Circe by Madeline Miller

Western culture is by definition patriarchal. You see it in our art, our music, our religion, our family genealogy, our rituals, our language, and of course, in our literature. Much of our culture is predicated on what we learned from ancient cultures such as the Hebrews, the Romans, the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons; and particularly, the ancient Greeks. And of course, if history and culture are told from a predominantly male viewpoint, it’s natural that women would be seen in certain ways. The classic trope of women as either angels or devils, saints or sinners, madonna/whore, is as old as time itself. And nowhere is that more clear than in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. If you, like me, were obsessed with Greek mythology as a kid, you’ll remember the stories of the Titans, Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite, Ares, Mercury of the winged shoes, Athena and so many more. The tales of gods and goddesses and their interactions with various humans are what make up so much of our own modern culture and unconsciously shape our own perceptions of history, the roles of women and men and the concept of humanity and immortality.

Circe was a goddess who had the power of transformation. She appears in the classic Greek novel The Odyssey when Odysseus, the hero of the piece, and his sailors are shipwrecked on Circe’s island, and Circe turns them into pigs, and (hilarious sidenote here) from whence the concept of men being pigs came from. Circe and Odysseus become lovers and they have children together, before Odysseus returns home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. If you’ve ever read The Odyssey, which I did in 12th grade honors English class, you’ll see that it’s not only a true epic tale of the classic hero who goes through a transformative journey and encounters numerous challenges along the way, but that it is also told from a very specific lens of male power and portrays women in pretty black-and-white terms. The book Circe by Madeline Miller takes that male-dominant viewpoint and shifts it to tell the tale of Circe herself.

Circe is a minor goddess without the dazzling powers of her father Helios or the heartless allure of her beautiful nymph mother Perse. She is quiet, not obviously beautiful, is always thinking about the nature of existence, and is generally shunned and tormented by her siblings. She is stuck between worlds, being neither a full god nor full human. As time goes on, she discovers her talent for transformation, which is a skill and talent that is inbred in her, but also evolves over time, much like Circe does herself. She is banished by Zeus for turning the nymph Scylla into a horrible monster and Circe hones her witchcraft and her skills with plants and spells on the island of Aiaia.

I think the reason I liked her character so much, aside from the fact that I have always loved stories told from the POV of the “evil” character, is because she is so morally gray. She is not an angel and she is not a devil, and the irony of this moral gray area she occupies is that it makes her more human than she realizes. Circe is, at her core, a goddess who acts in true god fashion, doing as she wants with little or no thought as to the consequences or effect of her actions on others. I mean, she does some pretty terrible things in the book but through it all, she continues to question the nature of her own existence and what it means to be human. That’s something I think all of us do on some level – we are all capable of great good and great evil and we search for the meaning of life and existence. Circe is so drawn to human beings, their flaws, their philosophies, their ability to experience pain, fear, love, regret…….qualities that the gods rarely feel.

The irony of Circe’s life is that, in her banishment to an island that is supposed to be her prison, she finds freedom and liberty. Exile helps her learn what it means to be alone, and she essentially finds herself there. She knows who and what she is. In the centuries that pass on her island, she encounters many of the heroes and gods that we’ve read about in Greek literature – Hermes, Icarus and his father Daedalus, the Minotaur, Medea and Jason…….and of course, Odysseus, who completely changes the course of her existence. Odysseus and Circe are not portrayed as typical star-crossed lovers, and I liked that. Their connection is cerebral, spiritual, intellectual, as well as emotional and sexual. It’s rare that we find that person in life who takes up residence both in our hearts and in our minds, and whose presence literally affects the ultimate outcome of our lives. They may not be with us forever, they may make us full of rage, they may make us melt with love, they may make us question things we never thought about, they may be as much a curse as they are a blessing in life. They are the person without whom we cannot imagine our lives, and Odysseus is that for Circe. He is not her only great love, however.

However, Odysseus does leave, returning to Ithaca and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, and Circe gives birth to Odysseus’s son Telegonus, whom she teaches the arts of herbalism and magic. Telegonus, however, is as much his father’s restless son as he is his mother’s, and when he grows to adulthood, as with all parent/children relationships, he wants independence. Circe has spent the years of Telegonus’s growing up protecting him from possible threats and curses of the gods, and when it comes times to let her son go and grow, she is devastated and they do verbal and emotioanl battle, but eventually she accepts that he is a man and gives him her blessing in the form of advice on now to handle the gods, his father, and his father’s family, as she serves him a farewell meal of his favorites.

It was only autumn, but the nights were cool already. I served his favorite meal, fish stuffed with roasted herbs and cheeses. He ate and let me lecture him. “Penelope,” I said. “Show her every honor. Kneel before her, offer her praises and gifts – I will give you suitable ones. She is reasonable, but no woman is happy with her husband’s by-blow at her feet.”

