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Witchcraft in Literature 101: Retelling Mythology in "Circe"

Foreword


Witchcraft takes on many forms and perspectives in various works of literature. It finds its origins in folklore and myths, it carries the traits of gothic and horror, but it is also used in satire and comedy, and undoubtedly plays a major role in fantasy. The mystical and supernatural have always been associated with all things dark, scary, and evil. However, the representation of witches and magic has developed through time, leaving outdated stereotypes behind. The aesthetics of horror, the weird, grotesque, and everything else different from normal reality have switched from being repulsive and feared to being attractive. Eventually, witches transform into the protagonists of the story and make witchcraft seem appealing.


Witchcraft in Literature 101 will be divided into seven different chapters:



Witchcraft in Literature 101: Retelling Mythology in "Circe"


The figure of the witch has been carrying for a long time negative connotations in popular culture, and the first instances of this mindset can be detected in the ancient texts. The origins of the early witches might be found in mythology, specifically, “back to ancient Greece” (Ospino, 2023, para. 1). Oftentimes, in the stories a witch is characterised either as an old, unattractive and cunning, or as an unnaturally beautiful young woman who seduces men, but is always malicious, a villain in the story who most frequently has to be tricked or defeated by the hero. The old stigma surrounding witches has given them an “incredibly misplaced and historically inaccurate” representation (Russell, 2021, p. 4). However, in the past decades this disappointing tendency has seen a shift and it is not uncommon to see witches in literature or films who are portrayed as strong, intelligent, and inspiring characters. In particular, this feminist approach has brought back to the light the original role of the witches, who used to be the first healers, nurses, herbalists, and wise women of the societies. This article will focus on the book Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller which represents the modern trend of retelling the original myths from a feminist perspective, as this novel gives a voice to one of the first witches in history.


Figure 1: Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (Waterhouse, 1891).

Madeline Miller (1978-) is an American novelist and a scholar of Greek and Latin. Her debut novel, The Song of Achilles (2011), quickly became a bestseller and received an “Orange Prize for Fiction”. Since then, Miller’s work has been focused on retelling the Greek myths from a new point of view. Her second novel Circe is an adaptation of various stories, mainly Homer's Odyssey (late 8th-early 7th century BC), told from the perspective of the witch and goddess Circe. Miller has always found the brief appearance of the sorceress in the original text frustrating and very male-focused which led her to the process of discovering Circe's side of the story (Hawthorne & Miller, 2018, para. 3). The short encounter of Odysseus with Circe portrays her as an evil seductress, “the most dangerous woman a man could come across”, who lures sailors into her isolated island and then traps them there, transforming the visitors into pigs (Ospino, 2023, para. 2). Miller goes beyond this villainised stereotype of a sorceress and recreates a deep and insightful version of Circe, “a conglomeration of myth, legend, literature with her own spin on it” (Hawthorne, 2018, para. 5). Circe’s life as a goddess expands on the thousands of years, during which she encounters numerous figures from the Greek myths, such as Hermes, Daedalus, Jason, Medea, the Minotaur, Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus appears as a passing-by romance in her life, just like she is only “another of the adventures” in Homer's text (Manwell, 2018, para. 3). Miller portrays the heroine and her life from a very humane perspective, emphasising her role of a woman and a mother, rather than focusing on her divine nature. In a sense, the novel is a bildungsroman, a story focusing on a protagonist's psychological and personal growth through the formative years, as it covers Circe's development from a lonely child, to an exiled witch, and finally, into an empowered woman. Circe’s childhood and adolescence are spent in the great halls of her father titan Helios, where she is left to herself being most of the time ignored by her mother naiad Perse and the other siblings. She is born imperfect by the divine standards, with streaked hair, too sharp face features, and a creaky voice, described by the other as “less than pleasing” and mortal-like (Miller, 2018, p. 3). Circe’s story begins with the words, “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist” (Miller, 2018, p. 1). Circe never feels like she belongs, as if she knew since the beginning that she cannot be one of the nymphs filling the halls or a bride meant for a good match. The author describes her protagonist as a woman who “was born a goddess, but became a witch”, who is also very much drawn to the human world (Hawthorne & Miller, 2018, para. 5), out of her own desire to learn and to change.


