Witchcraft was considered a heresy in the late medieval period, with women deemed witches often executed and burnt alive. The practice is associated with sorcery and devil-worship. A witch is usually painted an epitome of evil, a brewer of poison, love potions or any drug which can cause harm to the human race. Massive witch hunts were conducted in the medieval ages where thousands of witches were executed up till the 18th century.
This practice of witchcraft is ancient, prevalent since the time of pharaohs of Egypt and the emperors of Greece. In Greece, it is tied very closely to the use of pharmaka- the use of magical drug which cause injury or death. It was claimed that many women used pharamakon to kill their step-sons or abusive husbands.
The story behind the invention of the drug Pharamakon goes back to the Greek Goddess of witchcraft, Circe (sur-see). Widely known as the mother of witchcraft, Circe is the eldest daughter of the powerful Titan Helios (the Sun-God) and Hecate, the water nymph. All their off-springs Circe, Pasiphae, Perses and Aeetes are born with an innate ability to put herbs and plants into magical use. All the four children grow up to powerful entities, feared by the Olympians and Zeus (the king of Gods) himself.
Zeus does not understand this occult practice and is wary of them. He tries to put the four witches in check in different ways, each fight their own wars- make truce or bargain with Zeus for their place in this world. Out of the four, Circe gets the most unfair deal. This book is about the story of Circe, her ascendance to the title of the most powerful witch, pitted against the fiercest and the most powerful of the Olympian Gods, Athena. It explores the human side of Circe, her trust in her family till they exploit her and abuse her powers, and her growing affinity towards mortals.
Circe is prophesized on her birth that she will marry a mortal. This causes a wave of disappointment to her mother Perse (Hecate), a water nymph, who neglects her and concentrates on siring more children to appease her husband, the Titan, Sun God Helios. Circe’s plain looks and shrill voice add to her misery. Mocked by her siblings and her mother, Circe tries desperately to gain the confidence of her father, who has been neutral to her ever since her birth. When the youngest sibling Aeetes is born and deserted by his mother again for a bad prophecy, she tends to him, raises him up, and wins his trust.
As time flies by, all the siblings leave their father’s world to establish an entity of their own. Circe remains in the palace for hundreds of years, without any goal or direction, accepting her subordinacy amongst the Titans and Gods. One day, she befriends a mortal Glaucus who showers oodles of attention on her. Falling head over heels in love with him, she squeezes certain magical herbs on Glaucus, and turns him into a Sea-God. With his new divinity, Glaucus indulges himself into vanity and eyes to marry the beautiful sea nymph Scylla. In a fit of rage and jealousy, Circe exercises her magical powers once again to transform Scylla into a hideous evil monster and banishes her to the sea. This earns Circe the title of an evil sorceress, a blotch in her name, which will never be erased. She is stereotyped as a Goddess who transforms men and Gods into animals if they do not give in to her will.
Being naïve and trusting her father to be just, she confesses her occult powers to him and pleads to be punished. Using this as an advantage to form a pact with the Olympians, Helios plots with Zeus and banishes her to the island of Aeaea to live isolated for the rest of her life.
Losing trust in her father, she spends time idling and brooding for a few years on the island, till one day, she succumbs to the magnetic charm of the place. She uses her occult power to work with the herbs and the plants around her. She brews potions, uses magic and summons a lion to be her pet. Lost in wildlife and busy harnessing her powers, she loses track of time until one day Hermes, the messenger God, knocks at her door. Nothing evades Hermes, the master trickster and a powerful Olympian, son of Zeus. He acts as a messenger giving her news of everything happening outside Aeaea and in-turn enlightens others of Circe’s extraordinary powers.
Happy with the companionship of Hermes, time flies by for Circe, until one day, Daedalus, the Greek mythical inventor and architect, lands on her shore. He requests her to accompany him to Crete, where Circe’s sister Pasiphae is in labor and expecting a baby. Treading a dangerous path, including the wrath of the evil Scylla, Circe reaches Pasiphae and helps her deliver the monstrous child, the Minotaur. Daedalus is known for his invention of the Labyrinth, the divine maze to contain the Minotaur. He, as a token of thanks, gifts Circe the famous loom from which she weaves beautiful tapestries and garments. Encouraged and charmed by Daedalus, Circe rekindles her belief and trust in mankind. She starts welcoming more sailors, who seek rest in the middle of their voyage. But few try to take advantage of her and attempt to rob her. Circe, again resorts to witchcraft and transforms all the visitors to swines.
Losing her trust in men, Circe invites sailors first for food and drink, and after a sumptuous meal, turns them into swines and sends them to the sty. Thus, she earns the image of a predator witch who transforms men after using them, until one day Odysseus knocks on her door, prepared to face the wrath.
Odysseus, after the long war in Troy, is facing adversities returning home. He is cursed by Apollo, and abandoned by Athena for his key role in architecting the destruction of Troy. He now faces the wrath of Poseidon, the sea God, who is leaving no stone unturned to make his journey back home miserable.
Odysseus seeks a landing desperately before he chalks his way forward, and he has to appease Circe, and win over her with his charms. Circe eventually falls for his wits, and grants him asylum. She gives back his men whom she had transformed to swines, and they all stay on Aeaea for a year. She advises Odysseus to go to the underworld and mourn the dead, then helps him chalk his journey to Ithaca. She sires a son from him, Telegonus.
