We came to Aiaia, which is an island. There lived Circe of the lovely hair, the dread goddess who talks with mortals.
‘I gave her an embossed gold cup to tell me all she knew of Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia.’
‘She said that a man named Odysseus, born from my blood, will come one day to your island.’
‘That’s it,’ he said.
‘That’s the worst prophecy I’ve ever heard,’ I said.
-Circe, Madeline Miller
Circe is a goddess and a witch, the daughter of the Titan Helios, who drives the chariot of the sun across the heavens, and of a nymph, Perse. In The Odyssey, Odysseus arrives at her island Aiaia weary and grieving: he and his crew have already passed through several trials, lost all their ships save one, and grappled with monsters and gods. Circe welcomes the sailors into her home, then takes up her wand and transforms the crew into pigs. Odysseus, however, holds back and enters her halls alone. She takes him to her bed, and he commands her to change the crew back into men. Odysseus and his men remain on Aiaia for a year, rebuilding the ship and recovering their strength. Circe offers Odysseus prophecies: he will go home to Ithaca, but the journey will be long and full of terrors and temptations. He must visit the land of the dead and speak with the blind seer Tiresias. He’ll have to pass the Sirens and without being ensnared by their song. He’ll have to pass the twin threats of Scylla, the devouring sea monster, and Charybdis, the whirlpool. He’ll pass the island of Thrinakia, home of the cattle of Helios. She warns him not to harm the cattle, lest death and destruction fall on his crew. He leaves, and his journey follows her predictions. He never returns. As far as The Odyssey is concerned, that’s the last of Circe, the witch.
A few years ago I was at a performance of Giselle when I noticed a shift in how I was relating to myths, legends, and fairytales. Giselle, you may recall from the very first Sweet Nothings holiday shoot, is the tale of a young woman who dies of heartbreak after her lover betrays her. She joins the ranks of the Wilis, the spirits of women betrayed by men, who punish any man who strays upon their path by forcing him to dance until he falls down dead. Giselle’s love for her betrayer, even after death, is strong enough to sustain and protect him until the sun rises and the Wilis fade away.
Growing up, it seemed like the moral of Giselle was clear: true love is eternal. Now that I’m older, that moral isn’t cutting it. Albrecht is a complete and utter cad with no regard for the damage he can wreak in other people’s lives. He betrays not one but two women, he lies to an entire village, and he does so secure in the knowledge that his nobility will get him out of any tight spots. I now watch Act II, as the Wilis sweep across the stage, a ghostly, severe, menacing army of tulle, as they murder Nice Guy™ Hilarion, and as they attempt to murder Albrecht, and all I can think is “bitches get stuff done.” The Wilis are supposed to be nightmare figures, warnings to young unmarried women to be careful of their hearts, but I think they’re more properly expressions of men’s fears that their abuses might come back to haunt them.Circe is often treated as an afterthought in some classical discussions, a mere stopover during Odysseus’ more heroic or dangerous adventures. She’s also sometimes conflated with Calypso, another daughter of a Titan, who keeps Odysseus captive and enchanted on her island Ogygia for seven years before he’s finally released to return to Ithaca. It’s so easy to write both figures off as just daughters, enchantresses, temptresses: they have powers, sure, but according to the gods, those powers pale before the manly might of a manly hero like Odysseus, or at least before the ‘real’ power of an Olympian god. And yet…Circe’s prophecies are correct. She also created an eternal sea monster. She transforms men into pigs and back again at will. Those don’t seem like weak powers to me; they seem, on the contrary, dangerous. Power like that might make a man face consequences for his actions. Probably safest to seclude her, diminish her, and dismiss her.I know the Wilis and Circe don’t seem all that related, but to me they’re a reflection of the historical truth that men perceive powerful women as a threat. Women with power, whether magical or moral, must be stifled, put in their place, humiliated, put down, wounded, disenfranchised, diminished. In Giselle, the women who have been wronged or hurt are transformed into menacing spirits, made into villains so that the man appears to be the one endangered. In Madeline Miller’s Circe, Circe has the chance to step out from the sidelines of Odysseus’ story. Indeed, as Circe is an immortal goddess, and has lived for centuries before the Trojan War even begins, it’s rather fitting that Odysseus himself doesn’t show up until the halfway point in her story.
This post could really have just been “read Circe, here are my pictures, happy holidays everyone” because WHEW I’m obsessed with this book. It grants a complex and rich inner life to a figure people have dismissed as a distraction or temptation. It explores power, and the abuse of power, and it examines how different women respond to a world where the legacy of cruelty is both vicious and capricious. It’s a world that broke my heart over and over again. When Circe is born, her father offers a prophecy, as he has for his other children. Unlike the great heroes, Circe’s prophecy has nothing to do with her character or accomplishments. Instead, her father prophesies that she will marry a prince, not being pretty enough to marry a god. She as her own self is not considered as important as who she will marry. Her brother Aeëtes, whom she raises, is just as dismissive of women as their father is: “Even the most beautiful nymph is largely useless, and an ugly one would be nothing.” Power is the greatest currency in this world: Zeus and the Olympians wield the most, and they are terrifyingly unpredictable with it, elevating one hero there, blighting an entire country for seven generations there. The Titans struggle with the Olympians, with each other, and turn those with less power against mortals.
