeeded in borrowing Trygon’s tail. Circe’s brother tried, but had not been up to it.
In a breathtaking encounter with this ancient creator-god, Circe hears that the price for using Trygon’s tail is an eternity for her of physical suffering. Despite her overwhelming fear, she focuses her mind on the image of her son’s bright, innocent, hopeful face, and extends her hand to accept the penalty. I urge everyone to read this thrilling scene, but I almost laughed when Circe hesitates, wondering if she is being played a trick, and Trygon has to insist that she cut off his tail, and dismisses her fear that it could lead to war between the Titans and Olympians! He has to remind her that she’d come all that way to demand this favor! As Circe reluctantly begins to cut off the deadly tail, she thinks to herself–even realizing that she will survive this ordeal–that she cannot bear this world for another moment. The primordial god hears her thought, and replies, Then, Child, make another. (282)
What can we make of this modern twist on ancient Greek mythology? Miller, not Homer, creates this dialogue between Trygon and Circe. The ancient world would not have given a female immortal such a vote of confidence to go forth and make a better world. But today we have a woman author with knowledge of the classics, who writes about a witch goddess who would rather be a mortal woman. Most readers of this novel can relate all too easily to the drudgery, loneliness, numberless failures and mistakes–including being raped–that Circe undergoes to acquire her skills. Even today, the term witch bears the burden of disapproval and exile. Miller’s contemporary personification of Circe has the will, and hears the command of a much more ancient and powerful god, to make a new world. That’s what a new mythology might be able to accomplish, if we only paid attention, and applied our will.