After Odysseus leaves, Circe is left alone on the island, pregnant and devastated. Her struggles through her pregnancy and early motherhood are so beautifully portrayed that it will melt every mother’s heart. Alone, and with no one to guide her through her child’s infancy, none of her magical powers come to aid to soothe her crying baby. She doesn’t understand the reason behind tantrums and screams. To add salt to the wound, the fates have spoken ill for the boy and now his life is in danger, sought after by the most powerful of the Olympian Gods, Athena. Circe is left with no choice but to challenge Athena with her own magical abilities.
Telegonus grows up, and gets curious about his father. He intends to journey to Ithaca to meet Odysseus. Circe, still wary of Athena, gives him a spear which is a menace even to Gods. But this turns out to be the very ominous journey, which happens to be even dreaded by Athena and thus turns Circe’s fate upside down.
The book goes on to answer gripping questions. Will Circe make the ultimate sacrifice, when she meets the love of her life? She has been transforming others her entire life. For once, will she transform herself into the species whom she has come to trust more than the Gods? Can she give up the eternal youthfulness for the creases on her forehead? Will she defy the Gods and take one last stand against both the Olympians and the Titans, for mere mortals?
Portrayal of Circe through ages and how Miller sympathises to her character
The evolution of the character of this witch Goddess makes it a very interesting point of discussion. Especially during the Renaissance times, she was a subject of great interest to poets, writers and the artists. Right from the classical times, she has been depicted as a persona of evil, a Goddess who transforms mortals into monsters and swines if they do not succumb to her will. Scylla and the many men whom she transformed on Aeaea are proof of her evil deeds. The asylum she grants to many men to live with her earned her an image of a predatory female who enjoys the company of men.
The legends around Circe are elaborated in Homer’s Odyssey which is centered around Odysseus’ journey back home from Troy after the Trojan war. Further articulation about Circe is found in the Roman Poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of myths which chronicled the history of the world. The visual depictions of Circe during the Renaissance times were influenced heavily by Metamorphoses. There were multiple variations of the portrayal of her relationship with Odysseus which depicts one or both of them as evil sorcerers.
After rousing such interest in artists and poets from ancient art to modern times, Circe is still an intriguing figure to this day. After being painted pitch dark once upon a time, artists began to search for the humane side of Circe, the reason behind her deeds, her encounters with the heroes and those who escaped her wrath.
Madeline Miller takes this exploration to a whole new level, where she completely transforms the image of one of the most infamous figures in Greek mythology. The Circe in her book is a daughter yearning for respect, a lover seeking unrequited love, a woman who regards mortals for their good deeds and finally a mother whose love and sacrifice can challenge even Athena.
Circe comes across both as an endearing and an enchanting sorceress who is primarily acting for her own self-defense. She has a soft corner for her siblings, and no matter how much they abuse and insult her, she still seeks to help her family in whichever way she can. She journeys to Crete along with Daedalus to help her sister Pasiphae deliver the monstrous Minotaur. She dotes on her brother Aeetes, the protector of the Golden Fleece and though he turns cold and distant as he grows up, she still holds a desperate hope that he will soften towards her. When his daughter Medea along with her lover, Jason, come to Aeaea asking for Katharsis, a spiritual cleansing from a terrible deed, she performs it without questioning because Medea is her dear brother’s daughter and her niece. She even offers protection to Medea, unknown to the fact that she has stolen the Golden Fleece from Aeetes and killed her own brother.
She does not forget men who are good to her, she remains loyal to Daedalus and Odysseus when they stay with her. She respects Odysseus for his wit and wiliness. She could have used her magical prowess to make Odysseus forget about his family and stay with her forever. But despite knowing that she is pregnant, she lets him go back to the family he longs for, his wife Penelope and his son, Telemachus. She knows his heart belongs to his family and she lets him go.
And then comes the most beautiful episode in her life, her journey through motherhood. Alone and desperate, she struggles through her pregnancy. After the baby is born, right from feeding the baby to cleaning him and rocking him to sleep, she has no experience or a clue on how to handle a child, but does it anyway. There are times when she wonders when he will stop screaming and go back to sleep so that she can take care of other things. Every mother can connect to her woes.
The way she stands up to Athena alone for her son is also very commendable. Alone and weaponless, she is forced to face the wrath of the Goddess of war itself. She uses all her magical powers to create a barricade around Aeaea which Athena cannot protrude into. She fiercely fights fate at every step for her son. And finally, when the day comes when he has to go to the higher lands to make his own future, she lets him go.
To make a reader fall in love with such a notorious figure in mythology isn’t an easy task. There are many books which are written from the point of view of an antagonist. Through those books, a reader usually gets to think from another perspective and debate on the reason behind the flawed action caused by the character. Sometimes, we agree and condone them for their sins, sometimes we fiercely disagree and debate on the traits. But to make someone empathize with an antagonist is exceptional. Every woman can connect through the struggle of Circe. That is the key takeaway from this book.
A well written book is always magical. Miller’s writing skill is exceptional, as the pages glide through our hands so effortlessly and we imbibe the Greek myths one after another. The words are simple but still have a powerful impact on the reader.
Greek myths have enticed the readers since ages galore. Most of the books around these mythical stories have charmed us in many ways. They are rich in culture, imagination and action. There are Gods and Goddesses, demi-Gods, heroes and warriors. None of them are perfect, they banter and argue like kids. So, it’s always good fun to read them. From Shakespeare to Neil Gaiman, authors of all ages have been fascinated by the Greek legends.
But the book Circe is one of a kind, where author Madelline Miller has used all her creative juices to bring forth a beautiful treasure. It is definite that the reader’s mind will linger in the island of Aeaea long after we read the book. Take a bow, Madeline Miller and keep bringing more Greek myths to us!! And for bringing alive a trait of a doting mother even in the most nefarious female! A perfect book to celebrate Mother’s Day this month.
Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.
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