Jane and Kimberly roam the halls of the gods with Circe, a New York Times bestseller written from a woman’s insider view of living in the times of Odysseus that, finally, arouses a uniquely feminine mythopoeic excitement.
Summary: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves. Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus. But there is a danger for a woman who lives alone and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
I have been reading myth my entire life and it is all written from the male perspective. Women are discussed at great length but never from their own point of view. Imagine, for instance, how different Athena’s story of being born full bloom from the head of Zeus might sound like from her perspective. Circe is a father’s daughter also and we hear from the beginning what she felt like to be the unflavored one, the girl with no husband prospect and a voice no one wanted to hear. From the Greek myths, we get glimpses of many female creatures who have epic kinds of things happening to them but Madeline Miller’s book gives us a journey from inside the experience of Circe, not a major player like Athena born to power but a woman who came into knowing herself to be a powerful woman as she evolves. It is a new kind of feminist adventure with mythic proportions that gave me a sense of excitement from the moment I started reading. It made me wonder. What would it be like to have read story after story as a girl of women with a place in the grand scheme of the cosmos playing their roles in bringing culture into being for the millenniums to come. As is commonly known, we’ve been reading from the ‘he’ perspective in all important literature of the centuries and turning it around to include ourselves as women. I’m excited to talk with you about this because we’re encountering a woman coming into mythic stature told from her own viewpoint and we can test her revelations directly from our own experience as women. Just think about turning ingrained cultural stories around, told from the female eye.
Yes, like what would Cinderella have to say about her story? Let’s talk a little about Circe’s foundation. She was the runt of the family, not especially attractive and with a strange voice. She spent her childhood roaming the halls of Titans and witnessing the dramas that played out between the naiad females and the river gods. She garnered all the knowledge that silent observers do when they’re considered background, virtually invisible. They slink along in the background just pick things up and then roll them around internally in the mind. She was always more “inner” than “outer.” Miller mentions a few times in the book that one of the most epic things Circe had done in her early life was to secretly visit her uncle Prometheus on the mountain where he had been banished by Zeus to spend his days getting his liver pecked out by birds. Circe gave her uncle nectar to drink, so full of compassion for him. He became a model of integrity for her early, and the notion of staying true to who you really are despite any punishment you may receive. There was something solid in her, absent of self-doubt from the beginning even though she didn’t realize it herself. It feels real to us when she first starts to venture out and individuate, the day she meets Glaucos and meanders out into the water to get onto his boat for a ride. She makes a statement that she didn’t know other than to follow her want. I’m trying to feel into this. When you aren’t told what you can or can’t do or who you can be, you just think you are.
Indeed, Circe awakens, comes of age so to speak, even though she lives within an endless lifetime. Even in those times when she would be intimidated by her brother or shamed by her mother, there was always something that would come through for her from the inside to counter any negative outside reflection of her. I found this totally fascinating and an early key revealing she was on her way to becoming a complex woman. It made me laugh because I remembered being that kind of little girl who was always getting into trouble and feeling the criticism of adults. I could feel Circe doing this too, being kind of reckless, immaturely unaware of her potential, and totally restless. When power is simmering beneath, I believe it causes great restlessness. And when things would blow up in Circe’s face, she wouldn’t get down on herself and quit, she would regroup and move on. A life lesson I would’ve liked to have read about girls doing much earlier in my life. She was also unapologetic about being angry or having darker emotions. To her, this was all a part of life, not something to fluff and perfume away. Imagine how getting angry without being labeled an angry woman could be a strength, an infusion of energy to be integrated and channeled.
Circe’s darker emotions don’t take her down or traumatize her. She does reflect on them and seems to be learning from them all the time but they don’t negatively affect her self-esteem. She accepts them as part of the normal cycles of life and interacting with the world and its inhabitants. And the best thing is that she doesn’t seem to need validation from the outside.
I think that’s because an energy keeps coming up and through her, an impetus and drive carrying the seeds of the woman she is meant to be. Perhaps we all start with a silent voice that gets shushed, flattenened or numbed by parents, circumstance, or time. But for Circe, this voice only gets louder. It’s the voice that makes her first find her magic when she uses the flower sap to turn Glaucos into a god. Compelled by desire and wanting, she takes a stab at magic without any real idea what she is doing. But she does it; she trusts this voice. And the voice remains with her as her only friend when she is banished for having special powers that threaten the gods to spend her life, isolated on an island. There is no longer any chance that her voice will be doused. In her isolation, the voice, in fact, only grows louder, until she and it are one. The transformation happens in nature, alone, with her big house, her woods, and her animals. She begins slowly to identify with the wild, natural source of that voice and begins to realize herself as a witch, a woman with magical powers. Circe, in the hands of Madeline Miller, arouses the image of the universal archetype of a woman who communes first with nature for her power rather than the manmade world.