In addition to her slow-burgeoning but powerful witchcraft, which the gods both fear and deny, Circe’s voice is almost antagonistic to the gods around her. Her parents and siblings constantly shame and berate her for it. It is not until she is on Aiaia, and has her first meetings with both Olympians and men, that she understands: she has the immortality and glamour of the gods, but her voice sounds like a mortal’s. It’s a voice that brings comfort to some, and assures them that they are not in danger, but more often than not it’s a voice that betrays her: men and gods alike hear it and dismiss her power. This is a woman who can turn a mortal into a god and a rival into a monster, yet they discount Circe as just another nymph, paying her only as much honor as they think she is due as Helios’ daughter.
I love how this book explores the legacy of abuse and cruelty. Circe’s earliest and most disastrous transformations (of the first mortal she loves, Glaucos, into a god, and of the nymph Scylla, her rival, into the eternal, ravaging sea monster) haunt her for centuries. Her sister Pasiphaë creates the Minotaur a devouring monster. Pasiphaë manipulates the innocent around her, imprisoning Daedalus and Icarus, neglecting her daughter Ariadne, and forcing sailors to sail past Scylla and Charybdis so that they have to watch their comrades die. Circe’s brother Aeëtes becomes a monstrous magician king, robbing those who serve him of their free will, and he passes his magic and manipulation on to his daughter, Medea. Cruelty begets cruelty. Circe carries with her a legacy of both neglect and abuse, and when she’s exiled from her father’s halls to Aiaia, it feels at first like paradise; there is no one to harass or grope her, no one to scorn her, no one to tell her not to sing or speak. She can explore the island on her own terms, and explore her power, carefully cultivating the plants and flowers she needs for her potions.
Power in this world is largely a corrupter. Glaucos wins Circe’s love and pity as a mortal fisherman, but as soon as she transforms him into a god, he becomes just as cruel, selfish, dismissive, arrogant, and capricious as the other gods in Helios’ halls. Circe’s siblings, again, horribly abuse their power over mortals, Minos uses his monster to terrorize his neighbors, and even Odysseus, who arrives halfway through the novel, becomes so wrapped up in his own mind and power and legacy that he takes advantage of everyone around him, ultimately to the point of his own destruction.
Is it any wonder, then, that when Circe revels in her solitude and nurtures her own power, builds her own life for herself in exile, claims ownership of her body and mind, that she would use that power to defend herself and those she loves? After centuries on Aiaia, with mortals spreading over the world and travelers and warriors venturing across the seas, men arrive on the island for the first time, and she is at first overjoyed to welcome them. The first ship arrives, the crew greet her as a goddess and fall gratefully upon her food and drink, and then of course they do what dreadful men and gods throughout history have done: they look around and see the riches in the room, the ask if there is a husband or brother or father they need to thank, and then they assault her, the captain leaning his arm against her throat so she can’t speak a word of magic. They failed in their calculations though: the last round of wine was laced with a potion, and when Circe gets her breath back, she speaks the words of transformation. She transforms each man into a pig, slaughters them all, and burns the bodies. More ships arrive, more men seek her out, and they’re all given their chances, but most fail her test.
Circe’s story speaks to me as one of reckoning with trauma, of self-discovery, of sacrifice, of becoming. In a world that values her only as much as she can offer sex or riches to a man, she builds herself up as something utterly new. She is wary, and curious, and vulnerable, and the gods mock her for that. She works hard and practices and hones her craft, and the gods shame her for that. Her voice puts mortals at their ease, and some hear it as an opportunity to take advantage of her. She helps Odysseus and his crew, and she gets written into the epics as another unruly woman brought to her knees by a powerful man. I’d honestly be happy seeing her chill on her island taming lions and turning gross men into pigs for all eternity, but she chooses instead to engage with the wider world on her own terms, rather than retreating from it, even though that engagement requires risk and sacrifice.
How many witches have been called so because they proved more powerful than a man’s political calculus? How many witches have been punished for asserting a power to help and to heal that proved greater than someone else’s power to destroy? How many witches have been dismissed or vilified because a man didn’t get his way?
I think of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, and how many of the women named in the piece, over the last few millennia, were assaulted, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their beliefs and actions. I think of how women have been punished well into this century for aspiring to study something as universal and important as medicine or science. I think of how much we’ve learned as a result of #metoo, of how many artists, leaders, and innovators were blacklisted, dismissed, and pushed out because they challenged or even simply said “no” to a powerful man. I think of Emma Gonzalez, of her courage and power, and the threats those qualities seem to pose to grown adults ready to insult and attack her. On a smaller scale, I think of the times I’ve stepped back or erased my contributions to soothe a man’s ego. The times I’ve worked behind the scenes to allow someone else to think he succeeded on his own. The times I sacrificed my time, my energies, and my heart, only to be overlooked and forgotten once I was out of sight.
Despite facing literal centuries of disappointment, dismissal, and heartache, Circe continues to work to forge connections, with both mortals and her loved ones. Most of the gods and mortals she interacts with either can’t see her power, or can only see it as a threat. But witches get stuff done, and Circe defends herself, and she takes love where she wants it. Her power is transformation of beings into their true selves, and ultimately that includes her own transformation, not into what the other gods or heroes want her to be, not into a monster, but into the person she wants to be and to live with. She leaves a few mortal lives better for having known her, and she finds a peace with herself.
She also makes sure to pass on her witchcraft so her legacy can continue. Some men really are pigs.
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Harness: Margaux by Fleur of England, one size
Gown: Pinup Girl Clothing
Tiara: Kryle Headdresses
Photography: Sylvie Rosokoff