Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate Links, meaning I receive a small commission if you make any purchase through links marked clearly with an asterisk, at no cost to you. Please read my full disclosure for more info.
All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without a sea. Yet now look where I sail.”
–Madeline Miller, Circe
Welcome to Part One of my new blog series, “Women of Substance!” For the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my thoughts on three different stories, each of which features a heroine of compassion, integrity, and vision. Today we begin with Madeline Miller’s novel Circe*, the story of one of Greek mythology’s most famous sorceresses.
When my sister Katie fell in love with the audiobook read by Perdita Weeks*, I was definitely curious. The cunning femme fatale of The Odyssey seemed an odd choice for a protagonist, but I gave it a whirl, listening to the first episode at work…and then going straight to the second episode…and then the third episode…and then…well, you get the picture.
From the electric rivalry between the Olympians and the Titans, to the lavish descriptions of both divine palaces and the ancient world, to the haunting story of a vivid, relatable heroine, Circe* captivates you from Chapter One. This book has become one of my favorite novels, and Circe herself (or rather, this reinterpretation of her) one of my favorite heroines.
If, as Nurse Lucille Anderson declares in Call the Midwife, “A woman of substance can make a life for herself anywhere,” then few do it better than Circe, daughter of the Greek sun god Helios. It’s clear from her childhood that she’s different from the other gods and goddesses. She’s thoughtful, empathetic, deeply interested in the rough, fleeting lives of mortals…and she nurses an inconsolable longing for a place and purpose she can’t yet pinpoint.
Such independent thought and genuine compassion for the gods’ human playthings, however, make Circe both an oddity and a threat. After all, her own uncle Prometheus was exiled for teaching humans about fire. But the true extent of her nonconformity comes to light when everyone realizes she and her siblings have mysterious gifts of transformation and illusion. As “witches” with their own power independent of Zeus and his cronies, they put Olympian authority in jeopardy.
Ultimately, Circe’s refusal to deny the source of her power (herself, not some random accident)–doom her to a life of exile on the island of Aiaia. Any other nymph might’ve wallowed in self-pity, but not Circe. She makes the most of her isolation. Honing her skills in pharmakeia (magic) and raising a menagerie of loyal pets, she not only becomes her own person, but answers numerous cries for help from her frequent mortal visitors. And when she finally meets Odysseus, the lost prince of Ithaca, her love for him and his family changes her long, lonely life forever.
Yes, Circe is a “witch.” Yes, this is Greek myth, which means everyone is going to bed with everyone else. But Circe’s magic is something she was born with, and the sexual content is very discreet–far less graphic than what I read in high school in The Iliad…or what I read a few months ago in Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
Those caveats aside, Circe’s story resonated with me. Her centuries-long search for purpose and her journey towards wholeness were moving and relatable. As she matured from an unassertive nymph into a wise, fierce, delightfully earthy champion of mortals, I often found myself asking myself, Where am I using bitterness to protect myself? Where do I limit myself with nothing but my own self-doubts? Am I using the time and gifts bestowed upon me to serve others, or simply to gratify myself?
Circe is also held in stark contrast to the other gods who simply don’t care about anything other than their own interests. Where they scorn or ignore the humans, she often risks her own well-being to protect her mortal friends. Her love isn’t always returned in kind: one horrific betrayal leaves her so embittered, she starts turning all her human visitors into pigs. (Enter Odysseus and his crew, stage right.)
But this harsh self-protection isn’t permanent. Not long after Circe opens herself up to love again, she finally meets the one man who truly sees her. And once she realizes she’s loved unconditionally, she has the courage to find out who she truly is. It’s awesome, it’s satisfying, and it’s inspiring…because aren’t we all braver when we know we’re completely loved?
(And no, her One True Love is not Odysseus. This guy is infinitely better. But since I was so surprised by this plot twist that I literally screeched in delight, I shan’t spoil it here. You’ll have to read it yo’self 😉 )
Circe is formidable and sharp-tongued, ready to fight anyone who looks at her friends, her house (OH THAT HOUSE), her lioness, or her baby in a way she doesn’t like. But she’s also observant, curious, humble enough to question her own motives, infinitely tender with those she loves, and a mender of torn and broken things. Through perseverance, courage, her wits, and her unshakable compassion, she makes a life for herself in the middle of nowhere. By Nurse Lucille’s definition, she definitely qualifies as the first of my three “Women of Substance.”