Circe by Madelin Miller

An introduction to today’s review will be a very concise explanation of the relationship between power and woman in Greek (and not only Greek) mythology – the only way to have any form of power, if you are a woman, is to:

  1. you are born as a goddess, Titan or Olympian, already equipped with some innate and inalienable powers
  2. you marry some god (more precisely, that your father, brother, uncle exchange you for a favor, status or forgiveness), Titan or Olympian, and indirectly, through him, through intrigues and blackmail and backstage games, you try to control your own and others’ destiny
  3. you are born as a very beautiful child, mortal or immortal, so you “hope” for destiny under 2 or you pray to heaven to attract the attention of some powerful god who is more prone to seduction than rape, and then, using your beauty as a lever, try to lead water to your mill.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe by Madellin Miller

But what if you are a woman and none of the above applies to you?
What if, like Circe, you were born without any power (even though your parents are Titan and a nymph) and beauty?

Then, just like Circe, you are very likely doomed to live in the shadow of the more powerful and beautiful, the more arrogant and cunning, who most often use you for their own cruel parties and look upon you as their own curse.

Because she is as she is — having piercing amber eyes, the voice of a mortal woman who is unbearably screaming to the gods; which, due to lack of beauty, is useless to Father Helios as something that can be traded for little power or what a lucrative alliance – Circe grows up eager for recognition, warmth, love; eager to belong and accept.

And in that desire, Circe commits a folly that, in addition to revealing to her the ugly, treacherous side of human and divine nature, brings her shame, contempt for her own father, and persecution.

You dare to contradict me? You who cannot light a single flame, or call one drop of water? Worst of my children, faded and broken, whom I cannot pay a husband to take. Since you were born, I pitied you and allowed you license, yet you grew disobedient and proud. Will you make me hate you more?

Circe by Madellin Miller

After doing something illegal, after reaching for something that should not be available to people like Circe, the gods condemn her to the most cruel punishment that, in their opinion, can befall a woman. To complete, eternal solitude and isolation on the island of Aiaia.

You see, the only way for a woman to come to power is through some male mediator – to be his gifted offspring or a beautiful wife. What is it like to punish and humiliate and prevent her from ever again reaching for power that is not meant for her?

To show her that she is irrelevant, that she is unwanted, that she is a nuisance, a surplus.
Rejected. Removed. On her own.

But, although among the Greek gods, supposedly, there are also those who are proud of their wisdom, it seems that many have overlooked that miraculous things happen when one woman is left alone.

Loneliness is, if approached properly, an inexhaustibly rich fertile ground for a woman, for her growth, development and learning. Suddenly, the demands that a woman take something from herself – time, physical strength, endurance, creativity, resourcefulness – and give it to someone else stop. In solitude for Circe, learning begins, re-examining everything she was told was allowed as a woman, as well as re-examining everything she thought she knew about herself and her own limits, about her own power.

It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

Circe by Madellin Miller

In solitude and isolation, Circe embarks on an incredibly difficult but exciting adventure of uncovering a source of power whose existence no one had even guessed before and who will turn our Circe into a woman whose special power – the power of transformation – will make her legendary.

Those among us who passionately loved and enthusiastically read any variant of Greek myths will remember the sorceress Circe. She is probably remembered as “that witch who turned Odysseus’ poor sailors into pigs.”

Author Madeline Miller herself said in a series of interviews that in all the stories she was read as a child (and which she later read herself), Circe was portrayed as an arrogant, unreasonably cruel sorceress who made fun of exhausted sailors who just wanted to return to their homes. Homer portrayed her as a malicious witch, a seductress whom Odysseus, with the help of the god Hermes, outwit. Ovidius portrays her often, but also in a negative light – an amorous, shallow ecstasy.

Neither before, as a girl, nor later, as a lecturer and theater director, she was content with these rare and scanty stories of women appearing in mythology.

Only later, in her studies, when she began to read great works of Greek literature (especially collections of myths) in the original Greek, did she realize that more was written about women in Greek mythology, that their characters were multidimensional, that their stories were deeper and more branched and more importantly.

In this book, Madeline Miller has not only enriched the character of Circe; she did so with a series of female characters — Scylla, Medea, Penelope, Pasiphae — many of whom were given a little more character in this book, a little more “flesh” in their stories.

Are all nymphs good and beautiful and harmless? If not, why not? Are all witches also ruthless and relentless? If so, why are they? Are all goddesses wise and impartial? Are all wives faithful because they love their husbands or are there some other reasons? Wonderful, intriguing answers to all these questions were given by Madeline Miller in this book.

Oh, it wasn’t just female characters from Greek mythology who received “treatment”; Odysseus also got it. How do you remember him? As a great, fearless hero of Greek mythology.

Well, guess what… Madeline reminds us that Odysseus, in short, was a rude peasant of a flammable character, as well as a liar and a conspirator. If he can still be remembered as a hero, why shouldn’t the women of Greek mythology have their own stories in which they are the main characters, and not just casual entertainment, distraction and clues in the heroic adventures of the Great and Important Man? After all, I’m really interested in how Odysseus and his team would have survived some monsters, if it weren’t for Circe…

Madeline Miller has truly, for us, the readers, completely transformed the memory and understanding of a woman from Greek mythology. She wrote a beautiful, exciting, tense, juicy and complex story about the beautiful transformation of a woman who, wanting more than what she was allowed and prescribed as a woman, made a big life mistake that, instead of ruining her, took her far from the world, where in solitude she could begin to rebuild herself.

“You are wise,” he said.

“If it is so,” I said, “it is only because I have been fool enough for a hundred lifetimes.”

Circe by Madellin Miller

Circe did so — painstakingly and painfully slowly, but persistently and steadfastly and patiently, gathering knowledge and skills and building with them a power that is impossible to inherit – that can only be acquired – and that no one can take away from her. Working diligently and learning from her own mistakes, she turned from a rejected, frightened girl into a woman from whom the heroes sought advice and the kings sought help.

She had turned into a woman whom even the gods could no longer (and some did not even dare) intimidate, and she herself was no longer afraid to step where no one else would rather if she did not have to. Isn’t this really a new, inalienable kind of power? How much do you want it?

What creature waits within me?

Circe by Madellin Miller

Because it offers such a powerful and complex (and beautifully written) story about personal power and the ability to self-transform, which questions many of the prejudices we have about female characters in mythology (anyone’s, not just Greek), I highly recommend this book most sincerely and passionately.

Because it brings the story of a woman back to women and gives a voice to a woman we knew only as a side character of someone else’s adventure (be sure to follow the evolution of Circe’s VOICE in this book – notice not only the difference in tone of voice but also in content at the beginning and end book), I consider this book a title that every woman must add to her to-read-ASAP list.

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