Down in Aiaia: Madeline Miller’s CIRCE

“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Thus begins Madeline Miller’s novel Circe that gives voice to the mythical character best known for supporting roles in The Odyssey and Joyce’s modern, modernist parallel. In Miller’s telling, the events of Odysseus and other Greek myths serve as background for Circe’s own odyssey.

The lack of name says much about where Circe is born. The upper echelons of eternity are patriarchal, driven by power, full of bullies and bad actors. Of her father Helios (the Sun), Circe says, “He believed the world’s natural order was to please him.” Her early attempts at friendships and relationships go for naught; the males move on to higher stations and leave her behind, scarring her. She’s got a lot to learn. One misstep that might have been tolerated by a boy gets her banished forever to the island of Aiaia. Father knows best.

Though isolated and lonely, Circe eventually realizes her five-voweled isle is a good fit, her Br’er Rabbit briar patch, a room of her own. She begins to find her identity. She learns to make spells and potions from the local flora, gaining a female, earth-based power. The banishment that made her a nobody among the gods lays the groundwork for her becoming somebody. I’m Nobody. Who are you? The latent power in being no one recalls Odysseus’s ordeal with the Cyclops. When Polyphemus asks who has deceived and blinded him, Odysseus tells him, “No one.” When his fellow Cyclopes (yes, that’s the plural) ask him the same question, his reply completes the joke. Bah-dum-tss.

Miller makes us rethink the received image of Circe defined by her act of turning Odysseus’s men into pigs. The novel creates a credible backstory in which Odysseus’s is just the latest of many galleys to come ashore. Circe plays the good Greek girl god in displaying hospitality, providing food and wine aplenty to men in need. She even suffers the mates getting carnal with the willing nymphs that hang around her house. Inevitably though she undergoes the fate of too many women in vulnerable situations involving men. After that trauma, it makes sense that at first whiff of danger she’d turn subsequent visitors into the creatures they’re acting like.

This second look at the limitations of a single male viewpoint calls to mind Jose Saramago’s 2009 novel Cain, which does for the Hebrew/Christian tradition what Miller does for pagan mythology. (Meanwhile, Jennifer Saint’s novels Elektra and Ariadne have continued the trend of feminist reimaginings of Greek mythological figures.) In Saramago’s retelling, Jehovah’s actions often seem capricious, born of insecurity and arrogance, and lead to violence that gets explained away. It’s for a good cause. His advocates caretake the father figure God, maintain the status quo. Gods will be gods. Cain never understands why God rejects his offering and accepts his brother Abel’s. He’s given no reason – Genesis is silent on the matter – and the traditional view that somehow Cain was evil comes from extra-Hebrew biblical interpretations or the later Christian New Testament. And when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain points out the injustice of the town’s women and children having to perish for the men’s sins. Oh, and the land of milk and honey He promises? There’s a catch: The Hebrews have to slaughter all the tribes that occupy the land between here and there. Even the women and kids. They’re evil. Trust me.

Metaphors of Jehovah-driven religion typically convey ascendance, seeking release from this imperfect world, and gaining eternal life in heaven. God is up, the prophet Elijah is taken up, ditto Jesus at Pentecost, and his followers to be “caught up” in the Last Days.  Circe’s odyssey goes the other way. Her banishment mimics the fall of Lucifer, whose pre-biblical origins in folklore coincidentally are associated with the feminine Venus.

Odysseus’s mark on Circe lingers after his death. Fate brings his widow Penelope and son Telemachus to her island, joining Telegonus, his son by Circe. As the four spend time together in retreat on Circe’s isle, each character gets in touch with their deeper natures. Free from their past and its associations with the baggage of patriarchy, they’re able to rethink the roles they’ve had to play, the shoes they were expected to fill. They come to know themselves; they move forward like new creatures.