Circe is one the most compelling figures of ancient mythology; nonetheless, she is the first representation of the witch that can be found in “Western” literature, creating several of the tropes that will be used throughout the centuries to depict women who are pointed at as witches. Circe's popularity can be detected by looking at diverse art forms, from paintings to cinema, and while in older representations Circe has been represented as a sorceress, as a concrete danger to men. At least from the 19th century, a new interest in this figure had become evident. Countless, then, had been the re-framings of the story of Circe, of her persona, from a feminist lens, in an attempt to call mythology into question and make readers reflect upon how they used to think about women – and how, not much, has changed. Among the re-telling that has been done in the literature of the figure of Circe, starting from antiquity with Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica and Ovid's Metamorphoses, one of the most interesting ones is written by Madeline Miller who, after winning an “Orange Prize for Fiction” with her The Song of Achilles (2011), decided to venture in a new myth re-writing in her second book titled Circe (2018).
Miller's depiction of Circe is without a doubt a feminist one: One sees the events told in Homer's Odyssey of the sorceress of Aiaia from the standpoint of Circe herself. By recovering a female secondary character and putting it at the center of the story and of the action, by giving this very same character a background (hi)story, while also allowing her to speak out for herself, Miller's work can be inserted in the feminist literary concept of “herstory”. This notion, which gained momentum since the 1970s, is used to indicate the necessity of writing or rewriting stories from the female gaze, in order to «put [ourselves] into the text – as into the world and into history» (Cixous 1976, 875).
Circe in the Odyssey
To fully appreciate the re-imagination of the figure of Circe, and to better understand the contemporary ramification of this character, one must start from her first-ever depiction. The episode of Circe is a rather short one, and it is characterized by the change that the sorceress of Aiaia goes through in her relationship with Odysseus (and his crew-mates): From a seductive temptress, always ready to use her magic and her pharmaka unto unfortunate victims, to a hospitable and proper woman, prepared to open her house and give advice to a lot of men. In fact, as soon as Odysseus and his men arrive, the hero explores the island, and he finds a house with smoke coming out of the chimney, meaning that somebody is living there. Thus, Odysseus sends some of his men to ask for hospitality, and they are immediately attracted by a woman's voice singing beautifully. Circe invites them in, and feeds them with delicious food and wine; what the men do not suspect is that the goddess has malicious intentions: After they have drunk the drugged beverage, Circe speaks the magic words and they are transformed into swine.
In the meantime, Odysseus is helped by the god Hermes who gives him a potent herb, called mòly that only the gods can pick, that will prevent the hero to fall prey to Circe's magic. Moreover, Hermes acts as a divine helper for another reason as well: he tells Odysseus that once he is inside Circe's house, he has to unsheathe the sword and pretend to want to arm the goddess who is scared and stunned by the fact that her magic had not worked on the resourceful hero. At that point, Circe would beg Odysseus for mercy and invite him to lay with her. Such a request from a goddess cannot be refused, Hermes advises, hence Odysseus must make Circe swear that she will free his crew and transform the men back to their human selves. The events unfold exactly as Hermes predicted: After Circe inverts the spell, she begins acting like a proper woman, by bathing, serving food, and drinking to Odysseus and his crew-mates until it is time for them to leave the island. Before having them go, Circe predicts what the future awaits them: Before they are able to back to Ithaca, they will need to go through other adventures and terrible perils, as the Sirens, to which the goddess suggests ways of escape.
What is rather obvious of the ways in which Circe is presented by Homer is that she is depicted with some of the characteristics that can be found in later representations of “the witch”: She lives alone, in a micro-world where she is the only authority; she is surrounded by Nature, that she tames and uses to make her spells; she is sexually aware: She uses her aggressive sexuality to lure men into her traps and to manipulate them.
Ultimately then, she is depicted as dangerous, her intentions are obscure and without apparent reasoning, mainly because her very same lifestyle is not in accordance with patriarchal expectations of, and rules for, women. Notwithstanding, contrary to the interpretation of witches in future literature, Circe is not an irrational woman, but rather she is an expert in the magical arts, and thus, although frightening, she is very intelligent. Central in the reconstruction of Circe made by Madeline Miller is precisely the reconsideration of the figure of the witch as the one of an empowered woman who is not understood by those who rule the society she lives in: Men.
