In Ancient Greece, when a village or city was beset by plague or drought or other great ill, often the citizenry would ritually sacrifice or exile a person in order to alleviate that misfortune. This practice of expulsion was called pharmakos, a word we know today in its descendent “pharmacy”: a place to obtain medicine.
It’s the medicine that sits at the root of the word pharmakos. The sacrifice was the medicine for what ailed society. On an individual level, medicines such as potions or salves were known by the related word pharmaka. Utilized in a slightly different context, however, the art of making such potions, poisons, or other draughts, was pharmakeia, or witchcraft. And the practitioner of such an art was a pharmakís, or witch.
It is this power of pharmakeia that Circe, in Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, wields through her immortal lifetime, narrating her encounters with Helios, Prometheus, Hermes, the Minotaur, Odysseus, and more.
Circe is a nymph, among the lowest and least powerful of the immortals. She is a Titan, daughter of Helios, one of the few Titans allowed to remain unimprisoned by Zeus, king of the Olympians, after the war between the gods. Restless, rebellious, and jealous, she uses her natural talent for pharmakeia to turn another nymph, Scylla, into a monstrous beast. For this, she is exiled to the island of Aiaia, where she spends centuries developing her witchcraft, battling gods and mortals alike, loving others of each, and shaping the ancient world. Through it all, she remains dedicated to herself, even as she continues to learn more of who and what she is, and to learning what it means to truly be alive.
Circe is a tour de force of storytelling. Miller’s deep understanding of Greek history and mythology is evident and educational without ever ceasing to be primarily gripping and entertaining. While it begins a bit slower than Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, and maybe doesn’t contain exactly the same kind of popular punch as that book, it is true to itself and to its story in much the same way that Circe herself remains true to her belief that there is more to existence than simply existing forever.
Circe is an excellent novel, equally at home in a classroom, in ancient Athens being sung at the City Dionysia, or on the casual reader’s bookshelf.
5 / 5 stars