Playing Human in Madeline Miller’s Circe

by: Elizabeth Dillon

Cover art by: Diego Plaza Homiston (CC ’23)

Madeline Miller’s 2018 best-selling novel Circe,, explores the intersection of mortal and immortal existence through the eyes of its eponymous heroine, a goddess from Greek mythology endowed with a curiously human-sounding voice. Instead of rejecting her mortal-like voice, Circe inhabits the liminal space between humanity and divinity, finding freedom in playing and performing humanity. Miller’s novel is an endeavor to play with her source material, the Odyssey, in a way that blurs the line between translation and adaptation in its exploration of meaning. Play is an integral part of the interpretive process for both Miller’s textual interpretation and her character Circe’s self-interpretation. 

From the outset, Circe’s interactions with her divine contemporaries mark her as an inferior due to her voice. Her sisters tell her that “it is a shame you cannot hide your voice,” which is “screechy as an owl” (Miller, 9-10). Despite her sisters’ mockery, Circe does not come to realize the full ramifications of her voice until the god Hermes explains:

“Most gods have voices of thunder and rocks … To us, mortals sound faint and thin …

It is not common,” he said, but sometimes lesser nymphs are born with human

voices. Such a one are you” (93).

In the world of Miller’s novel, the role into which gods and goddesses are born dictates their physical aspects as well as their abilities. As a “lesser nymph,” Circe has no power to alter the quality of her voice and what she calls “the strangeness that [lies] there” (94). Her human-sounding voice is thus a physical representation of her marginal role within the divine hierarchy, making her powerlessness immediately evident to her godly peers. Because her voice seems to transgress the boundary between mortality and immortality, it firmly prescribes her lesser role in the divine realm, leaving limited room for Circe to engage in self-determination and play.

Even as Circe is circumscribed by the immortal world, she becomes fascinated with mortal existence. She steals away to speak to the god Prometheus, who is receiving punishment for unlawfully giving fire to the human race (21). When Circe asks Prometheus what a mortal is like, he tells her that “There is no single answer. They are each different” (22). He introduces Circe to a world of possibility and diversity, where the variety in humanity lies and where, as Prometheus adds, “not all gods need be the same” (22). Reflecting on this conversation, Circe considers the value of difference and of challenging categories, realizing “that all my life had been murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it” (24). Circe finds divinity to be dark and confining rather than full of power and potential. For the first time, Circe is able to differentiate herself from the “murk and depths” of her divine existence, recognizing her autonomy as a “creature” capable of movement and of play. Emboldened by this realization, Circe hesitantly begins to reach across the immortal-mortal divide. One day, as Circe spends time on a deserted island and struggles with loneliness, she encounters Glaucos, a humble human fisherman (37). They converse, and when Glaucos expresses a desire to see Circe again, she observes that “it was not until that moment that I think I had ever been warm” (38). As they spend more time together, Circe eventually falls in love (40). Like Prometheus, Circe learns to see the beauty and value of human life. Looked down upon by her divine peers, Circe first finds genuine connection with a mortal. As a result, her voice becomes a meaningful aspect of her immortal identity, such that she feels “something almost like recognition” when contemplating its human quality (94). 

Circe’s love for Glaucos also prompts her to play with the boundary between mortality and immortality. Fearing the inevitability of  Glaucos’ death, she secretly turns to witchcraft, which is forbidden by the gods. Using the sap of an herb grown from the blood of the gods, Circe makes Glaucos immortal (50). Unfortunately, her plan backfires when Glaucos rejects her in favor of the nymph Scylla, and Circe again resorts to witchcraft to turn Scylla into a hideous monster (57). Once caught, Circe is banished to the Mediterranean island of Aeaea. Her marginalization as a lesser goddess and her fascination with human life jointly motivate both her transgressions on her divine power and  on Glaucos’ lifespan; her resulting exile makes her alienation from the divine realm complete. Playing with the lives of others—as powerful gods do—brings Circe only punishment.

Yet Circe’s permanent banishment from the immortal realm gives her the space to further immerse herself in the human experience and to attempt to play with her identity. When wandering sailors wash up on her island, they assume her to be mortal. Circe seizes this moment as an opportunity for imaginative play:

“I stood there, charmed by the idea. What would my mortal self be? An enterprising

herbwoman, an independent widow? No, not a widow, for I did not want some grim

history. Perhaps I was a priestess. But not to a god” (185).

