When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousands of cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride…
What could make a god afraid? I knew that answer too.
A power greater than their own.
I had learned something from my mother after all. I bound my hair in ringlets, and put on my best dress, my brightest sandals. I went to my father’s feast where all my uncles gathered, reclining on their purpled couches. I poured their wine, and smiled into their eyes, and wreathed my arms around their neck.
commentary: When I read Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles last year I was completely enchanted by it, and expressed the hope that she would move on from the Siege of Troy and write a book about Odysseus. And she has written something even better - the story of Circe, described in Wikipedia as ‘a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress in Greek mythology’. So her relationship with Odysseus forms an important part of her life, but Circe’s own story, in this version, is equally fascinating: Miller gives the ever-fresh details of women’s lives in an imaginary world of gods and goddesses, and makes them real and painful and lovely and relevant to today. Her way of writing and telling the story is mesmerizing: this is a fully imagined world, and even if the reader can’t quite work out the extent of their powers and how their bodies compare with human physicality – well you can be sure Miller has.
Circe is an enchantress: she is different from her siblings and companions, she feels ignored and unhappy. She is banished to a lonely island after using her powers, and there she stays: and becomes famous for turning visiting sailors into swine. And that is where Odysseus and his crew come in.
She is a wonderful character: Grumpy and miserable at times, but slowly building her own world and her own way of living. She is intensely real – much more so than many of the women in contemporary novels. I was completely in love with her.
It is difficult to describe what makes a book magical. It is partly the way Miller writes. This is Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, describing how the goddess Athene has featured through his life:
‘I have seen her many times,’ he said. ‘She used to come to me when I was a child. Never in her own form. I would notice a … quality to certain people around me. You know. The stranger with overly detailed advice. The old family friend whose eyes shine the dark. The air would smell like buttery olives and iron. I would speak her name, and the sky would ring bright as a bell…’ An owl circled on its silent wings.I can see these books are not for everybody, but I loved them more than almost anything I have read in the past year or two.
Another recent book with a classical theme that I very much enjoyed was Colm Toibin’s House of Names, which deals with the Oresteian Tragedy, roughly contemporary with the events in this book.
Circe from an 18th century book of costumes, from the NYPL.
Ulysses at the table of Circe by John Flaxman, also NYPL.
Circe and her swine is from an 1896 book, also NYPL.