Circe by Madeleine Miller with herbs

Circe is a witch. Before she was a witch, she was a nymph. In her ancient language, nymph means goddess and also bride. Nymphs are weak and easily caught by gods and mortals alike. Even a witch like Circe can be caught off-guard.

This is the version of Circe we know from Homer. The witch who turned sailors into pigs, then taught Odysseus how to navigate his way past the sirens. In the Odyssey, Circe is a minor character, a brief episode in the hero’s journey as he wends his way home from the Trojan Wars.

In Madeleine Miller’s version, Circe is a force of her own. Her weapons are flowers and herbs. She has learned her craft through trial and error and by dint of much effort.

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.

By rights, I should never have come to witchcraft. Gods hate all toil, it is their nature.

Madeline Miller, Circe (Bloomsbury 2018)


When I was a kid, I loved to read the old myths. The Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, and the Egyptian: our fifteen volume collection of Childcraft Encyclopedia had it all. I relished their pettiness, their never-ending feuds, and above all the imperious way in which they treated mortals. It made sense to me. If you’re a god, why behave?

A god cannot die, he cannot experience pain for longer than the moment it takes for his body to heal itself. The ordeal of Prometheus is only an ordeal because the eagle returns to tear out his heart at the precise moment his body is whole again.

If Circe is a goddess, as all nymphs are, what sort of a journey could she take in a novel? Circe falls in love with a mortal and, when he rejects her for another, she uses her powers of sorcery to avenge herself. The crime of pharmaka might be forgiven but not her clamorous confession. For her pride, Circe is exiled on an island near the modern-day Mount Circeo.

Until that moment I had not known how many things I feared. Huge, ghostly leviathans slithering up the hillside, nightworms squirming out of their burrows, pressing their blind faces to my door. Goat-footed gods eager to feed their savage appetites, pirates muffling their oars in my harbour, planning how they would take me. And what could I do? Pharmakis, Aeëtes named me, witch, but all my strength was in those flowers, oceans away. If anyone came, I would only be able to scream, and a thousand nymphs before me knew what good that did.


Circe learns. She studies, she fails, she stands up and tries again. She never loses her fascination for mortals nor they for her. The world changes around her while Circe does not.

I had walked the earth for a hundred generations, yet I was still a child to myself. Rage and grief, thwarted desire, lust, self-pity: these are emotions gods know well. But guilt and shame, remorse, ambivalence, those are foreign countries to our kind, which must be learned stone by stone.

Even a divine sorceress like Circe cannot read the future. If she cannot lose her life, then she will lose her heart, one way or another. Odysseus will become one of many males, divine and mortal, who set foot on Circe’s island. He will be a tiny episode in her journey but he doesn’t know that.

Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. The boy who sang it was unskilled, missing notes more often than he hit, yet the music of the verses shone through his mangling. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

A Spell

I have fallen for witches before with their book of spells. Circe enchants me, not by force of the witch’s power, but through her humility. The Titans, from whom Circe descends, must cede power to the Olympians. Soon, the Olympians too will fade as the world of men takes control.

We reached the island of Crete just before noon on the seventh day. The sun threw off great sheets of light from the water, turning the sail incandescent. Around us ships crowded the bay: Mycenaean barges, Phoenician traders, Egyptian galleys, Hittites and Aethiopians and Hesperians.

A nymph is not all-powerful. A witch’s draught can only do so much. Immortality means nothing if everyone you love must die.

These are powerful spells for me to learn as I work my way through my own novel manuscript. You see, my narrator is an accidental god who could use a good dose of Circe’s humility. Thank you to the witch a/k/a my book editor who told me to have a look at Circe and cast my own spell.

24 Mar 2023 | Karen Kao