Figure 2: The Sorceress, Sketch of Circe (Waterhouse, 1911-1914).

Circe discovers witchcraft after she falls in love with a mortal fisherman Glaucos and searches for a power to transform him into a god. His betrayal when he chooses another bride, Scylla, causes Circe to use magic once more and to curse the nymph, which changes her into the horrific six-headed monster. The protagonist’s exile to the solitary island Aiaia comes about after she confesses her powers to her father. However, “she is not punished for the spell she cast, but for asserting her power in contradiction to her father who denies it” (Manwell, 2018, para. 7). This act of banishment and rejection, first of her potential powers and then of her true nature of a witch, is very similar to the later attitude towards the real witches who were shunned and prosecuted, or in a best scenarioexiled from their societies. Though, what should have been a perpetual prison grants Circe an unexpected freedom, so “magic becomes Circe’s way out of double bind of lesser goddess and lesser gender” (Manwell, 2018, para. 8). Aiaia provides her with “the freedom and space to develop her magical abilities through her connection with the natural”; it is only in isolation and away from her father’s gaze and the patriarchal structures that she is able to use her body, her voice, and her power (Laseter, 2020, p. 16). She embraces the nature of the island, the dark forest, the wild animals, as a part of herself, and this allows her to restore her sense of self and her witchcraft to flourish.


Witchcraft in the novel is closely tied to the history of herbal remedies and early healers. It is referred to as pharmaka and both of Circe's brothers, Aeëtes and Perses, and her sister Pasiphaë possess this power, which makes them all the first sorcerers (Miller, 2018, p. 39). Circe discovers her magical abilities for the first time after using the sap of the flowers which allow her to change Glaucos and Scylla. Her powers are mainly focused on transformation, which allows her later on to use the same spell on the sailors that arrive at her island turning them into swine. Pharmaka differs from the powers of the Olympian gods and titans, as they do not understand it and fear, but “Circe is born with an innate understanding of magic and can access this knowledge through her feelings" (Laseter, p. 2020, p. 14). In isolation on Aiaia, Circe begins to experiment with herbs chopping plants and roots and brewing draughts. “Let me say what sorcery is not, it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not” (Miller, 2018, p. 72). It takes her plenty of time and patience to master the craft and to understand her own intentions, but eventually she learns that she “could bend the world to her will” (Miller, 2018, p. 73). Ultimately, the portrayal of magic in the novel connects Circe to its original meaning, where the first witches were midwives, healers and priestesses, gaining knowledge and power from mastering their craft.


Figure 3: The Herbalist (n.d.)

An interesting paradox is that witches in history are presented as either old and ugly, or young and beautiful, but always evil. While it is obvious that the first image comes from the religious and patriarchal societies’ fears of wise women, the second one, “the sexy witch who lures men with her beauty” goes all the way back to the first witch in western literature: the divine sorceress Circe (The Guardian, 2018, para. 18). However, the sorceress in Odysseus is not the only instance of villainisation of the powerful women. Looking back to the origins of witchcraft in history, portrayed in myths and legends, it can be traced how the first women associated with magical powers have been sentenced for the canon of the evil sorceresses. The Greek mythology provides such examples: Medea, Circe’s niece, did not fulfil society’s expectation and was villainised not as much for her violent actions, but rather for possessing magical abilities and “being a powerful woman in a patriarchal society” (Women in Antiquity, 2021, para. 1). Medusa, for instance, was turned into a literal monster when she was cursed by Athena, after the god Poseidon violated her body. Medusa was hunted and classified as a monster “simply for defending herself” (Women in Antiquity, 2021, para. 1).

