Circe by Madeline Miller is the modern empowerment of women in Greek mythology

(TW: parts of summary mention sexual violence)

Can you name one woman in Ancient Greece who was depicted as a hero? I would guess that you can’t. There are women who should be considered heroes, such as Atalanta, but how many people actually know the story of Atalanta? 

Many people have heard about the Trojan War – Odysseus, Ajax, Agamemnon, Diomedes, and of course the impenetrable Achilles. These men are the heroes, or important figures in the Trojan War. The first woman that comes to mind is Helen of Troy, blamed as the woman who started the war. A victim who was captured.

The women in Greek Mythology are invisible. They act as plot points for men and play roles to further their stories. They have stories that were told in sentences, where they were the villain that the men needed to vanquish for glory.

Modern retellings of Greek myths tell the stories of women’s empowerment. They delve into the minds of these women and tell the stories from their perspective, when before they were only a mere part. How are these stories actually their stories?

One of the best modern retellings of a Greek myth I’ve ever read is Circe by Madeline Miller. Circe, the witch of Aeaea, was introduced in the Odyssey as an evil witch who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. Miller taught us that she is more than just a witch, more than just a woman in a man’s story.

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

Madeline Miller, Circe

Miller explores this inner conflict with Circe that plagued her for thousands of years. She is the daughter of Helios, the mighty sun god. Born from the ancient god, she learns about their desire for glory and power. She, the weakest of her siblings, is shunned from her family of divinity. Only when she meets Prometheus, the god of creation–chained up and whipped for giving fire to humans– does she learn how beautiful human beings truly are. She questions her place in the universe – with the gods whom she was born from or the mortals whom she grew to love.

“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

Madeline Miller, Circe

Circe turns men into pigs because she has no choice. If she did not turn them into pigs they would have raped her. She has powers of transformation, revealing the truth within someone’s soul. She revealed their true nature, that these men were pigs.

What it means to be an unliving god who so desires to cling so desperately to life as a mortal. What it means to live in a man’s world where your magic of protection is the greatest threat to the almighty Olympian Zeus. A woman who unlearns the cruelty necessary for survival and discovers the beauty in love, the love that mortals give her. That is Circe, and this is her story.

“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures—flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”

 ― Madeline Miller, Circe

Circe is a fan favorite among those who have an interest in Greek Mythology:

“It is a story as the bards would have sung it, without the needless embellishments. Our narrator does not shy away from hurt and misfortune. Our hero is not an infallible being, favoured by the gods, the chosen one who will prevail against all odds.” — Yoni

“I absolutely loved this. If you enjoy Greek mythology, complex heroines, and a generous serving of adventure, bloodshed, betrayal, magic, and monsters – both literal and figurative – then hell, READ THIS BOOK.” – Emily May

“in the house of Miller, goddess of written word and mightiest of storytellers, a masterpiece was born.”


Perhaps some of the best words to describe Circe:

“No longer is Circe a character thrown into the mix to aid and build the credentials of our heroes. To deify Jason and Odysseus. A minor inconvenience in the epic of men, a plotline, a throwaway character with no agency of her own.” — Yoni

Featured Image Credit: Amazon

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