Let’s say that you’ve got an Ancient Greek hanging out with you while you’re running around doing errands. Likely as not, your day would go something like this:
You: Man this red light is taking forever
Ancient Greek: The story of the slow red light begins when Zeus distracted his wife Hera by building a fancy water park on the island of Crete. Hera, unable to resist boogie boarding in the wave pool, grabbed all of her maidens and left Zeus alone on Mount Olympus. Free from his wife’s jealous eye, he transformed into a bucket of jumbo buttered popcorn and attempted to seduce
You: Light changed
Ancient Greek: The story of the changing traffic light begins when
You: Give it a rest, Xanthos
The Greeks have a big story for EVERYTHING. Seriously. Pick a subject. Weather? Oooohh, let Xanthos tell you about the shenanigans on Mount Olympus. The seasons? See, Persephone really needed her me time and that’s why trees bloom. Mirrors? Bad hair days? Oak trees? I can do this all day, because the Greeks had every base covered with stories from a complex and intricate community of gods, goddesses, and endless variations of human/immortal hybrids with social lives that rival any Shondaland plotline.
Of all the things the Greeks lauded in their storytelling-beauty, athletic ability, cool chariots-they valued one attribute above all else. The brass ring, the Stanley Cup, the Shake Shack burger of Greek attributes is immortality. No goal was more desired than that of living beyond human limitations, of achievement that would catapult an ordinary man to off the planet to Olympus altitudes. Immortality is the spokesman for the franchise, the thing that defined what sacrifice and nobility meant to the Greeks. We are talking about immortality today because it is immortality that is the center of one of the few books that made reading life bearable for me in 2018, a story about an immortal woman banished for eternity back when eternity meant serious business, not just how long it felt to wait in line to check out at Trader Joe’s.
What would you do with unlimited circles around the sun? Not that Greeks perceived the Earth circling the sun, HAHAHAHAHA AS IF. Ancient Greece pegged itself as the center of the known world, the sun cheerfully charioting around the earth during the day (waves to Helios) and then non-sun time revealing an imaginary sky city full of star dot people, star dot Zodiacs, and some star dot bears. (Yes, astrology is bullshit, but just try saying that to ancient Greeks. They will straight cut you. Are they wrong though? If I have to pick my arbitrary magical personality prediction system, astrology wins every time because it’s fun and there are lots of branding opportunities. You know what Renaissance England gave us as personality predictors? The Humours, featuring Bile and Phlegm. It didn’t get better in the UK until JK Rowling redeemed everything with the Hogwarts sorting hat.)
Anyway….Greek something something….OH. Right. Book!
Madeline Miller, a classics scholar and Greek/Latin teacher, takes the Greek idea of immortality and gives it her full, formidable attention in her gorgeous and compelling novel Circe. Circe is Miller’s second book and a continuation of her novelization of Greek mythology (go read her first book, Song of Achilles, RIGHT NOW.) Circe is a daughter of Helios, the cranky sun god, and niece of Zeus, the cranky thunder god. Zeus becomes angry (duh) with Circe when she offers assistance to Prometheus, who…okay, we cannot go down the Greek-god-family-tree-and-why-Zeus-is-a-butthead rabbit hole right now because we will be here all day. Suffice it to say that Zeus was a control freak who was a little hypersensitive about loyalty and a creative streak when it came to revenge, and Helios backed him up on everything due to Fear Of Thunderbolt To The Face. To punish Circe for her transgression, Zeus banishes her for life to an island off the coast of…Greece, probably, but this is not a map blog so let’s not sweat that detail either.
“Banished for life” is a bummer phrase, but if you’re an ordinary human, at least there’s an end to banishment because death comes for all mortals eventually. I mean, you are only going to have to come up with so many ways to fill time. But what if you’re part god and “banished for life” means you’re never getting off that island, times infinity? What is it to have endless time in solitary confinement? In some of the most marvelous passages in the book, Circe takes on her Island Challenge. With the occasional visit from Hermes, a cousin from the Gods Squad, she establishes a home, tames a lion, and invents witchcraft. Banishment sucks, yes, but real estate and an exotic animal farm sure soften the blow. Just ask Lisa Douglas.
If you read Homer’s The Odyssey – and if you did, give yourself a big high-five – you probably remember Circe as a sorceress who turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs. She exists primarily to give Odysseus yet another obstacle to overcome as he earns his place in the company of the immortals, becoming the hero whose story is told time and again. Miller’s book asks the question: Why does an island-bound goddess want to turn anyone into a pig in the first place? And as it turns out, pig-dude transformations are the least interesting thing about Circe. This book presents a deity growing into her inherited power and making it her own, an origin story for a woman who decides that immortality is as much her destiny as that of any of the powerful men who try to negate her with geography.
Madeline Miller’s attention to detail and lavish treatment of her subjects has her on pace to publish a new book every ten years, but I’m going to need her to pick up the pace. At this rate, I’m only going to get to read a couple more of her books. Not all of us are immortal, Madeline.
In loving memory of fellow book nerd Linda Brown, a fiercely beautiful soul who had her own amazing trove of epic stories. I hope everyone on Mount Olympus knows how lucky they are to have her.