Circe in Miller's “Herstory”
The re-framing of the figure of Circe in Miller's book starts from the very premises with which the character is presented in the Odyssey: The goddess has a “human voice”. This peculiar way of describing Circe will never be used again in the Odyssey, and Homer (and none of the other Greek authors) seems to give any explanation for it. While it might be an indication that Circe was particularly sympathetic towards humans and sort-of kind with them, on the contrary to the majority of the gods and goddesses, what is used by Miller is the component of the voice itself.
A long list of feminist authors has discussed the centrality of voice as a tool of power, of reclaiming space, identity, and autonomy. The quality of Circe's voice changes over the course of the novel: The first encounter is with a young Circe living in her father's – the god Helios – castle, with her mother – the nymph Perse – and her siblings, where she is constantly ignored by everyone, when not openly dismissed for being a rather ugly creature. This point is full of relevance given that the main merit of a nymph is her beauty, which makes her a desirable wife. But Circe is not gorgeous, she had weirdly yellowish eyes and a croaky voice. Thus crashed and silenced, Circe had to work hard to build self-confidence: The first time this spark glimpsed within her is when she met the wretched Prometheus, who is an outsider just as she is. From this moment onwards begins the path that will lead Circe to become the famous sorceress of Aiaia.
At a first moment, Circe is not aware of how her magic works: She transforms Glaucos first, and Scylla later, into respectively a pompous god and a horrific monster. What she really does with her magic is, as Miller highlights, bringing out and giving shape, to what these people were on the inside, their true nature. And Circe is somewhat ashamed, somewhat proud, of what she has done, especially to her cousin Scylla: Here, Circe uses her voice really for the first time, to speak up for herself, reclaiming her deeds. As a consequence, she is banned by Helios, and in accordance with Zeus, to Aiaia, forever alone. But the forced exile is what permits Circe to find her true self: Her magic, her power, and her voice. She sings as she is never able to do before, she pronounces her “words of power”, through which transforms the nature around her, taming wild beasts.
In reading the novel it is possible to witness a constant rise in the intensity, and a more intentional quality, in the voice of the goddess/sorceress. Until a misfortune happens. A vessel crashes on the shores of the island, and Circe happily gives hospitality to the crew. During the dinner, the captain begins to ask her questions, very specific questions, such as “Where is your husband? Where is your father?”, and once he realizes that Circe is alone, a woman alone, he rapes her. This emotional scene is depicted by underlying Circe's inability to perform any magic because she was choked by the man and she could not speak to free herself; she has no control over herself, no agency. After that terrible event, Circe turns men who appear on Aiaia's shores into swine.
The previous passage is particularly relevant in Miller's reframing of the figure of Circe: In fact, Homer does not give any explanation to why she transforms men into pigs, and the impression the reader takes away is that she does so because she is an evil witch. On the contrary, Miller makes sense of Circes' actions as a preventive defense-move: Yo not befallen again as a victim of sexual assault, the sorceress uses all that is in her power, her will, her voice, her pharmaka, to protect herself. Transforming men into swine, silencing them, is what makes Circe - what makes all witches for that matters - threatening to patriarchy. A witch is merely a woman, who decided not to follow the rules anymore, not to be submissive, not to be proper: She has been taught to be seen and not heard, but she has found the (magical) power that makes her presence concrete.
In conclusion, Circe is one, single, woman, a witch, a goddess; but she is all of us.
Madeline Miller, re-centering a secondary female character in a predominantly male (hi)story and literary genre, had given a new life to Circe, while also speaking to her readers. This is of fundamental importance given that, as it is wonderfully summarized by Rich, «[r]e-vision –the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction, is for women more than a chapter in cultural history. It is an act of survival» (Rich in Diaz Morillo, 2020, p. 10). Ultimately, Circe «is depicted as a witch in the patriarchal perspective in the sense that she provokes in men an anxiety about female empowerment for she cannot be controlled by them» (Diaz Morillo, 2020, p. 15); but, thanks to Miller's re-telling, Circe speaks to all women, and for those of them who are still silenced by the violence of patriarchy, those who have not yet found their voice, and tells them that to (re)claim power and to «assert their presence in spheres where they have been too long absent [from]» (Moore, 2002, p. 21), is not something to be sorry for.
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