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By Their Voices: On Miller's Circe and the Other Women (Part II)

In her novel, Madeline Miller creates a revision of the figure of Circe by putting the sorceress at the center of the narrative. As I had mentioned in my previous article ( Miller's reconstruction of the story of Circe gives life to an important “Herstory”, a specific type of literary revisionism that frames a story as feminist by centering a secondary female character under the spotlight. In this way, Miller allows Circe to have a story, a past that can make sense of who she came to be, while also giving the sorceress of Aiaia the chance to tell the readers this very story by her own voice.

Reading through the novel, it is clear how the component of the “voice” is central in understanding the character of Circe and her narrative arch: From a shy and silenced (by her parents, her siblings, and the other gods) child, to a teenage girl that, although frightened, takes the courage to reclaim her actions – the transformation of Scylla in the terrible marine monster –, until she reaches the point of being completely confident in who she is and what she wants, which is expressed by Circe's use of her voice to confront the goddess Athena. Hence, Circe can be considered a bildungsroman, which is a coming-of-age novel that story follows the main character from a troubled childhood towards their grown-up selves. What it is interesting to notice in the case of Miller's work is that Circe's path is indelibly marked by the presence of other female characters, which creates an, even more, well-rounded feminist revisionism. In particular, there are three figures who are central in Circe's life: Pasiphae, her sister; Medea, her nephew; and Penelope, Odysseus's famous wife.


The first woman highly relevant in Circe's life is her sister Pasiphae: Since a young age, Circe was mocked by her siblings, and Pasiphae has been particularly mean towards her, underlying how ugly and useless Circe was. For her part, Circe despised Pasiphae as well, thinking that she was cruel and selfish, as the other gods. What is interesting to notice, however, is that the two characters are quite similar: Although Circe's and Pasiphae's childhood is different, with the former being constantly ignored and the latter being at the center of attention, they are both nymphs and their “destiny” is to be married off to minor god or semi-gods to solidify alliances. In this regard, when Helios – their father – finds out that Pasiphae, Circe, Perses, and Aeetes (the four siblings) are pharmaki – the term used to indicate a person with magical powers – he decides his offspring's faith based on their gender: Perses and Aeetes are somewhat praised for their powers, and they can keep their kingdoms and freedom, while Pasiphae and Circe are demonized and feared for what they can do. Pasiphae is sent to the rich kingdom of Crete to marry the king Minos, thus (apparently) following her birth's destiny of becoming a wife and of being controlled and tamed by the patriarchal authority. For her part, Circe is exiled to Aiaia because she is not good-looking enough for a nymph, hence no one wants to marry her, and because she has to be punished for having used her powers actively: Circe, in fact, sought her voice out, and transformed Scylla willingly. And it is here that it is possible to see the first resemblance between the two sisters: They are feared because their abilities as witches make them extremely powerful, creating an open threat to the patriarchal status quo.

A resemblance that grows more and more as both Pasiphae and Circe become accustomed to their new lives: They are aware that, through their powers, they can exert their will to the world. No episode is more clear in this respect than the scene of the birth of the Minotaur: The way in which Miller tells this episode serves to have Circe understand her sister, while also learning a lesson from her. The Minotaur is the terrible cannibal monster half human-like and half torus, born from the mating of Pasiphae with a sacred white torus sent by Zeus to the island of Crete. Circe is summoned to the island to help deliver the creature and to find a way to contain his voracious hunger. After Circe finds a spell to do just so, she communicates it to Minos and Pasiphae: the king is frightened at the idea that the Minotaur will not be killed off immediately because, as Circe reveals, he has a destiny to fulfill; Pasiphae is delighted at the sight of her husband's concern and anger, and she constantly pokes him and mocks his hysterical reaction to the situation. It is rather interesting this reference to the “hysteria”: In fact, the term shares the linguistic root for “uterus” in Greek, and this term has been used since late antiquity to indicate women with an unstable and highly emotional state of mind. By appealing Minos with this term, Pasiphae is subverting the gender roles and subtext of power and control that this ante litteram term presupposes. As a matter of fact, Pasiphae was sent to Crete to be kept under control, but she is the one with real power, with something to say.

Afterwards, Circe and Pasiphae have an eye-opening conversation: At the latest scorn by her sister, Circe asks Pasiphae why she called her and not her dear brother Perses to help her, at which Pasiphae confesses the abuses she suffered by his hand. Circe is shocked by the revelation, and this is when she begins to understand her sister's behavior: She is just another nymph, as Circe herself is, out there to be used and abused at the will of every man. At this point, it is Pasiphae to unveil the true nature of the gods to Circe: They do not pay any attention to a nymph that behaves properly, the only thing they care about is power. They see it, they want it. And this is exactly what Pasiphae has been doing all her life: Catching all the power that she can. The way she treated Circe when they were young, crushing and diminishing her, was the only modality Pasiphae had to feel powerful, in control of her life, free. At this confession, Pasiphae adds another element: When Circe revealed to be a pharmakis everyone was astonished, but her. Pasiphae recognized in Circe the same strength and hunger to be who she wanted to be that she had in herself. Hence, their transgressive personalities might have been in tension throughout their lives, but once grown, Circe and Pasiphae both used their magic, their voices, to take back their agency after being made feel helpless for so long.