For Circe, the idea of playing mortal suggests a myriad of possible identities and thus frees her from her role as a lesser nymph. She allows herself to ask questions and posit hypotheticals. Instead of wielding her witchcraft to impose a new existence upon others, Circe is using her imagination to envision new ways of being for herself. Pretending to be human enables Circe to cease relying on witchcraft to renounce the divine world, which has restricted and exiled her. Playing human is liberating for Circe because the limitations of her own immortal life seem to disappear. 

Despite the benefits of imaginative play, it is still risky for Circe because she must confront harsh realities on her own. The wandering sailors are unafraid of Circe because of her human-sounding voice, leading them to sexually assault her (185). In response, Circe again resorts to witchcraft, turning all visitors to her island into pigs until the hero Odysseus catches her in the act. As Circe’s life becomes entangled with the fate of the hero Odysseus, the Olympian gods Apollo and Athena appear on her island and violently assert their authority over her (229, 246); Circe cannot escape her divine past even on her island. Yet Circe continues to assert the value of her selfhood, telling Apollo that “I will not be silenced on my own island” (229). Lacking the comparative safety of bounded categories and the communities that they provide, Circe must rely on her own sense of self to keep going—a sense of self that is crucially expressed by her human-sounding voice and her rejection of silence. 

However, the mere performance of humanity is no longer fulfilling for Circe. Her dissatisfaction with imaginative play reveals where her more authentic identity lies. Suggested and aided by the innate sound of her voice, her performance of humanity allows her to identify more completely with the human experience. As Circe’s life intersects with those of Odysseus and his son Telemachus, she finds that “though I looked and sounded like a mortal, I was a bloodless fish” and wishes she could “cross over” (377). Circe’s final divine act is to choose true mortality: “I have a mortal’s voice, let me have the rest” (385). By playing with categories, Circe effectively interprets the human-like voice she was born with; she ‘tries on’ mortality and finds that it represents a truer version of herself. Playing this role brings the self-knowledge she needs to make her performance into a reality.

In fashioning the character of Circe, Miller engages as an author in her own form of interpretive play. The author’s depiction of Circe’s human-sounding voice stems from Homer’s own description of the goddess in the Odyssey. Miller has disclosed that the Homeric phrase δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα, which she translates as “dread goddess who speaks like a mortal,” was “vital in shaping Circe’s story” and, to her, “suggested a person who was caught between worlds—born a goddess but drawn to mortals, an outsider who doesn’t quite know where she belongs” (Miller 2020, p. 4). In interpreting the Homeric phrase, Miller does not employ one-to-one Greek-to-English translation, nor does she ignore the substance of the original language. Instead, Miller operates based on suggestion and possibility to interpret the phrase and allows it to profoundly influence her characterization of Circe. Miller’s use of her source material blurs the boundary between different textual approaches, playing with the distinction between translation and adaptation.

In fact, the three words δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα—so inspiring to Miller’s imagination—are not unique to Circe in Homer, nor are they always thought to possess such a strong connotation of liminality. The descriptive phrase occurs only four times in the Odyssey, three times of Circe and one time of the nymph Calypso, another of Odysseus’s divine lovers. The Cunliffe Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect defines these uses of αὐδήεις as “using the speech of mortals (as opposed to that of the gods),” differentiating from its uses “as a general epithet of human (as opposed to divine) beings” (60). The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon defines the adjective generally as “speaking with human voice,” and specifically in the case of the goddesses Circe and Calypso as “using human speech.” Two translators of the Odyssey into English have aligned with these interpretations, with A.T. Murray in 1919 translating ‘dread goddess of human speech’ and Emily Wilson in 2018 writing “the beautiful, dreadful goddess Circe, who speaks in human languages/”the goddess who can speak in human tongues.” To other scholars, the phrase denotes a god using mortal language, not the inherent mortal-like quality of voice that Miller envisions.

