Circe by Madeline Miller


Circe is best-known as the witch in the Odyssey, where she turns men into pigs. I’d have gone for something smaller, cuter and less messy, myself, but each to their own. She’s also aunt to both Medea and the Minotaur. What she isn’t is a household name in the way that so many of the figures from ancient Greek myths and epics are, but she’s attracted a certain amount of attention over the years, usually being vilified for being a female who held power and used it against males.

This is being billed as a “#MeToo” re-telling of her story. I don’t know that it’s that, as such, but it’s a very readable story of a woman’s life. It must be very difficult to weave together a coherent narrative from bits of lots of different stories, especially with the added complication of having gods, demi-gods and mortals all alongside each other, but it does work very well. I rather like this recent resurgence of interest in the stories of Ancient Greece (I’m the idiot who climbed up to the citadel of Mycenae and went wandering round the ruins of ancient Sparta when it was well over 100 degrees in the shade). They’ve been around for so long, and they’ve had such a profound influence in Western culture – so many words in English come from them – that it’d be a great shame if they were ever to be lost.

Circe is a nymph and a sorceress, the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse, but, despite her powers, her personality’s very human in this book, which starts off with her as a young girl in whom no-one takes much interest because she’s the plain one of the family, then as a rebel who tries to help her uncle Prometheus when he’s chained to a rock and turns her love rival Scylla into a monster, and then as a woman who’s exiled to the island of Aiaia on her own, works hard there with her herbs and spells, and becomes embroiled in some very well-known stories. Hermes turns up quite often, as her on-off lover. She’s called to Crete to help deliver the Minotaur and sort out what’s to be done with him, and gets involved with Daedalus whilst she’s there. And, of course, there’s the visit of Odysseus. This is the #MeToo bit: the way it’s presented here is that Circe, after a previous sexual assault by a visiting sailor, turns Odysseus’s men into swine because she’s frightened of what they might do to her if they remain in human form.  It’s self-protection.

There are all sorts of different stories about Circe and Odysseus’s children, but, in this book, they just have the one – Telegonus, who then accidentally kills his father. Odysseus’s wife Penelope and their son Telemachus then turn up, and Circe takes up with Telemachus, whilst Telegonus goes off to found Tusculum.  I love seeing Circe and Penelope team up! This is very much a book in which women are the main players – despite the fact that Circe is exiled by her father.  Odysseus is presented as having been completely overrated, Jason as being rather a prat, and most of the male gods as being silly and spiteful.

It’s not as anti-male as that sounds, honestly!  And I don’t know that it’s meant as a feminist book generally.  But it is very irritating how there’s always this vilification of women who hold power.  Part of it’s the idea of sexual power, which Circe is seen as holding because of her involvement with Odysseus. Anne Boleyn, Wallis Simpson, and even to some extent Elizabeth Woodville are all reviled as women who used their sexual power to inveigle men into unsuitable marriages – as if the men, the kings, the most powerful people in the land, had nothing to do with it!

Part of it’s just a fear of hatred of female power in general, and the idea that that’s somehow linked to malign powers.  Anne and Elizabeth were both accused by their enemies of being witches.  Even now, people will use the term “witch” to describe a female politician whom they don’t like. OK, presumably they’re not alleging that the women have supernatural powers, but the fact that “witch” is a term of abuse whereas “wizard” and “sorcerer” are great compliments says a lot.

Despite being a witch, Circe is, as I’ve said, very human in this book – someone with faults and feelings, and I got quite attached to her.  Whilst I generally prefer “real” history, I’ve been interested in Greek and Roman myths since reading a children’s book of them when I was about 6 – Google suggests that it was probably Enid Blyton’s “Tales of Long Ago”.  I have to confess that I’ve never read the Iliad or the Odyssey, despite having had copies of them for years.  I have read the whole of the Aeneid, but that was when I was a teenager and had more time!  But they are fascinating, and it’s great that there’s still this interest in them, and that people like Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, Margaret Atwood and Margaret George (oh, and Brad Pitt) are keeping that going.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although it’s not my usual sort of thing, and would highly recommend it.

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