The topic of this exhibit is the novel Circe by Madeline Miller. This novel retells the story of Circe through the lens of feminist interpretations as her life intersects with various figures and events from classical mythology. Miller paints a more intimate picture of Circe as a person, in contrast with tropes that often present her in a villainous role until dominated by a masculine hero. This sees sympathetic motives for the acts that have made her infamous. Circe is an outsider and her witch status and independence separate her from others. Miller takes advantage of Circe’s nature to contrast with divinities who are vain and arrogant in comparison. In the context of the prevailing gender and power dynamics of classical mythology, Miller’s Circe can be seen as a rebel who refuses to conform to the norms under which she and other women are victimized.
Circe’s transformation of men into swine in The Odyssey is often portrayed as her greatest act of villainy in mythos and is perhaps the act with which she is most associated in popular culture. In ancient Greece, this act likely took on an especially reviled context as it would have been viewed as a deep violation of the xenia relationship between a host and guests. In Miller’s Circe, this action is driven by Circe’s deep anger at men for the violation she suffered at the hands of the first such guests she had to her island (Miller, 188). Her rage is reinforced as subsequent visitors continually attempt to violate her, resulting in her ultimate abandonment of hospitality in favor of seeking vengeance before she can be made a victim by interlopers on Aeaea.
One element of Circe’s character that is referenced in both The Odyssey and in Circe is the uniqueness of her voice, in contrast to that of other divinities and how mortals perceive and interact with her due to its difference. In The Odyssey part of Circe’s introduction is “fair-tressed Circe, a dread goddess of human speech” (Homer, 10.137-138). When first encountered, Homer describes how Odysseus’ men waited enchanted at the entrance to her home for “within they heard Circe singing with a sweet voice, as she went to and fro before a great imperishable web” (Homer, 10.220-24). Homer’s attribution of awe for Circe’s voice seems at odds with its description as “human speech”. If taken to mean she has a voice like a mortal instead of a divinity, it is interesting that it should be a point of admiration. In Circe, this mortal voice takes on further importance as it serves to alienate her from divinities, who think her voice is “screechy”, or “strange” (Miller, 9). The approachability of her voice is a source of both happiness and immense suffering in Circe’s life. A possible interpretation of Circe’s voice in Miller’s portrayal is that the other divinities’ disdain is possibly meant to invoke how vocal and strong-willed women are often dubbed “shrill” by those threatened by their agency and power. Such interpretation is further supported by Circe’s name being said to be a reference to her voice being perceived by other divinities as shrill, like that of a hawk (Miller, 6)
Another element of Miller’s approach to Circe is that the witch’s home on Aeaea is the result of an imposed exile rather than the island being a chosen home. A clear distinction is made between the pharmaka used by Circe and the powers of greater divinities (Miller, 67 ). In this narrative, Circe and her siblings wield power that threatens the Olympians, via witchery derived from knowledge of herbs and potions. Such power is viewed by Zeus as a threat to his authority, a possible means of succession and thus results in punishment for Circe’s transformation of Scylla. This ties into the motif of succession that arises frequently in classical myth. Here the threat to the masculine Zeus is elevated by this power being held by a woman. The punishment is therefore both specifically targeted to Circe’s transformation of another divinity and intended to reinforce Zeus’s dominance in a patriarchal system.
Miller’s treatment of Circe sees her exercising far more agency and power than is typically displayed by women in Classical mythology. With the exceptions of the Hymn to Demeter and Euripides’ Electra, there is a frequent portrayal of women in relatively passive roles in lives filled with tragedy. This is also true of The Odyssey, where Odysseus is unquestionably the agent and women, with the exception of Penelope, are generally important only insofar as they can help him in his journey. In Circe, the titular goddess rejects this paradigm to take a greater role in attaining her own happiness beyond the confines of the male divinities (Helios and Zeus) who seek to exercise power over her.
Miller, M. Circe. Little, Brown & Company. New York, NY. (2018). Print
Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. Online eBook. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D10%3Acard%3D133
Circe by Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles, follows the entire life story of Circe, daughter of the Titan of the Sun, Helios and Perse, one of the three thousand Oceanic nymphs. This fictional retelling explores, through Circe’s own perspective, her upbringing, her trials and tribulations and where she is stationed in the lore of Greek mythology, more precisely how she does not fit in. The famous witch is presented as too human for the gods while at the same time too divine for mortals, the dread goddess with a human voice. (Homer, Odyssey 10.113) The story leads the reader as well as the titular character on a journey of self discovery and world realization by showcasing her time isolated on Aeaea in exile while allowing steady visitors to fill in on her gaps in knowledge of external affairs. Through these encounters, famous characters like Daedalus, Madea, Jason, Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope are brought to life through Miller’s descriptive, if fictional, talents. Such iconic figures were also accompanied by both the divine and the damned, equally recognizable: Helios, Minotaur, Apollo, Hermès, Scylla, Athena, Oceanus, Prometheus and many more.
