My first problem, I discovered, is that I know very little about Greek mythology. I think the last time I actually read any of the old stories for myself was back in junior high school...a long time ago. I knew the barest bones of the stories told and most of them related to Odysseus and his journeys. I had never heard of Circe before so I had to do some research about the Greek gods and goddesses and all those demigods and titans.
Here is what I learned about Circe from Wikipedia:
- She was the daughter of the god Helios (sun god) and the nymph Perse
- Some accounts have her fall in love with the sea-god Glaucus, but he prefers the nymph Scylla. In jealousy Circe poisons Scylla's bathing water and turns her into a monster.
- She was vanquished to Aeaea by her father for a variety of transgressions.
- She was well-known for her knowledge about herbs and potions
- She changed most of Odysseus's crew into swine when they visited her island, Aeaea, on their way home from the Trojan war. Odysseus forces Circe to switch them back and then ends up staying with her for a year before returning home, after fathering a son with her, Telegonus.
- Classic literature from the Renaissance time depict Circe as a predatory female.
- Art work with her depictions show her as a female to be feared as well as desired since she is viewed as sexually free.
Then along comes Madeline Miller with a new interpretation. In this book Circe becomes a powerful and sympathetic character. Ron Charles, in the Washington Post, started his review with this funny line, "The archaeological evidence is sketchy, but the first pussy hat was probably knitted by Circe." In Miller's hands Circe becomes a feminist before the #MeToo movement. She is powerful, beautiful, wounded, and complicated. She is a very sympathetic character. Ron Charles tells us, "And to anyone who thinks that women can be shamed into silence, this witch has just one thing to say: 'That’ll do, pig.'"
Miller collected all the bits of Circe's stories from mythology and pieced them together into an incredibly and well-written story. AND, and that is a big AND, it made me want to read more on the topic and by this author.
I will be recommending this book to everyone who reads...well, not to little kids, but everyone else.
(RHS book club July 2019)