As a child, the goddess Circe never believes in her own power; she doesn’t think she has any. All the other gods agrees with her. They point out how odd she is, just a nymph like her mom, Perse, but not as pretty. She is one of a thousand thousand nymphs, replaceable, not a good match, with her odd scratchy voice. (Sounds like high school, doesn’t it?)
You might remember Circe as the antagonist in one of the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. She serves dinner to Odysseus’s crew then turns them into pigs. Later, Odysseus becomes her lover. But there is much, much more to her story. Circe shows up here and there in the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. The stories are conflicting and contradictory, but the common thread is that she is an enchantress with knowledge of herbs and arts. She is a sorceress who seduces men and transforms them into mindless savage beasts.
In Madeline Miller’s reimagining, the gods and heroes Circe encounters are close to beasts already. They are the flower of men shaped by a raging patriarchy, pure ego, sure that all the others they encounter in their lives are merely supporting actors in their personal heroic epic.
Circe is the daughter of Helios and a nymph. Her sister is queen of Crete, mother of the minotaur; one of her brothers is the father of Medea, and the other teaches magic to the Persians. Circe, though, seems capable of nothing, until she falls in love. Glaucus is her first lover. He is mortal, a fisherman, and worships her. She transforms him into a river god, and when he jilts her for another lover, she turns her rival into the monstrous Scylla of Scylla and Charybdis fame.
Having done this, she continues to believe her father and uncles when they say it couldn’t have been her. It was fate, her father says, “If the world contained the power you allege, do you think it would fall to such as you to discover it?” When she finds out that she is indeed responsible, not the Fates, she believes it was the power of the herb she used. It takes her magician brother to point out Circe’s real power:
Glaucus was not a god in his heart of hearts, and no matter how awful Scylla was in the mean-girl world of nymphs, her true nature was never as monstrous as Circe’s magic made her. The realization is devastating. Accepting herself as powerless gave Circe the illusion of innocence; she believed the lie of her own weakness. So she imposed her visions of infatuation onto Glaucus and poured her rage and jealousy into the transformation of Scylla. It takes Circe years of banishment to her island paradise to recover, and grow into her true self.
In time, gods and men happen upon her island. With every encounter she grows in power, even as she realizes that men will only ever see her as a woman alone. And a woman alone must be there just for them. Even when she has a son she finds herself cleaning up the stories of his absent father and painting him as a hero for her boy to yearn after, at the expense of her own stories. She has lived epics, but her son never asks her about them. She has taught him not to.
One of the joys of Miller’s storytelling is the complex emotional portrait she paints at each stage of Circe’s life. This may be an ancient story, but the ways that toxic patriarchy poisons the emotional landscapes of girls growing into women are searingly contemporary. Nowhere is this more evident than in Miller’s description of Circe’s motherhood. The gods are out to get her son. She physically holds the world at bay to protect his existence. Even as she does so, loving her child so much that she is willing to sacrifice anything for him, the baby will not stop screaming. She paces the beach with him, holding him tight, and still he screams. It seems to last a hundred years. Then, suddenly, her child is a young man demanding to leave the safety she has created, so that he can find the heroic father she conjured for him in her stories.
In this sea of raging testosterone, two male voices stand out: Prometheus the Titan and Trygon the Stingray. Their voices are the deepest in time, and they are the two who make actual sacrifices of themselves, though they are immortal. Circe encounters Prometheus early on. She witnesses his torture and has a visceral realization of the one downside of immortality. Prometheus gave fire to mortals, and freely confesses his crime to Zeus, refusing to beg for pardon. Circe secretly brings him a drink and wonders why he would accept eternal torment. He replies, “Not every god need be the same.”
Trygon bears a deadly stinger she must get to protect her son. The condition is that she suffer its eternal poison. She wins the weapon of Trygon but she is weary of the constant fight against the choices of men.
It takes Circe a millennium to come to understand the ego of patriarchy, the dismissal and erasure of all women who live within it, even the women with power. It takes the patience of a thousand years to learn all the ways to deal with lovers. A thousand years to live fully in herself, to know the reach and the limit of her power. A thousand years before she finds a way out of her exile and is able to share her gifts with humanity. If only all women had a thousand years, perhaps we too could see the world clear and our place in it.