“In due course we came to the island of Aeaea, the home of the beautiful Circe, a formidable goddess, though her voice is like a woman’s. She is the sister of the wizard Aeetes, both being children of the Sun who lights the world by the same mother, Perse the daughter of Ocean”.*
So does Homer introduce us to the witch goddess Circe, who famously turned men to swine. After giving Odysseus’ men a potion, Homer’s Circe “struck them with her wand, drove them off, and penned them in the pigsties. For now to all appearance they were swine: they had pigs’ heads and bristles, and they grunted like pigs; but their minds were as human as they had been before the change.”* The ‘why?’ does not matter to Homer’s Odysseus, and this act of porcine legerdemain has come to be identified with malicious misandry. Madeline Miller however, is clear. Her Circe turns men into pigs to protect herself. Circe is a lesser goddess exiled to an island, protected only by fallible spells, rather passive wolves and lions (who are not, in the novel, enchanted men). After being raped and faced with an eternity of abuse, Circe acts to protect herself; Miller obviously relishes fleshing-out Homer’s description of the transformation:-
“My eyes lifted to his rutted face. Those herbs had another use, and I knew what it was. I drew breath, and spoke my word.
His eyes were muddy and comprehending. ‘What -‘
He did not finish. His rib cage cracked and began to bulge. I heard the sound of flesh rupturing wetly, the pops of breaking bone. His nose ballooned from his face, and his legs shriveled like a fly sucked by a spider. He fell to all fours. He screamed, and his men screamed with him. It went on for a long time.
As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.”
Madeline Miller has sought to explain why and how the nymph Circe is exiled to Aiaia. Circe is a dull jewel in the lapidary world of the Olympians. Immediately after her birth, Circe’s mother says to her father, “‘Come… Let us make a better one.'” Despised for her imperfect beauty, her mortal’s voice (‘screechy as an owl’) and her unfortunate ability to empathise, Circe lacks the ruthless dazzling abandon of the greater immortals. Desperate and clingy, she becomes a figure of derision and – as her unpopular skill in herbal witchcraft emerges and is used to terrifying effect – fear and revulsion. She practises and perfects that herbal art (pharmakeia). One day, as foretold, Odysseus sails to her door (the resourceful mortal’s appeal to goddesses is rather elusive but, presumably if one is exiled for eternity, even a short-legged, faithless smart-arse would be a diversion.)
Miller’s Circe has a life before Odysseus, and Miller also breathes life into the clay of the few vague myths we have about her life after Odysseus, in particular, concerning thoughtful Telemachus.
Miller flashes them all before us. We thought we knew them – Daedalus, Medea, Hermes, Helios, Apollo, Penelope, Trygon, the Minotaur, et al. Miller makes them both glorious:-
“She struck the room…tall and straight and sudden-white, a talon of lightning in the midnight sky. Her horse-hair helmet brushed the ceiling. Her mirror armour threw off sparks. The spear in her hand was long and thin, its keen edge limned in firelight. She was burning certainty, and before her all the shuffling and stained dross of the world must shrink away. Zeus’ bright and favorite child, Athena.”
“[Scylla’s] body sagged out of the mist. I had never seen it before, gelatinous and huge. As we watched, it scraped down the cliff side above us. Her heads squealed and bucked, as if trying to haul it back up again. But it only sank further, as inexorably as if it were weighted with stones. I could see now the beginnings of her legs, those twelve monstrous tentacles stretching away from her body into the mist. She kept them hidden always, Hermes had told me, coiled in the cave among the bones and bits of old flesh, gripping the cave’s stone so that the rest of her might dart down for her meals and return.”
Not a sentence, not a word goes astray. This is a rich, rough and golden book for those familiar with The Odyssey and those who are not yet. However, scholars of Ancient Greek will particularly note Miller’s scansion and structure which allow for no doubt about her expertise in that language.[*”The Odyssey” by Homer. Translation E. V. Rieu, The Penguin Classics.]