Circe by Madeline Miller

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Opening Lines

  • When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.

On the Nature of Gods

  • Conditions, constrainment. These were novelties to my father, and gods love nothing more than novelty.
  • My aunt had said that some of the lesser gods could scarcely bear to look at him, but I was his daughter and blood, and I stared at his face so long that when I looked away it was pressed upon my vision still, glowing from the floors, the shining walls and inlaid tables, even my own skin.
  • We gods eat as we sleep: because it is one of life’s great pleasures, not because we have to.
  • His eyes darted whenever I addressed him. I realized with a shock that I knew such gestures. I had performed them a thousand times—for my father, and my grandfather, and all those mighty gods who strode through my days. The great chain of fear.
  •  “In my kingdom of Colchis, I have done such things and more, much more. Called milk out of the earth, bewitched men’s senses, shaped warriors from dust. I have summoned dragons to draw my chariot. I have said charms that veil the sky with black, and brewed potions that raise the dead.”
  • I was used to my thick-shouldered uncles with their white beards, not such perfect, careless beauty. When sculptors shape their stone, they shape it after him.
  • Of course she had. She was a poisoner at heart; she wanted to be sure I came as villain, not savior.
  • My sister laughed, her most silver-fountain sound. It was calculated, like everything she did. Minos raged on, but I was watching her. I had dismissed her coupling with the bull as some perverse whim, but she was not ruled by appetites; she ruled with them instead.
  • My brother, Ariadne had called it. But this creature had not been made for any family. It was my sister’s triumph, her ambition made flesh, her whip to use against Minos. In thanks, it would know no comrade, no lover. It would never see the sun, never take a free step. There was nothing it might ever have in the world but hatred and darkness and its teeth.
  • “That is absurd,” I said. “They would run screaming.” “Nymphs always do,” he said. “But I’ll tell you a secret: they are terrible at getting away.”

On Grandiosity & Violence of Settings and Beings

  • But he liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.
  • Her face was gray and pitiless, as if cut from living rock, and from her back dark wings lifted, jointed like a vulture’s. A forked tongue flicked from her lips. On her head snakes writhed, green and thin as worms, weaving living ribbons through her hair.
  • My flesh bubbled and opened like a roasted fruit, my voice shriveled in my throat and was scorched to dust. The pain was such as I had never imagined could exist, a searing agony consuming every thought.
  • It was the forest that drew my eye. It was old growth, gnarled with oaks and lindens and olive groves, shot through with spearing cypress. That’s where the green scent came from, drifting up the grassy hillside. The trees shook themselves thickly in the sea-winds, and birds darted through the shadows. Even now I can remember the wonder I felt.
  • 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.
  • All who were wise feared the god Apollo’s wrath, silent as sunlight, deadly as plague. I had the impulse to look over my shoulder, to make sure he was not striding across the sky already, his gilded arrow pointed at my heart.
  • But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth.
  • I could feel it. That unwholesome air had thickened, coating everything with an oily heaviness. Miasma, it was called. Pollution. It rose from unpurified crimes, from deeds done against the gods, and from the unsanctified spilling of blood.
  • The story was so ugly, so outlandish and disgusting, that it felt like a fever breaking. If I was trapped on this island, at least I did not have to share the world with her and all her kind.

On the Human Condition through Their Eyes

  • No one had ever confided so in me. I drank down every story like a whirlpool sucks down waves, though I could hardly understand half of what they meant, poverty and toil and human terror.
  • “Most gods have voices of thunder and rocks. We must speak soft to human ears, or they are broken to pieces. To us, mortals sound faint and thin.”
  • Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch our attention. The merely good: you are dust to us.
  • My house was crowded with some four dozen men, and for the first time in my life, I found myself steeped in mortal flesh. Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought, to drag themselves through it hour after hour.
  • It did not matter if Penelope and Telemachus were kind. It did not matter even if they stayed for their whole lives, if she were the friend I had yearned for and he were something else, it would only be a blink. They would wither, and I would burn their bodies and watch my memories of them yellow and fade as everything faded in the endless wash of centuries.