I like that, fits with a Spiritual Feminine class I’m taking now where we’re exploring the Graceful Warrior archetype. I think Circe is a match. I love that she’s a witch, not a goddess like Artemis. She doesn’t use her strengths to turn into a gorgeous seductress to woo or serve the gods. She is, in fact, using her instincts to nurture and develop an incredible sense of compassion for the gods, who she recognized as being prone to the same ego vanities of mortal men, and mortal men. Her sensitivity informs her actions when she has epic encounters with a mortal man like Odysseus. Miller describes Circe as a character who is the embodiment of male anxiety about female power. After her encounter with Odysseus, Circe says, “Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
And again, that is what makes this book so great! We get to hear male anxiety expressed from a woman’s perspective side and we can smile at the insight and the feeling of truth from so many stories we’ve read. And while we’re reading and identifying, we can feel into the archetype of a wild woman who uses the cycles of creation and destruction to process her personal journey. These cycles are not scary to her, they are her friends. In a holistic vision of today’s world, we try to walk on the positive side of the line—to create, not destroy but, we know, they are integrally related. Death of humans was disdained by the immortal gods and yet, Circe’s world depended on the reliability of natural life rhythms…the sun rising and setting, the moon with its cycles, seas ebbing and flowing. Nature, as embodied by the gods and being learned by humans, destroyed and birthed violently, righting itself over and over again, with the creation of monsters having to be dealt with as readily as miracles of good fortune.
What you’re speaking of reminds me of the female menstrual cycle, which is also a rather violent method of nature to release and renew. I think we all carry a little Circe inside us in this respect.
And here we are, at a great segue way from Circe’s foundational years into the formidable adventures she would live hundreds (maybe endless thousands) of more years to play out. Let’s talk about some of her more meaningful interactions.
Can we start with the women?
Yes, when we see Circe encounter some of these great mythical women like the goddess Athena and the mortal Penelope, we see her having to be really grounded in her own power to take them on. And actually, it is in Circe’s own service to mother love, to her own sense of protecting her island and her space and to nurturing her domain, where she really gains a source of indomitable strength. Through her direct communion with Mother Nature, she’s created an almost womb-like space with all the fiery potential to create or destruct from within.
Yes, and that kind of maternal-oriented power is ferocious and seductive. It’s interesting that we get glimpses of these other women and their characters and how coming into contact with Circe affects them. Penelope was the one who protected the kingdom of Odysseus all those years, and it takes a while for Circe to trust her. It’s interesting that Penelope ends up wanting to be on the island, to live out her years there, ensconced in this sort of wild woman sisterhood retreat that Circe has cultivated there.
I find the crossover fascinating. Circe is like a bridge between the gods and the mortals. She represents the constant cycles of birth and death in perpetuity. At the end, when she goes on to travel with Telemachus after her banishment to the island ends, and you realize all the lifetimes she has lived and has yet to live, you really get a sense that she has played a part in weaving together the physical plane with the ethereal plane, blurred the boundaries between Gods and man by finding the magic inherent in nature, a magic readily available to all who dare to listen to and foster their own inherent knowledge.
Yes, Circe found her own power in exile, deep in the place of her loneliness and solitude. She had to sort of mother herself to full bloom. Then she mothered others. It is that maternal nature that really develops in her later years and allows us to see the enormous creative potential that exists in the womb seeds of a woman. We give birth and we destroy constantly, only with Circe, she is never intimidated by the destroy part; it’s just a normal part of nature that exists side by side with creation.
Yes, not only is Circe a witch, but she represents the mother/lover, too; a woman constantly fostering the creative potential of the womb and all it sprouts forth. And like the mother/lover, Circe’s power comes from a place of passion, compassion, and empathy just as much as it comes from anger or protective instincts. Remember, that after she changes Odysseus’ men into pigs, she still ends up helping the crew safely leave the island and return home.
If you look at the female menstrual cycle, women go through four archetypes in a thirty-day period. We start out as Sacred Dreamers, then move into Graceful Warriors to carry out all the fruits of our dreaming. Then we turn into the mother/lover coaxing our creations to successful fruition. Then we bleed and become the Wild Woman who sheds and discards and the cycle starts all over again. Circe’s life is very representative of this cycle and really introduces the fullness of womanhood to us, only for her it transpires across eternity.
It’s also interesting how these cycles of female experience correspond to the moon in direct opposition to Circe’s own father, the sun. We live in a male-oriented world and when we get the opportunity, as we do here, to see a life lived through the female perspective, we are turned on to a whole different way of being, of experiencing life, of tuning into internal wisdom. This is a #metoo story of an entirely different nature. It’s a #metoo story about being just as powerful as a man, about being just as powerful as the Gods, and how it feels to be banished because of this truth, and how it looks to rise up against the patriarchy anyway.
Which is a very real mirror of what’s going on today and why we need to keep seeing these stories told from a woman’s perspective, from the historical to the contemporary. The more authentic female experiences that come out, the more we are changing the fabric of society. I have already been seeing changes. For example, I watch college football every year with my partner and this is the first year I have noticed a decided lack of sexualized hamburger commercials. Kendrick Lamar, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year, has a song where he talks about “show me something natural, like some ass with some stretch marks…” Maybe a crude example, but it really seems like women are finally demanding that they are seen fully for who they really are, not just the male-oriented fantasy versions that have peppered our mainstream psyches for so long.
Right, and by taking a mythological female and allowing her to tell us her real, non-idealized story, Madeline Miller delivers our gender a huge boon. Circe’s story reminds us that women have always been powerful within themselves, even while being largely ignored by the masses. The stories have always been there, they just haven’t been “heard” or witnessed on such a grand public scale. This unearthing that is taking place in the communal voice of women is absolutely fascinating and I hope to see more stories told in this way.