Witch Week Day 4: A Famous Witch

Circe with leopards and a book of spells: J W Waterhouse’s The Sorceress (1911-1915)

Many of you know Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, as the creator of the Witch Week blogging celebration to honor Diana Wynne Jones. Lory announced last year that she was ready to hand over the reins to any interested blogger. We’re lucky (and grateful) that she was willing to be one of our guest bloggers this year.

Lory Widmer Hess shares her reading journey at Emerald City Book Review. Books based on fairy tales and mythology are among her favorite things, along with long walks, knitting, singing, and chocolate. She came up with Witch Week five years ago as a new blogger, and still considers it one of the best ideas ever. For more information about (and images of) the infamous witch of Greek mythology, Lory recommends a read of Madeline Miller’s photo essay.

Madeline Miller: Circe
Little, Brown and Co 2018

When I was casting about for a book to review for this year’s Witch Week, I hit upon Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, and knew it was the perfect choice. What better character to explore than one of the most ancient and famous witches of them all, with a charming propensity for turning men into pigs?

As in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, Miller takes us on an immersive journey into the past that makes us see the Homeric world with new eyes. Riffing on a brief episode in Homer’s Odyssey, Miller fills out and expands upon her source material to convincingly build a setting and a cast of characters through which we can contemplate the nature of deity and humanity, destiny and freedom, love and fate. The first-person narrative begins with the childhood of Circe, divine offspring of Helios the sun god and his consort, a daughter of Oceanus the water-god. One might think such a lofty parentage would be of great advantage to the young nymph, but Circe is maligned by her mother for her unpleasant voice and appearance, and toyed with by her callous father. The halls of Helios are not a place of harmony, but of jockeying for power in a harsh world.

When it becomes apparent that Circe and her siblings are a new breed of divinity who practice pharmakia – manipulating the herbs and other products of the earth into drugs and potions, rather than purely manifesting the forces of nature – there is horror in the halls of the gods. What to do with this dangerous, unpredictable new element?

This was one of the most interesting ideas in the novel for me: that witchcraft originated in the divine world as a transgression against natural powers. I was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel, though played out here with divine beings rather than humans. Like Cain, whose sacrifice produced through working the soil is rejected by God, Circe becomes an outcast and exile, a scapegoat carrying off the shadow her bright father can’t bear to face. On the island of Aiaia she lives out her immortal days, haunted by one of her first magical acts, the transformation of the nymph Scylla into a terrible monster.

But the Greek word used here for witchcraft also gave rise to our word “pharmacy,” suggesting that this power can be turned to healing as well as harmful ends. And spurred by an early encounter with Prometheus, who was terribly punished for helping humans, Circe begins to question some of the assumptions under which the gods live, and to develop her own quietly rebellious way of thinking and feeling.

By the time Odysseus arrives on her island, she’s been through a great deal – including the birth of her monstrous nephew, the Minotaur. Her experience of the cruelty of monsters, gods, and human beings leaves her with an understandable tendency to turn men into swine, and to seek vengeance against those who hurt her. Yet unlike her brothers and sister, whose powers are used purely for selfish and evil ends, she tends toward a more compassionate moral stance. In Homer’s intriguing words, she speaks with a human voice – a mere phrase that Miller expands into a whole rationale for her behavior, and for a possible way forward into the future.

Written in a measured, elegant prose, which echoes the past yet has a highly individual voice all its own, Circe’s narrative is a pleasure to read. At times it reads a bit too much like a “greatest hits” of ancient mythology, packing an incredible number of incidents and characters into its pages, but overall it succeeds in weaving together these scattered elements into a coherent, satisfying whole.

Feminist themes are implicit in the story of how Circe comes out of an environment of abuse and disempowerment to become self-determining, emotionally mature, and ethically strong. Educated by the pains and joys of motherhood, matched at last by a worthy partner, she journeys toward life and wholeness. It’s definitely an odyssey worth taking.

39 thoughts on “Witch Week Day 4: A Famous Witch

  1. I read Circe earlier this year and loved it. I was surprised by how many different myths and characters Miller pulls into the story and at times it was too much, but I thought it was a great book overall.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that this book can be a great counter-irritant to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, popular among tween male readers for reasons that should come as no surprise to girls and women: Hero + male sidekick + interactions with Greek/Roman pantheon = rollicking good fun. Riordan’s series is great, but leaves a gap that Miller’s book starts to fill. I hope Circe’s succecc encourages other writers to come at mythology from the distaff angle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never been attracted by the Percy Jackson books, but then I’m not the target audience. On the other hand, Circe does attract me; I hope that, along with her and Attwood’s Penelope, the other wronged mythical females get their stories told properly, women such as abandoned Ariadne and the much maligned Medea—that is, if there aren’t already modern treatments that I’ve missed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        I have very similar feeling about Riordan, but we’re not the targeted audience and not every writer has the power to appeal to all demographics… “Circe” does look interesting, a new and well thought-through look at mythology I’ll be happy to acquaintance myself with.

        As many classics were created without the female perspective, it’s a great idea to re-interpret them from their heroines’ POV. Not only the Greeks, I just remembered “Lot’s Wife”, poem by Nobel Laureate Szymborska…

        The key to success in such cases is to build upon the works that inspired you, not just take a few most popular details and ignore the rest, and the review made me believe Miller succeeded here 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder if it has been based on Euripides’ play The Trojan Women? This is another play I’m supposed to have studied at school but apart from the basic plot I recall little else about it. I was a stupendously immature school student, in retrospect!


    1. If that’s so I wonder if it signifies anything? If the world is in turmoil do we look to classical narratives to give us answers to how we extricate ourselves from this mess? Or maybe even that hubris will inevitably lead to a fall?


  3. Wow! What a concept. To imagine that the origin of witchcraft was to take the power of the supernatural and replace it with the natural. This idea is like Prometheus teaching mortals the power of fire. I cannot wait to dive into this book.

    Liked by 1 person

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