On the World through Circe’s Eyes

  • I could do what I liked at those times: light a torch and run to see the dark flames follow me. Lie on the smooth earth floor and wear small holes in its surface with my fingers. There were no grubs or worms, though I didn’t know to miss them. Nothing lived in those halls, except for us.
  • The thought was this: 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.
  • I did not mind the emptiness either. For a thousand years I had tried to fill the space between myself and my family. Filling the rooms of my house was easy by comparison. I burned cedar in the fireplace, and its dark smoke kept me company. I sang, which had never been allowed before, since my mother said I had the voice of a drowning gull.
  • Because I knew nothing, nothing was beneath me. My powers lapped upon themselves like waves. I found I had a knack for illusion, summoning shadow crumbs for the mice to creep after, making pale minnows leap from the waves beneath a cormorant’s beak.
  • It was a novelty to me, noticing the expressions shaping themselves on my face, the movement of the words across my tongue. So much of my life had been spent plunged up to the elbows, tacking now here, now there, spattered and impulsive. This new feeling crept over me like a sort of distant sleepiness, almost a languor.

On Love

  • But his voice then was like a balm upon my raw skin. I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be.
  • I wished then that we had conceived a child together, to be some comfort to him. But that was a young and silly thought: as if children are sacks of grain, to be substituted one for another.
  • He had sat at my hearth showing no hint of anything but charm and smiles. What resolve that must have taken, what vigilant will. But no man is infinite. Exhaustion stained his face. His voice was hoarse. A knife I had named him, but I saw that he was sliced down to the bone. I felt an answering ache in my chest.
  • There were pleasures there, but in truth the greater pleasure was after, when we lay together in the darkness and he told me stories of Troy, conjuring the war for me spear by spear.
  • When he talked, he was lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan at once, arguing his case, entertaining, pulling back the veil to show you the secrets of the world. It was not just his words, though they were clever enough. It was everything together: his face, his gestures, the sliding tones of his voice. I would say it was like a spell he cast, but there was no spell I knew that could equal it. The gift was his alone.
  • My wife, he always said, when he talked of her. My wife, my wife. Those words, carried before him like a shield. Like country folk who will not say the god of death’s name, for fear he will come and take their dearest heart.
  •  “Nothing she says has a single meaning, nor a single intention, yet she is steady. She knows herself.” The words slid into me, smooth as a polished knife. I had known he loved her from the moment he’d spoken of her weaving. Yet he had stayed, month after month, and I had let myself be lulled. Now I saw more clearly: all those nights in my bed had been only his traveler’s wisdom. When you are in Egypt, you worship Isis; when in Anatolia, you kill a lamb for Cybele. It does not trespass on your Athena still at home.

On Fate

  • It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke.
  • The Fates lured and tricked. They set obstacles to drive you into their toils. Anything might serve them: the winds, the waves, the weak hearts of men.
  • The man I had lain with so many nights, dead from the weapon I had sent, dead in my son’s arms. The Fates were laughing at me, at Athena, at all of us. It was their favorite bitter joke: those who fight against prophecy only draw it more tightly around their throats.
  • “No god may undo what is done by the Fates or another god.”

