Read IN BED: Circe
Words & Images by Hannah-Rose Yee
“We lit no tapers. The room was dark and warm from the day’s heat. Shadows draped the bed. No frogs sounded, no bids called. It was as if we had found the still heart of the universe. Nothing moved except for us.”
Circe, Madeline Miller
In the beginning there was… What, exactly? It really depends on what you believe. If you’re a Christian, you believe that God created the universe in his own image, man then woman, all in six days.
But if you come from Ancient Greece – and if you do, I’d love to know about your time machine – then it goes a little differently. The Ancient Greeks believed in a vast, numerous network of Gods and Titans, feuding immortal creatures full of anger and lust and every big, bold thing other than vitality. They skirted around the edges of mortal life, observing and, occasionally, meddling. But on the whole, they were content to feast and frolic and fuck, up in their palaces in the sky.
This is the setting of Circe, Madeline Miller’s masterful, wondrous retelling of Ancient Greek myths. Her focus is on Circe, who for most will be familiar only as a witch figure in Homer’s Odyssey. It is on her strange, shambolic island that Odysseus and his men end up ashore, and it is there that they discover a woman with magic powers turning men into pigs. (Relatable, to be honest.)
Homer wasn’t that concerned with Circe, or any woman for that matter. But in Miller’s hands, Circe becomes a much more three-dimensional character. We learn of Circe’s childhood as the daughter of the Sun God Helios, and how she was gaslighted about her own terrific power. We learn about her banishment to her island and, finally, we learn about the men that she loved.
Miller’s style is poetic, the imagery profound, but the book reads like a thriller. It skips like a stone skimming the surface of the water past a greatest hits of Greek myths; a solemn reminder that women have been part of many of the world’s most recognisable stories, just conveniently sidelined or erased from the narrative. At first, we learn about Circe’s role in the birth of the Minotaur in Crete. Then we see her entangled with Daedalus, he whose boy Icarus will one die fly too close to the sun. Circe crosses paths with Medea, her powerful niece. And then we meet Odysseus, wily and witty and weary, deep in his bones.
This is not a love story. But it is the story of a woman coming into her power and strength and staking out a corner for herself in this resolutely male world. It’s unforgettable.