Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller is the first book that I read in 2021. 

I chose to start with Circe because I wanted to start my year off with a strong female lead and I was not disappointed. Circe’s story as told by Miller is a fantastic read, that really resonated with me. 

Circe, the daughter of the Titan Helios starts off as a meek and disregarded member of the Titan’s family. Often the victim of ridicule and humiliation you begin to understand the family dynamic and sympathy for Circe begins to blossom. I enjoyed reading about Circe’s childhood, as it really does help with her character development. She starts off as a soft little flower seeking shelter at her father’s feet but will eventually transform into the myth which brought her infamy for centuries.

Anyone who has some interest in Greek Mythology will know about Circe. My first encounter with her was while reading the Percy Jackson novels. I knew that eventually Circe would end up on an island and would start turning sailors in pigs, but I wanted to know about the why and the how. Miller’s retelling is slow and steady, but rather than turning into a boring read, it allows you to become invested into the story. You want to know what happens to Circe because you truly start to understand her and feel her pain and happiness. Rather than reading a rushed retelling which would be as disappointing as the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, you get to go on the journey with Circe. You experience the highs and the lows and for lack of a better cliché, it really is a rollercoaster of emotions. 

I won’t spoil the story for you, but Circe’s various different relationships with the men in her life show why Circe eventually started to turn men into pigs. I think we can all connect with the disappointment of pouring yourself into a person and getting nothing in return. This isn’t limited to romantic relationships, but all, whether they are familial, platonic, romantic or sexual. I liked that the pigs weren’t even the main part of her story. She has an epic story and you get to hear about it, from her. 

Circe is a Titan Goddess, but is so relatable and I think that’s why you fall for her. You can see parts of yourself within the myth and understand how she became the woman that she is known as today. 

I would really recommend this book if you like feminist retellings of Greek Mythology. We’ve had countless tales of heroes and their gallant adventures, but we rarely saw the women in these stories. They’re often a minor character who assisted the hero or caused some sort of hindrance, but now, we can read about them and their stories. The heroes are now the minor characters in these women’s tales.

I didn’t like the ending, but that’s only because I would have liked for her story to end in a different way. I do however understand why she chose that path for herself and it makes sense when you understand what she’s always wanted. 

Miller is a fantastic writer, who wove this beautiful story. I loved the book and I loved Circe. I felt a real affinity for her and I wish everyone could read this book. My love for Greek Mythology as a feminist was really sated and the hype around the book was so well deserved. 

I’ve really kicked the year off with an excellent read and I can’t wait for the rest of the books that I will be reading throughout this year.

If you have any recommendations for books based on Greek Mythology, please leave a comment!

Medusa

The most infamous Gorgon, whose name has echoed throughout the centuries, paying homage to Medusa for my blogs first post just felt so appropriate. Over the past few years, Medusa’s story has been told more and more, and it’s not just the usual story of the innocent and heroic Perseus beheading the hideous and monstrous Gorgon. Medusa who now features as the logo for Versace and has become synonymous with feminine rage has become a popular character in today’s culture.

Growing up and reading about Greek mythology, Medusa was painted as a promiscuous woman who slept with Poseidon in Athena’s temple. When Athena found out she then cursed Medusa to be stripped of her beauty and for it to be replaced with reptiles. She became a monster that could turn anyone into stone, once they gazed into her eyes.  A villain who was defeated by a mighty Greek hero. In order to understand Medusa’s story, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Medusa was her own woman, with her own life and background.

There were three Gorgon sisters, Medusa, Stheno and Euryale. They were born to Phorcys and Ceto. Medusa, the only mortal of the three sisters was a beautiful young maiden. Her golden locks were her crowning glory. Ovid wrote that her hair was the “most wonderful of all her charms.” Such beauty did not go unnoticed and ensnared mortals and Gods alike. Poseidon, Lord of the Seas, became infatuated with Medusa. The beautiful Gorgon however, had vowed to be celibate in honour of the virgin goddess Athena. Now this is where the different variations of Medusa’s story collide. Some claim that Poseidon pursued her and they married, others claim she simply had sex with Poseidon in Athena’s temple or that Medusa had no interest in Poseidon but this did not deter him, and he took her forcefully in Athena’s temple.

But all lead to the point where Athena then changed Medusa’s glistening ringlets into the serpents that ultimately brought her infamy. At this point, many believe that Athena was enraged and that the desecration of her temple led to Medusa being cursed. The unconquered virgin would not stand for this disrespect and she punished Medusa. Virgil described the transformed Medusa as, “an enormous monster about whom snaky locks twist their hissing mouths; her eyes stare malevolently, and under the base of her chin the tail-ends of serpents have tied knots.” The Ancient Greek Gods and Goddess’s are known for their temperamental natures. Punishing those who have supposedly caused offence is nothing out of the ordinary. Athena and Arachne is one of many stories that spring to mind.

As a feminist, the idea of a woman being punished for her rape by another woman is abhorrent.  A God raped Medusa and would never face consequences for his actions, but why should she suffer for his sins? Why would Athena punish her when she did nothing wrong?

I don’t want to believe that Athena was punishing her. Instead I want to believe that Athena was protecting Medusa, ensuring that she would never be subjected to the male gaze ever again. Athena couldn’t punish Poseidon, he was a powerful God, his dominion was vast and he was also her uncle. If she could not punish him, she may have sought to protect Medusa without offending the Olympian.  The serpents in place of her hair would protect her, ensuring that no man would ever look at her and live to tell the tale. Medusa would be able to live in peace with her sisters and no man would be able to violate her ever again. This theory sits better with me. Medusa’s serpents were not to subject her to further humiliation, but rather uplift her and protect her. The Gorgon would strike fear into the hearts of men before petrifying them and turning them into stone.

Athena, like her Olympian counterparts would be vain but yet she seems more rational. The goddess of wisdom would hardly give into her baser emotions, she would be smarter and would have thought through every option. I believe she came up with the perfect solution that would appease all parties. Athena could keep Medusa safe and look like she was had punished her for violating the sanctity of her temple. Medusa under the guise of being punished was able to live with her sisters on a distant island. She was able to live in peace where she would not be shamed.

All beings must die and Medusa met her end at the hands of Perseus. He beheaded her whilst she was asleep and seized her head. The head of Medusa was given to Athena who placed it upon her aegis, the shield that she carried, alongside Zeus. It seems fitting that Athena, the Goddess to whom she had pledged her celibacy, used her head on her shield. In the end they protected each other.  

Ultimately, Medusa is a symbol of power. She was a powerful woman who was killed by a Greek hero once he had the help of the Olympians. Even after death, Medusa was still powerful and could still petrify those who met her gaze. Athena proudly bore her upon her shield and used her power as a symbol of feminine strength. Medusa was painted as a villain and a hideous monster by history but for me, she was a woman who was wronged. She didn’t deserve to be cursed with reptile hair, but in the end, those serpents became her strength.