Miller’s interpretation is able to fully explore the implications of boundary crossing identified by Michael Nagler in his article “Dread Goddess Endowed with Speech.” Nagler asserts that the phrase is not exceptional, considering “the common poetic and mythological concern for ‘voice’ as an identifying characteristic” (77-78). In addition, Nagler claims that the focus of the phrase lies more with the word θεὸς (“god”), emphasizing the way Circe speaks to humans specifically in her capacity as a goddess; Homer uses the phrase of goddesses who possess “a precious contact with a realm that is usually inaccessible to the mind of man” (79-80). Miller’s decision to have Circe opt for a mortal life is bold given that Nagler associates the epithet with contact between the immortal and mortal spheres. 

Yet the choice of mortality over immortality is also central to the Odyssey itself, in which Odysseus rejects the immortal life offered to him by Calypso in favor of living out his days with his mortal wife Penelope. In fact, scholar Vincent Tomasso views the epic poem’s first word, Ἄνδρα (“man”), as emblematic of the centrality of mortality as opposed to immortality throughout the epic (135). Similarly, classicist Lillian Doherty describes that the Odyssey often celebrates “various forms of escape from [social and divine] constraints,” and that mortality actually represents an “open” choice because immortality “conceived as repetition of the same, can seem ‘closed’” (52, 62). Miller’s interpretive process is characterized by play, where three little words from the Odyssey become an opportunity for thematic investigation, one that deepens and develops ideas present in Homer’s epic.

The notion of play offers a richer way of viewing the interpretive choices involved in modern myth retellings like Miller’s. Feminist revisions in particular are expected, as Elena Theodorakopoulos notes, to challenge and subvert the classical tradition (152). Indeed, in her review of Miller’s Circe, Alexandra Alter of The New York Times calls the novel “a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story.” However, labeling Miller’s adaptation as “subversive” ignores her studied attention to Homer’s original wording and insinuates that her novel undermines or contradicts Circe’s portrayal in the Odyssey. While it is common for modern myth retellings, and for minor-character elaborations more broadly, to offer a critique on their source text(s), it is clear that Miller is doing something different. The expectation of subversion in feminist adaptations favors a closed interpretive choice marked by reversal, and thus places limitations on the interpretive process. 

In contrast, Miller’s playful adaptive process more closely resembles Theodorakopoulos’s description of a “decidedly feminine way of thinking about translation, with its emphasis on open-endedness and darkness, its rejection of totalizing or closed meanings” (152). Defining postmodernism as “playful and ironic” (42), scholar Bojana Aćamović identifies that the aim of the postmodern epic is “to indicate that the canonical texts can be read in many different ways” (44). Miller’s interpretive play and rejection of fixed meaning is reminiscent of a postmodernist textual approach. She is neither limited by the constraints of ‘accurate’ translation nor by the demands of ‘subversive’ feminist readings. Miller’s novel explores the depth of Circe’s character in a way that is rooted in Homeric language and themes but also influenced by Miller’s own unique creative perspective. 

Only in Miller’s playful text, which rejects straightforward interpretive categorization, can a goddess dare to choose mortality. Surrounded by the limitations of her immortality, the character Circe acknowledges the humanity of her voice and dares to be inspired by it, to taste mortality and imagine a new reality for herself. Miller appreciates the language of her source text and dares to be inspired by it, to blend open-ended translation with adaptation and re-imagine the character of Circe for herself. In Miller’s and Circe’s searches for meaning, play is an invitation to a world of possibility, exploration, and the freedom to choose. 

Works Cited:

Aćamović, Bojana. “Replenishing the Odyssey: Margaret Atwood’s and John Barth’s Postmodern Epics.” English Language Overseas Perspectives and Enquiries 17, no. 1 (2020): 41-55. 

Alter, Alexandra. “Circe, a Vilified Witch From Classical Mythology, Gets Her Own Epic.” The New York Times. April 6, 2018.

Cunliffe, R. J. A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect. Blackie and Son Limited, 1924.

Doherty, Lillian. “The Narrative ‘Openings’ in the Odyssey.” Arethusa 35, no. 1 (2002): 51-62.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by A. T. Murray. London: Loeb Classical Library, 1919.

Miller, Madeline. Circe. New York: Back Bay Books, 2018.

Miller, Madeline. Circe Reading Group Guide. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2020.

Nagler, Michael N. “Dread Goddess Endowed with Speech.” Archeological News 6, (1977): 77-85.

Tomasso, Vincent. “The Immortality Theme in the Odyssey and the Telegony.” The Classical Journal 116, no. 2 (2020): 129-151.