In the sixth grade, my beloved teacher Joan Davis assigned us our first research paper, long before the days of Google, the Internet, or Amazon.com. We ventured forth carrying index cards, different colors of ink, and stacks of books (well, three or four), from which to glean knowledge to distill in the prescribed format. I chose Greek Mythology and after quickly falling in rapture with the tales, created the I.II.III. a.b.c. etc outline and thereafter the research paper required. The paper was completed but my fascination for the subject is not.
Madeline Miller, author of the Orange Prize-winning novel The Song of Achilles and more recently Circe, developed a fascination around the same time in her life by visiting the
Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ Ancient Greek Exhibit. “This absolutely helped to further my love of the ancient world, particularly its mythology. I used to love looking at the statues and trying to guess who they were. However, I think I would need to cite as a personal inspiration Vergil’s Aeneid. Homer’s work influenced me also, but there is something about Vergil—his care with language and imagery, his beautiful characterizations, and his passionate pleas for mercy and forgiveness.” https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2011/07/20/madeline-miller-author-of-the-song-of-achilles-answers-ten-terrifying-questions/”””
Likely against all practical advice, young Madeline went to Brown University and studied Classics and Theatre. Despite that, she has become a teacher and wildly successful novelist.
Circe binds a spell woven of the well-known mythology and the unknown character of a woman. Circe has come through time as a witch, transformer of men into pigs, aunt of Medea, entwiner of Odysseus. Miller transforms the mythology by giving us the history of the little girl, most reviled daughter of Helios, the sun god, and his wife Perse; ignored by her parents and mocked by her siblings.
“The two of them were very clever and quickly saw how things stood. They loved to sneer at me behind their ermine paws. Her eyes are yellow as piss. Her voice is screechy as an owl. She is called Hawk, but she should be called Goat for her ugliness.”
In Miller’s novel, Circe’s life changes when her uncle Prometheus (he who gave fire to man) is brought to Helios’ hall for punishment. Alone of the witnesses, Circe feels compassion toward Prometheus and offers him a cup of nectar. After he drinks, Circe questions him as to why he would go to such effort for humans and then freely confess to Zeus what he had done. Prometheus answers: “Not every god need be the same.” In this, Circe finds her life’s ambition.
Many of the reviews of Circe dwell on Miller’s feminist re-characterizing of the Greek witch. Others have spent a great deal of time commenting on that aspect, so I will not, other than to say I read Circe as a female author’s take on a female character.
The central event of the novel is Odysseus’ year-long visit to Aiaia, the island to which Circe was banished for using witchcraft to turn a mortal into a god. She has been alone for centuries, defending herself against hostile men by turning them into pigs, when Odysseus and his crew land and seek shelter. After Circe almost automatically turns the crew into a herd of swine, Odysseus arrives.
“‘I think you are Odysseus,” I said. “Born from that same Trickster’s blood.’
“He did not start at the uncanny knowledge. He was a man used to gods. ‘And you are the goddess Circe, daughter of the sun.’
“My name in his mouth. It sparked a feeling in me, sharp and eager. He was like ocean tides indeed, I thought. You could look up, and the shore would be gone.”
What follows are encounters with gods, Hermes and Helios, goddesses, Athena, and monsters; travels to the underworld and the depths of earth; and the birth of Circe and Odysseus’ son, Telegonus.
Topics for book club discussion are rich. The nature of divinity, the Fates, choice, marriage, war. Circe may be nominally about a goddess, but we mortals will certainly enjoy reading and discussing her life.
Well . . . Circe gives Prometheus nectar but I have no idea what kind or how to generate that. My menu will focus instead on more mundane dishes, and definitely no pork!
Cheeses and berries (pomegranate if in season)
At one point, Circe makes a favorite dish of fish stuffed with herbs and cheese. Try this recipe:
6 (6 ounce) salmon fillets, skinless
5 ounces spreadable cheese with garlic and herbs
1 cup soft breadcrumbs
1/3 cup parmesan cheese, freshly shredded
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
Preheat oven to 425.
Finely shred enough peel from lemon to make 2 teaspoons; cut lemon in wedges and set aside. In small bowl combine semisoft cheese and lemon peel. In top of each fillet, from about 1/2 inch from one end, cut a pocket, taking care not to cut all the way through the fish. (If the fish is thin, cut into the fish at an angle). Spoon cheese mixture into pockets. Season fish with salt Place in baking pan and set aside.
In small bowl combine bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, butter and pine nuts; sprinkle over fillets, pressing lightly.
Bake, uncovered, about 14 minutes or until salmon flakes when tested with a fork. Serve with lemon wedges.
Monteverdi’s Opera The Return of Ulysses
Josef Mysliveček’s opera La Circe
If you’re in the mood for something more modern, The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love sounds divine to me.
According to Madeline Miller’s website, HBO is adapting Circe for a televised experience. I would anticipate a miniseries rather than a movie; there’s just too much here for a two hour event.
Sean Bean (aka Ned Stark) played Odysseus in the film Troy. Joseph Mawle (aka Benjen Stark) played Odysseus in the 2018 miniseries Troy: Fall of a City. Let’s stick with Game of Thrones and give my favorite non-Stark the role. Arguably, you could easily cast the whole thing with GOT alums. Lena Headey as Circe, Gwendoline Christie as Athena, Aiden Gillen as Hermes? For fun, I’ll get out of the GOT box after casting Jamie.
Odysseus Nicolaj Coster-Waldau
Circe Margot Robbie
Athena Charlize Theron
Penelope Rosamund Pike