Where similar myths have been told before, written through the eyes of and about the heroes, this time Madeline Miller (The Song of Achilles) re-imagines life from the perspective of a woman.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun, and Perse, a beautiful nymph. Our story begins when Circe is young. Her home, the halls of the Titans, is a den of jealousy and competition. Miller portrays the gods as I’ve always imagined them – all-powerful, booming, merciless – while particularly highlighting their pettiness, spite, and boredom, all of which are driven by a ballooning male ego. She indulges the gods their every want, but in so doing, shines a light on their flaws, likening them in my mind to a group of greedy kings whose only real focus is dominance, material wealth, and aesthetic beauty. Sound familiar? Circe is a reflection of our own history.
Circe immediately seems different from her family, the Titans. She shows compassion, introverted intelligence, and a sweetness that the other characters lack. Miller writes her clearly as an outsider, so right from the beginning, I was rooting for her. She is constantly undervalued for her lack of perceivable beauty and misunderstood for her quiet nature. Nearly all of her kin reject her. So when she is exiled to a remote island for failing to meet the expectations of men in power, I was glad she was rid of them.
It is here, on this wild little island, that she discovers herself and her true powers. She becomes more than a goddess. She becomes a botanist, a witch, a lover, a healer, a leader, a protector. More than that, what I loved about her self-discovery was that the most powerful, life-changing shift occurs as she transitions through motherhood – an experience both relatable and complex. Through these experiences, she becomes a woman. It is in fact her connection to nature, to the natural cycles of earth, moon, and sea, to the plants and animals, and to the currents of emotion within her stirred by her relationships, that brings her into her most powerful self. On the one hand she is the outcast daughter of the god of the sun – but on the other, she is a woman fully in tune with nature. For her to come to this realization is not easy. It takes commitment and hard, arduous work to redefine what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be a powerful woman.
This is where the story hooked me – I too am a woman. And in a world of egotistical power play, of violence, of manipulation and confusion, I too can retreat to a wild, remote location to remember and grow my own power.
Miller’s storytelling is vibrant, detailed, and real. At times I felt like I was reading an account of something that had actually happened, and could almost believe that Circe’s island was out there somewhere, far out to sea. I came to this book having not read Homer’s Odyssey, or in fact knowing much about Greek mythology. So this, for me, was the first real dive into the world of these well-known gods and goddesses. I finished Circe feeling fortunate to have begun my mythology reading with the life of a goddess, and felt both surprised and unsurprised that it demonstrated how the competitive, vicious world of the Titans is sadly, strikingly relevant. If we are to distance ourselves from the petty, unkind gods, we must continue to listen to and strengthen the voices of women.