Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Rachel B. Dankert, Learning and Engagement Librarian, shares items she presented on May 6, 2021 as an introduction to Circe by Madeline Miller. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here
The goddess Circe, best known to us through Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, has had a lasting cultural impact compared to her relatively small appearances in these works.
We see a full picture of Circe’s life on Aeaea, complete with tamed lions, a garden, the sty, and her home, in this image from John Ogilby’s 1665 translation of Homer’s Odyssey. The image depicts Circe, with downcast eyes, returning the men to human form after Odysseus refuses to drink her enchanted wine—a choice by the illustrator to show Odysseus’ power over her.
Although she briefly appears in two books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Circe prominently appears at the bottom of the title page for this English translation of the work. In it, we can see the full transformation of Ulysses’ (Odysseus’) men into swine, complete with her bowl of wine and wand.
Madeline Miller’s reinvention of these classical tales, Circe, takes us into Circe’s thoughts and justifies her actions, showing the other side of the male-dominated stories of the past. Circe’s status as both goddess and witch, with the ability to transform any being, tame wild animals, and produce potions and spells has fascinated readers for thousands of years. In this work, however, Miller humanizes Circe and shows there could be much more to her story than the poets told us.
When the novel elaborates on Circe’s life on Aeaea, we see her supernatural talents develop. One of the most soothing and familiar aspects of her daily life is her tending the plants in her garden, sorting them, and preparing them for use. Although she uses them to magical ends, the lifecycle of these ingredients is tangible to us.
On these pages from a pharmaceutical recipe book, we see the plants required to create a special ointment alongside recipes for hair growth and removal, a cure for a snake bite, and to alleviate a purple skin lesion. The similarity between Circe and the women who prepared this recipe book brings the goddess down to earth, fitting with Miller’s overall project of revealing Circe’s humanity.
To immerse yourself in the real-world materials that influenced this month’s pick, visit our curated collection of Circe images.
Registration for the June 3 session on David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow opens Tuesday, May 11. We hope you make a plan to join us!