Having read Homer’s The Odyssey at university (more than) a few years ago I know how this all ends. I spent my early twenties on a steady diet of reading material that involved aspects of classical mythology and so the fate of the gods and mortals is no mystery to me. Instead what is laid out on a golden platter in Miller’s gorgeous prose is not only a retelling, but an epic tale of the exiled goddess Circe whose love for mortals outshone any kind of love she may have had for the gods and goddesses of old. Circe’s story is one that peacefully sat on the periphery as the ancient world fought and loved around her, however it goes without saying that if you looked a little closer she was always there, waiting, not unlike the proverbial ‘woman in the attic’, more powerful than she is ever given credit for. Madeline Miller however gives Circe the power and the credit she always deserved.
Circe, daughter of Helios, a god of the sun and Perse, a goddess of the ocean was always a little bit different. Less inclined to be taken in by the glories of being immortal and worshiped by supposedly lesser beings, Circe was in fact more infatuated with the natural world, and had a very strong desire to be around mortals. She would one day meet and fall in love with Glaucos, a fisherman whom she turned into a demigod to please him. Unfortunately he proves to be a bit of a tyrant who has no interest in pursuing a love affair with Circe and is soon seen with Scylla, a beautiful nymph. Circe’s rage and jealously make her use her powers once again to turn Scylla into a monster so hideous and dangerous she (Scylla) is forced to flee the kingdom and seeks refuge in the ocean where she will spend centuries drawing soldiers to their death in the center of a whirlpool. Helios is so enraged by his daughter’s behavior that he banishes her to the island of Aiaia where she is forced to live alone.
“She thinks just because she is daughter of the sun, she may uproot the world to please herself”
If anything Circe’s exile is anything but a relief to the goddess as she continues to practice her witchcraft and is seemingly content among her animals and her herbs. Aiaia is beautiful and she is not without the luxuries of the truly immortal, and yet she still longs for companionship. She will soon find that in Hermes, a bit of a trickster in the ancient world who made no secret of his wily and opportunistic ways. Nevertheless they quickly become lovers, and Hermes also becomes Circe’s link with the outside world. Hermes is fascinated with Circe’s powers and for many years they are useful to each other but never in love. Circe will also be visited frequently by rebellious nymphs and the daughters of gods who wish their offspring to be punished by sharing the exiled island with Circe for periods of time. The only time she is ever allowed to leave the island is when she is called home to assist in the birth of her sister Pasiphae’s child who it turns out is half sacred bull. She will also meet and fall for Daedalus, another mortal whose son was the doomed Icarus. Through it all Circe remains wracked with guilt over Scylla and all the sailors that have subsequently been lured into a watery death because of the creature she created.
Soon her visitors to the island will include sailors seeking rest and shelter, and unlike her romantic notion of mortals, most of these men prove to be ‘less than gentlemanly’ and who seek only to pillage her island and rape her and her visiting nymphs. Of course Circe is having none of this and punishes any and all sailors that show signs of violence by using her magic and turning them into pigs. And so it goes for Circe the lover of mortals and the ‘black sheep’ of the ancient world until she receives a visitor in the form of the greatest mortal known to storytellers and gods alike, Odysseus – the man who would help with the fall of Troy and whose adventures across the seas and beyond were already legendary. His time on the island with Circe will prove to be much longer than expected as they quickly become lovers, and subsequently fall in love. His eventual departure will devastate Circe, but will also leave her pregnant with a half mortal son whom she names Telegonus. Her son will spend most of his childhood dreaming of a life lived away from the island his mother can never leave, and completely unaware of the truth behind the man known as Odysseus, his father.
Rather more of a ‘writing back’ than a retelling, Madeline Miller’s storytelling of a known deity is so beautiful it almost aches to read about Circe’s life as from the perspective of a woman scorned. Not only is she chastised for being different (her witchcraft is treated with suspicion), but she will spend her immortal life being seen as less than, but still considered dangerous enough to be exiled. Her relationships are fleeting and often purely physical but she will meet men both mortal and immortal that will change her solitary life in various ways throughout the centuries. In so many ways her story is more relevant than ever in a world that still struggles with the notion of ‘otherness’ and the perils of being a strong woman. In the end Circe will find peace though the journey will be long and treacherous. A masterful piece of writing!