Another example, Morgan le Faya very well-known sorceress from the Celtic folklorewas originally a healer. However, the medieval depiction portrays her as evil, ambitious, and sexually immoral, in the consequence of her “seeking magical and political power” (Cobb, 2019, para. 7). The female deities in various cultures, associated with witchcraft, are most commonly connected with the dark arts and underworld. The same tendency can be seen in the Scandinavian mythology, where Angrboda, the first wife of the god Loki is exiled by the higher gods and gives birth to the monsters who are supposed to bring the Apocalypse. Witch’s Heart (2021) by Genevieve Gornichec follows the steps of Miller's Circe and retells the Nordic myths from the perspective of the witch and giantess Angrboda, giving her voice and her perspective on the story. Same goes for The Mists of Avalon (1983), a not-so-popular historical fantasy by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in regard to Morgan le Fay’s character, rejecting her image as of a one-dimensional evil sorceress. This can be seen as a positive trend of retelling the myths and legends from a feminist point of view, presenting the original stories from the perspectives of the early witches and sorceresses, which creates deep and multidimensional female characters instead of settling for the common negative stereotypes.


Figure 4: Lady Hamilton as Circe, the Sorceress of the Odyssey (Romney, 1782).

Circe by M. Miller is a very humane and insightful story of a woman, a witch, and lastly – a goddess. Miller’s perspective is the one that views Circe for more than just a typical dangerous sorceress who briefly appears in the story of Odysseus as no more than a love interest. From this small episode the author “weaves an entire life” and presents the version of Circe as “not a Shakespearean Weird Sister in league with sinister powers, but a vulnerable female who must use that she has at hand to protect herself and those she loves as best as she can” (Manwell, 2018, para. 8). Circe’s powers, indeed, have nothing to do with “the occult, religion or demonic practice” (Russel, 2021, p. 9), instead being far more closely attributed to the origins of witchcraft and its connection to nature. Throughout time, witchcraft has seen a shift in its representation in fiction, culture, and media, and the last decades demonstrate a positive tendency of breaking a stigma surrounding the image of witches. As the first witches in history appear in myths and legends, it can be said that modern fiction completes the cycle by going back to the early texts and fixing the wrongs done to the wise women. New stories do justice to the sorceresses, healers, priestesses, and all women who possess magical abilities, and create an inspiring trend of seeing witchcraft in a positive light.




Bibliographical References

Cobb, M. (2019, January 31). Morgan le Fay: How arthurian legend turned a powerful woman from healer to villain. The Conversation. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://theconversation.com/morgan-le-fay-how-arthurian-legend-turned-a-powerful-woman-from-healer-to-villain-109928


From Circe to Clinton: Why powerful women are cast as witches. (2018, April 7). The Guardian. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/07/cursed-from-circe-to-clinton-why-women-are-cast-as-witches


Hawthorne, K., & Miller, M. (2018, December 9). Classical stories retold by Madeline Miller. Haverford and Bryn Mawr Bi-College News. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://bicollegenews.com/2018/12/09/classical-stories-retold-by-madeline-miller/


Laseter, M. (2020). Limited to the Body: Madeline Miller's Circe as a Feminist Revisionist Myth. [Master Thesis, University of Amsterdam]. UvA Library.


Manwell, E. (2018, October 18). Wistful witch of the west. Medium. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://medium.com/in-medias-res/wistful-witch-of-the-east-ce03166d1aa9


Miller, M. (2018). Circe. Bloomsbury.


Ospino, L. (2023, January 2). Circe, the First Witch of Greek Mythology. Greek Reporter. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://greekreporter.com/2023/01/02/circe-witch-greek-mythology/#:~:text=Thanks%20to%20Homer%20and%20his,and%20never%20letting%20them%20go


Russell, L. W. (2021). The Modern Rewriting of Witches. [Master Thesis, Utrecht University]. UU Theses.


The Villainization of Medea and Medusa in ancient art and literature. (2021, April 17). Women in Antiquity. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://womeninantiquity.wordpress.com/2021/04/03/medea-medusa/


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Anna Artyushenko

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