Circe, a Vilified Witch, Gets Her Own Epic
On a cold, sunny afternoon in March, novelist Madeline Miller wandered through the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, swooning over ancient amphoras and ethereal statues of gods and goddesses.Posted — Updated
On a cold, sunny afternoon in March, novelist Madeline Miller wandered through the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, swooning over ancient amphoras and ethereal statues of gods and goddesses.
She was eager to see a particular artifact — a 2,500-year-old wine vessel painted with a scene from Homer’s Odyssey, as Odysseus confronts the goddess and sorceress Circe after she transforms his men into pigs.
Miller was riveted and horrified by that scene when she first read the Odyssey, and it became a pivotal moment in her new novel, “Circe,” a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right.
But on her way to see the vase, she kept getting distracted, dazzled by the mythical figures that have populated her imagination since she was a little girl, when her mother read passages to her from the Iliad and Odyssey at bedtime. More age-appropriate fare never grabbed her attention in the same way. “I wanted gods and monsters,” she said.
Visiting the museum felt like a homecoming of sorts. Growing up on New York’s Upper East Side, she spent hours roaming the Met, marveling at the heroes, warriors and deities. Exploring those halls decades later, she was just as awe-struck.
“This is one of my favorites,” she said, bounding toward a marble statue of a wounded Amazon warrior, noting that the figure would have once been brightly painted. “You can see the drops of blood on the side of her breast.”
She spotted a terra-cotta plaque of Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, cautiously approaching his wife Penelope after he returns to Ithaca. “I love the emotion that’s conveyed in just her posture,” she said.
Tucked away in a dimly lit gallery was the Circe vase, which showed Odysseus pursuing Circe with his sword drawn as his pigheaded men trail helplessly behind him.
“Circe as a character is the embodiment of male anxiety about female power,” Miller said, as she studied the vase, snapping photos with her phone. “Of course she has to be vanquished.”
That scene infuriated Miller when she read the Odyssey on her own, at 13. It bothered her that one of the most powerful female figures in the epic was left kneeling and cowering before Odysseus, and then takes him to bed as a conciliatory gesture. “For the hero to succeed, the woman has to be put in her place, and that was always so disappointing,” she said.
Years later, when she was majoring in classics at Brown University and read the Odyssey in the original Homeric Greek for the first time, Miller began to rethink Circe’s story, which unfolds from Odysseus’ perspective, as he describes his time on her island to the Phaeacians. She saw that Circe, far from being purely a villain or a vanquished witch, had a benevolent side and played a crucial role guiding Odysseus back to Ithaca.
Miller’s fascination with Circe became an obsession after she published her 2011 debut novel, “The Song of Achilles,” a retelling of the Iliad that centers on a romance between Achilles and his friend Patroclus.
She had planned to stay away from epics for a while, but kept thinking about the witch, alone on her island. Why did she transform men into animals? What happened to her after Odysseus and his crew sailed away, or in the centuries before they arrived? She decided Circe deserved her own epic.
“Epic has been so traditionally male,” she said. “All these stories are composed by men, largely starring men, and I really wanted a female perspective.” Recycling classical myths is a well-worn literary trope; everyone from Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood and Rick Riordan have riffed on and remixed Greek and Roman stories. Miller, 39, who lives outside Philadelphia, is particularly well equipped to tackle Homer. She began studying Latin when she was 12, started on Greek a couple of years later, and seems to have near encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Western gods and goddesses.
“Circe” — a feminist reboot starring a goddess who has often been overlooked, or miscast as a vindictive seductress — has drawn praise both from classics scholars and novelists like Margaret George and Ann Patchett.
Emily Wilson, a classicist who recently published a new translation of the Odyssey, said she was skeptical at first of yet another “retelling of a classical myth,” but was won over by Miller’s take. “What she’s doing is partly about gender, but it’s also addressing a bigger question about power, and the abuse of power,” she said.
In Miller’s version, Circe’s encounter with Odysseus is only a slice of her story, which unfolds over thousands of years and begins in the palace of her father, the sun god Helios. Her family members, who treat her with cruelty or indifference, become infamous in their own right: Her sister Pasiphae marries King Minos and gives birth to the Minotaur, a bullheaded, man-eating monster; while her brother Aeetes grows up to rule Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece, and fathers Medea, who later murders her children.
Circe’s fortune changes when she discovers her power to transform. After she turns a nymph, Scylla, into a six-headed sea monster, Helios banishes Circe to a remote island where she spends centuries in exile, with wolves and lions as her companions.
Miller was intrigued by Homer’s description of Circe as “speaking like a human,” an odd detail that is never fully explained in the Odyssey. In her novel, Circe’s deceptively soft voice produces grave consequences. When sailors wash up on her island, she welcomes them with wine and food, and they mistake her for a mortal. After a violent encounter with one sailor, she begins pre-emptively attacking them, turning them into pigs.
To flesh out Circe’s story, Miller looked beyond the Odyssey and consulted a handful of ancient texts. She found scattered references to Circe across the ancient world, and drew from the plot of the Telegony, an epic preserved only in a short summary, which tells the story of Telegonus, Odysseus and Circe’s son.
She plucked other details from the Argonautica, an epic poem about the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, which describes how Circe performs a purification ritual for Jason and Medea.
She wove some of the mythology into her narrative, and ignored other depictions that struck her as silly or sexist, deliberately omitting a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Circe punishes a king who spurns her advances by turning him into a woodpecker.
“That’s one of the funny things about mythological realism, or whatever it is that I write,” she said. “You have to write about six-headed monsters, but from a realistic perspective.” It’s perhaps the same reason Miller loves the Greek and Roman antiquities at the Met, works of art that feel both timeless and transcendent, yet lifelike. As she made her way through the treasure-filled galleries, she kept “nerding out,” as she sheepishly called it, over the relics. She paused to admire a marble figure of Aphrodite crouching in the bath and a headless statue of Hermes.
A look of excitement crossed her face as she rushed toward one of her favorite artifacts. “If you will indulge me, there’s a chariot,” she said, practically skipping off.
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