In her proper myths, Circe was not as much a well-explored figure as she was a brief and helpful guide for Odysseus, who he just happened to encounter like many of his various stopping points on his journey home. An enchantress and minor goddess, Circe was only given enough spotlight in The Odyssey to showcase a small yet telling peek of her powers and perspective. On his way back from the Trojan war, Odyssey encounters Circe on her island along with his men, who she has turned into swine after eating her food and drinking her wine. He managed to convince her to restore their human form and they became lovers, staying together for a year with issues, including Latinos and Telegonus. (Anne Arbor, 2006) By the end of their stay, Odysseus and his men were aided by Circe’s talents and knowledge for the continuation of their return to Ithaca. (Heinemann, 1919) While this is her most famous appearance in Greek mythology, it is not the only time she was a vital figure. In the myth of Scylla’s transformation, Circe was the perpetrator behind the nymph’s monstrous form for being the preferred target of Glaucos’s affections. She was also the one to purify the Argonauts after the murder of Absurtys in the Argonautica and shunned them off her territory afterwards. (Heinemann, 1961)
Sorcery was the trait Circe was most associated with in all of her appearances, but it was also often accompanied by possessiveness and jealous tendencies that drove many of her decisions. In Scylla’s case, she was scorned by Glaucos and the nymph paid the price. However irrational and dangerous her actions were, she was also portrayed as intolerant towards unjustified brutality when she demanded that Madea, Jason and the Argonauts leave her island the second their ritual was completed for the heinous sins they have committed. (Heinemann, 1961) In the Odyssey, she was not only cooperative but also very understanding and helpful without a shred of toxic jealousy towards Odysseus and his crew once he declared their intentions to resume the journey home. (Heinemann, 1919) Unlike her previous tellings in matters of the heart the book presents her as a misunderstood and mistreated underdog by her peers and simultaneously a victim of mortal assaults. (Miller, 2018)
This narrative sought to explain and justify her seemingly cruel actions towards those she chose to use her powers against by putting her through various insults, deprecations, assaults and traumas a goddess would not typically face. Interestingly enough, despite being the focus of her own story, Circe was mostly handled by Miller the same way she was in the Homeric Hymns and the Argonautica Orphica. She almost never is the instigator of the plot, always in a passive and reactive position yet crucial to the story once she makes an appearance in it. The overarching feminist themes were heavily influecial to her character development throughout the story, emphasizing on arcs of maturity and paradigm shifts while staying mostly secluded on Aeaea.
Apollonius, Rhodius. The Argonautica. Cambridge, Mass. : London :Harvard University Press; W. Heinemann, 1961.
Hesiod. Theogony ; and, Works and Days. Ann Arbor :University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Homer. The Odyssey. London : New York :W. Heinemann; G.P. Putnam's sons, 1919.
Miller, Madeline. Circe. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2018.
Kate Zhang (Xiyue)
The book Circe by Madeline Miller well described the story of Circus with more details, and the content is similar to what we learned from the textbook. In this essay, I will compare the similarity between Circe and the textbook and share my opinion about the story.
From the textbook, we learned about the story between Circe, Glaucus, and Scylla. The book told that Glaucus changed from mortal into a sea god and is in love with Scylla. He asked Circus for help after being rejected. However, he did not know that Circe is in love with him. Jealousy made Circus blind for love and poisoned the bathing water of Scylla (Morford, Lenardon, Sham 2018, 169). Similar to the version from the textbook, the book written by Miller added more details to this story. Circe was not popular in the palace, and she is the least-favorite child of her parents because she does not have any power during this period. After her sister had been married to one of Zeus's and her brother had his kingdom, Circe was eager to find love. Then she met Glaucus, a poor fishing boy, and fell in love with him. Since Glaucus is a mortal and could die, Circe used the magic flower to change him into a god. However, after Glaucus's transaction, he fell in love with Scylla and proposed to her. When Circe know about it, she asked Glaucus to accept her love. However, he told her that he only sees her as a sister. Circe was jealous and mad with Scylla and put the magic flower into her bath. A day after that, she found out that she turned Scylla into an ugly monster (Miller 2018).
This piece of the story shows the pathetic life of Circe in her early years that she lacked attention and love from others. I think It makes her easy to trust others and beg for love from others. She loves Glaucus because he is the only one who treasures her and talks with her when he was mortal. After he became immortal, it is understandable he finds someone better than Circe. Back to talk about Circe, I do not think she is evil, even though she turned Scylla into a monster. I think she is kind deep in her heart because she is good to her brother and nice to Prometheus while being punished. However, she is childish. She blamed Scylla for Glaucus' love, and she did not understand that he will never love her back. She wants to be loved and respected by others, but she does not understand her value. I think she should love herself first before looking for love from others.
1. M. Morford, R.J. Lenardon, and M. Shame, Classical Mythology, Oxford University Press, 2018, accessed date Aug 2, 2021.
2. Madeline Miller, Circe, Little, Brown And Company, 2018, accessed date Aug 2, 2021.