It is with the new understanding of herself born out of the encounter with Pasiphae that Circe meets Medea, Aeetes's daughter who, disobeying her father, decides to flee the kingdom and marry the hero Jason. After various vicissitudes, Medea and Jason arrive at the shores of Aiaia to ask Circe for help: They need to be purified through the ancient and powerful rite called khatharsis, and only someone like Circe could effectively perform it. The sorceress agrees to help them, but not before having talked with her nephew: Circe is aware of Medea’s power because her name and deeds were very well-known, and Circe is dismayed that Medea is using this power for the benefit of Jason. This is the reason why Circe asks Medea if Jason knows what she is really capable of, at which Medea replies: «Of course he does not, are you mad? Every time he looked at me, he would think of poisons and burning skin. A man wants a wife like new grass, fresh and green» (Miller, 149). Hence, Medea hides the powerful extent of her magic in order to be a good wife; Circe does not understand Medea's subjugation to her husband, especially because Medea understands that to do so means for her to lose her entire identity as a powerful witch, a powerful woman, in a patriarchal society. In this regard, Circe sees herself as a guide for the young Medea: The sorceress of Aiaia is older, wiser, more self-conscious, and firmly believes that Medea needs a teacher to harness the power she already possesses and controls.

The two characters are different sides of the same coin: They have power men do not have access to and for it, they are seen as dangerous; as underlying by Leseter, «Miller uses them to show the reality of the two ways they can exist in this world as women with power, either trying to constantly hide it and exist in society, using it for a man, or to instead keep it for themselves but hide away from the world» (Leseter, pp. 34-35). Circe is a powerful witch exiled on an inhabited island, where she can do everything she wants, while Medea lives in the (patriarchal) society, thus her persona is always seen as a woman first, to which the component of magic adds an aura of danger that might put into jeopardy Medea's very existence. Therefore, Medea cannot freely live her life as a witch because this will make her that “otherness” – and Medea, it is important to remember, was a foreigner coming from the reign of Colchis, on the coast of the Black Sea, thus adding the component of “race” into her complex identity – that is persecuted in a patriarchal society. Medea does not have the privilege to make her voice heard.


Circe's last fundamental encounter is with Penelope, Odysseus's wife. Praised as the most faithful spouse, Penelope is well-known for her perseverance in waiting for the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. In Miller's version, Penelope and her and Odysseus's son Telemachus arrive at Aiaia after the death of the hero, accidentally caused by Telegonus, Circe's and Odysseus's son. Circe is suspicious of their arrival to the island, thinking that Telemachus wants to avenge the death of his father; but he assures Circe that this is not the case: Coming to Aiaia was Penelope's idea, an attempt to keep her son safe from the goddess Athena. Little time pass and Athena demands Circe to break the spell she cast upon the island to prevent gods and goddesses to invade Aiaia with their presence. Circe agrees but lies to Athena's face saying that she will need three days to undo the spell: Circe is confident about her power, and uses her voice to help a fellow sister, Penelope, by buying time in order for Penelope to reconnect with her son. Over time, Penelope and Circe become closer, and Penelope seems to be interested in Circe's magic and pharmakeia, asking her questions about where her power is coming from. At which, Circe replies: «I have come to believe it is mostly will» (Miller, 293). It is this will that permitted Circe to open new paths of life for herself, to create possibilities for herself, and now she is giving this fundamental lesson to another woman: She is teaching Penelope how to be a witch rather than a helpless, submissive, waiting, woman. What Circe was not able to do with Medea, she did with Penelope who, after Circe's decision to definitely leaving behind her status of goddess and turning herself into the mortal she always wanted to be, becomes the next sorceress of Aiaia.

In conclusion, all the women presented above, including Medea, are reclaiming their power, and they advocate for themselves. Circe might be the main focus of Miller's story, but it is important not to forget the importance of her “sisters”; the only way to create a new order, to create the possibility of it, is to value and give space to all women so that their voices can be heard. This is, I believe, the main lesson Miller's novel teaches us. In the end, Circe is not alone, she has never been alone: She lived her life with other women, although sometimes in a conflictual way (as with Pasiphae), but Circe thrives, finds her voice, her power, her place, thanks to the coven of sisters she is surrounded by. And, in the end, she may be a witch for real, as all of us can be if we connect and recognize that the power of change is in our collective voices raising all together, as one.


Images references

  • Apulian red-figure, (ca 340 - 320 B.C.). Pasiphae nursing the Minotaur.

  • Frederick Sandys, (1868). Medea.

  • John Wiliam Waterhouse, (1912). Penelope and the Suitors.


Author Photo

Marica Felici

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