Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Ann Skea

Madeline Miller.
Bloomsbury. 2018. 336 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 9007 3.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. In our language it means not just goddess, but bride.

Circe's mother was a nymph, "a naiad, guardian of fountains and streams." Her father was Helios, the sun god who "glowed bright as just-forged bronze" and could ignite a log of wood or turn men to ashes just with his gaze. And Circe grew up in her father's vast, dark, silent, obsidian palace.

She was not beautiful like her mother and sister. Her nurse named her "Hawk" (Circe), for her yellow eyes, her brown streaked hair, and her strange voice. Her siblings, Perses and Pasiphae, taunted her. Only her youngest brother, Aeetes, was close to her, and it was he who taught her the power of herbs, of pharmaka, and the art of pharmakeia. It was he who made her aware that all her siblings were skilled in using these powers and that she, too, was a pharmakis—a Witch. But by then she had already experimented with herbs and transformed Glaucos, the first mortal she had ever met—and loved—into a sea god. More worryingly, she had also used the "flowers of true being" on the malicious nymph, Scyilla, who was her rival for Glaucos's love, and had unwittingly transformed her into a terrible monster. This was a transformation she would always regret.

At the time Circe was born, the old gods, the Titans, her father amongst them, were in uneasy peace with the Olympian gods who had largely usurped their powers. Circe watched her uncle Prometheus's terrible punishment for giving humans the gift of fire, which allowed them to develop and prosper. She heard her father dissemble when prompted by the old gods to challenge Olympian Zeus over this. And she learned, early, that the words of gods should never be trusted.

When her father banished her to the Island of Aiaia for turning Scylla into a monster, she was told by the fickle messenger god Hermes that Helios had negotiated this with Zeus who, with the other Olympians, felt threatened by the witching powers of the sun god's family.

Alone on Aiaia, rejected by her family, and constantly watched over by the Olympian gods, Circe wards off her fears and isolation by working to perfect her herbal knowledge and her magical arts. "At first, of course, all I brewed were mistakes," she tells us. And "each spell was a mountain to be climbed anew." But she listened to the plants and learned until "the spell could sing with its pure note, for me and me alone." She tames the wild animals, who become her companions, and as the years pass (gods are immortal) she uses her magic to great effect.

As Circe tells us about her life, we come to know her. She is not the "dread goddess" who arbitrarily uses "evil drugs" to turn Odysseus's men into pigs, as Odysseus portrays her in Homer's Odyssey. She is strong and determined and powerful, but she is a woman alone, and she has good reason to use drugs for her own protection against the pirates and war-hardened sailors who turn up on her island and who feast and carouse in her halls, only to then abuse her hospitality. But she also uses her magic to help and protect others.

Every so often, Hermes turns up with messages and cryptic prophecies and, briefly, she takes him as a lover. But she is fated to fall in love with humans whose life-span, she knows, is so short she must face the grief of losing them. When she bears Odysseus's child (unbeknown to him), she does it alone: "I did not go easy into motherhood," she tells us, "I faced it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows. Yet all my preparations were not enough." She struggles alone with this difficult baby, and as he grows, with a wilful young boy. She names him Telegonus, weaves spells to protect him from Athena who wants him dead, and goes to the depths of the sea to challenge the terrifying god, Trygon, "older than all the lands of the world," in order to obtain his deadly tail as protection for Telegonus when he leaves Aiaia to go and find his father in Ithaca.

As Circe tells her story, the highly complex family tree of the gods becomes easier to follow, and well-known Greek mythology drops into place. Circe watches her sister Pasiphae marry Minos, a son of Zeus and king of Crete. Years later, Pasiphae sends for her to act as midwife when she gives birth to the terrifying Minotaur. Daedalus, who is trapped on Crete with his young son, Icarus, helps with the delivery and creates the cages in which this monstrous baby is kept and the labyrinth where it will ultimately live. Circe uses her magic to keep the Minotaur tamed for most of the year, but cannot stop its hunger for human flesh at harvest time.

Circe's brother, Aeetes, is father of Medea, who turns up on Circe's island with her lover, Jason, asking for katharsis, "cleansing by smoke and prayer, water and blood," for having used witchcraft and bloodshed in order to steal the Golden Fleece from Aeetes.

And, as Homer's Odyssey recounts, Odysseus and his men arrive on Aiaia. Circe confirms much of Homer's story of that stay but it is clear from her account that Odysseus is not held there by her magic but chooses to stay longer than is necessary and is then given magical protection by Circe to help him return safely to his wife, Penelope, and this son, Telemachus, in Ithaca.

The final part of Circe's story recounts the meeting of Telegonus and Odysseus and the subsequent visit of Penelope and Telemachus to Aiaia. As in the rest of the book, Madeline Miller has imaginatively added to the brief glimpses we have of Circe in the ancient texts and has elaborated on the ancient Greek myths. Her Circe is no cold-hearted, autocratic Olympian goddess. She has the strength and power of the old gods, but she also has too many of our own human feelings and emotions for her own good. We come to understand her and to like her.


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