The idea of fish stuffed with cheese and herbs would normally not occur to me, as delicious sounding as it is. Having spent time in Italy and being a foodie, much of the food wisdom I’ve learned with respect to fish and seafood comes from the tenets of Italian cooking, and one of the major ones is no combining fish and cheese. I mean, obviously fish and cheese are a thing, because, hello, crab mac and cheese! But I still instinctively avoid combining fish and cheese, until today when I decided that an herb-cheese stuffed salmon fillet sounded very good indeed.

1 large 8-oz salmon fillet, preferably with skin
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup of goat’s cheese, softened and at room temperature
1/2 cup cream cheese, softened and at room temperature
1 tablespoon each of fresh dill, parsley and thyme
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
1/3 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 400 F degrees and put the salmon on a foil-covered baking tray.

In a mixing bowl, combine the lemon zest and juice with the goat’s cheese, cream cheese and fresh herbs. Mix well.

With a sharp paring knife, cut a small pocket along both side lengths of the salmon, but don’t cut all the way through, and stuff the herbed-cheese mixture into the pocket of the salmon throughout the length of the fish.

Sprinkle over the breadcrumb-Parmesan mixture and season with salt and pepper.

Bake for 12 – 15 minutes, or until the salmon flakes with a fork. Serve and enjoy! It’s a wonderful combination of flavors, the richness of the goat’s cheese and the tang of the herbs contrasting with the saline taste of the fish. A meal most certainly fit for a goddess!

19 thoughts on “Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. Looks like another delicious recipe, Vanessa! Circe is coming up on my list this year for the retelling challenge. Hope I love it. Beautiful post as usual. ❤️

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  2. …lots of re-writings, some clever, some less so, on alternative perspectives (ie, Penelope trying to murder her returning smelly old misogynist husband, or K. Wolf’s noted books, ecc.,) you’ve certainly read. For the Italian cheese-fish thing…. mostly post-renaissence (actually mixing aged goat cheese and fish is already in a sicilian poem from 300 bc), the developed, circumstantial cultural divisions in a relatively disorganized peninsula between pastoral and costal, that become entrenched. Abruzzo is a classic in that regard. The very ingredients, fresh, rarely mixed, and you the catholic know of fish-only days (also a way to save on protein.) But some aged ones, ingredients that is, did and are classics, ie Bottarga (brined fish eggs) with burrata (fresh cheese), some risotto in the north with fresh-water fish and aged cheese, ecc. For the most part though, fresh Mediterranean fish, even more the sweeter adriatic, are a bit more flavorful on balance than ocean fish – ie Med. Tuna costs more in international markets, those few that remain anyway – so mostly you leave it alone, maybe enhance a little because that’s all it usually needs. Or needed. Nowaday – real fish is as costly as gold while farmed fish simply lacks a lot and often has to be helped, like tomatoes from holland or northern plain potatoes. They’ll be needing a kick from somwhere and in fact the cheese-fish thing is gaining ground in this disquieting era…

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    1. A lot of people I know who are also cooks or foodies have said the same thing, that there is increasingly a movement to combine seafood with cheese. I think it’s a wonderful combination, it’s just that having taken so many pivotal cooking lessons in Italy and having it drilled into my brain, it’s not the first thing I think of, but this combination really works. And I got nately remember meatless Fridays during lent when I was growing up and still a practicing Catholic. Fortunately those days are long over. 😁🐟

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      1. …it’s not the worst time for such finding new, or viewing the old in a different way, after all. (no fish-cheese oddness but I just made a sauce for pasta from: pan drippings of pressure-cooked ribs made up largely of meat broth, fresh cherry tomatos, red scallion, parsely, pepper, salt, butter and…. melon. Cantalop, that is. Marvellous. And am wondering about… other things.)

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  3. What a wonderful post!!! I, too, have been very aware of the patriarchal focus of so much of art history and literature. Even in the world of cooking there is a bias in favor of men and against women- despite the fact that women produce/prepare most of the world’s food! Everything we can do to raise awareness of the worth of women is valuable! Thank you for writing this post!

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    1. I completely agree and thank you so much for your kind words! This book speaks to the great value of the female insight and I think you’d enjoy it. I most certainly did. I initially checked it out from the library but loved it so much that I just bought my own copy.

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      1. I will look for it!! You’ve certainly introduced me to a number of new authors – and recipes!! I appreciate you!! And I often do that too: read the libraries copy and then go buy my own! Lol!

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    1. Oh my goodness both of those sound absolutely amazing! I myself have never had an issue mixing seafood and cheese but it is something that I picked up when I was in Italy and took several cooking classes there . Personally I love the combination but it’s just not something that immediately comes to mind. I may have to steal those recipes you mentioned! 😊

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