On Circe’s Son Telegonus

  • I used to do small spells in his presence, hoping one might catch his eye. But he never showed even the faintest interest. Now I saw why. Witchcraft transforms the world. He wanted only to join it.
  • I thought of all the hours I had carried him there, his skin against mine. I had wanted him to walk freely in the world, unburnt and unafraid, and now I had gotten my wish. He could not conceive of a relentless goddess with her spear aimed at his heart.
  • When he was a child I used to make lists of all the things I would do to keep him safe. It was not much of a game, because the answer was always the same. Anything.
  • His face, so full of its bold hopes, made me feel old. His youth had swelled in him, ripening. The dark curls hung into his eyes, and his voice had deepened. Girls and boys would sigh over him, but all I saw were the thousand soft places of his body where his life might be ended. The bareness of his neck looked obscene in the firelight.
  • I had kept the face of the world veiled from him. I had painted his history in bright, bold colors, and he had fallen in love with my art. And now it was too late to go back and change it. If I was so old, I should be wise. I should know better than to howl when the bird was already flown.
  • “I cannot accept that,” I said. “My son must live.” There is no must to the life of a mortal, except death. ” Athena had been barred, yet there still remained all the ordinary dangers of the island, rocks and cliffs and stinging creatures that I had to pry from his hands. Whenever I tried to reach for him, he would run, darting and defiant, towards some precipice. He seemed angry at the world. The stone he could not throw far enough, his own legs, which did not run fast enough.
  • He was a great river in flood, and I must have channels ready every moment to safely draw his torrent.
  • The men scarcely ate. They were growing towards him like vines to sun, their faces awestruck, competing to tell him their stories. I watched, wondering at where such a gift had hidden in him all this while.
  • There was a sort of innocence to him, I thought. I do not mean this as the poets mean it: a virtue to be broken by the story’s end, or else upheld at greatest cost. Nor do I mean that he was foolish or guileless. I mean that he was made only of himself, without the dregs that clog the rest of us. He thought and felt and acted, and all these things made a straight line. No wonder his father had been so baffled by him. He would have been always looking for the hidden meaning, the knife in the dark. But Telemachus carried his blade in the open.
  • I thought of the land Athena had described. The rolling hills, crowded with their heavy fruits and fields of grain, the bright citadel he would build. He would hand down judgments from a lofted chair in its sunniest hall, and men and women would come from far and wide to kneel to him. He will be a good ruler, I thought. Fair-minded and warm. He will not be consumed like his father was. He had never been hungry for glory, only for life.

Thought Provoking Aphorisms

  • However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.
  • It was my first lesson. Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.
  • “It is not fair,” I said. “It cannot be.” “Those are two different things,” my grandmother said.
  • “Anyway, he is eager to imagine how such strength may be used to his benefit. His worry is over Zeus. He must paint us just right: that we are threat enough that Zeus should think twice, but not so much that he is forced to act.”
  • I understood something then. My sister might be twice the goddess I was, but I was twice the witch.
  • Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.
  • Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.
  • I loved his certainty, his world that was an easy place of right action divided sharply from wrong, of mistake and consequence, of monsters defeated. It was no world I knew, but I would live in it as long as he would let me.
  • Long ago, in my wide bed, I had asked Odysseus: “What did you do? When you could not make Achilles and Agamemnon listen?” He’d smiled in the firelight. “That is easy. You make a plan in which they do not.”
  • Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • I imagined her infernal voice, howling out my name. I imagined manacles rattling on my wrists and the whip striking from the air. But my mind could imagine no further than that. I had never felt a lash. I did not know the color of my blood.
  • I do think he loved me a little. For before I could say the thousand humiliating things in my heart, all the proofs of passion I had hoarded, the crawling devotions I would do, I felt his power come around me.
  • But when he turned to me, I felt the shock of that old love between us. It was only my father’s presence that kept me from hurtling into his arms.
  • I should say goodbye, I kept thinking. But my cousins flowed away from me like water around a rock.
  • The fear sloshed over me, each wave colder than the last. The still air crawled across my skin and shadows reached out their hands. I stared into the darkness, straining to hear past the beat of my own blood. Each moment felt the length of a night, but at last the sky took on a deepening texture and began to pale at its edge.
  • I had forgotten how vivid she was, how beautiful. Even in her pain, she commanded the room, drawing all the light to herself, leeching the world around her pale as mushrooms.
  • Daedalus did not long outlive his son. His limbs turned gray and nerveless, and all his strength was transmuted into smoke. I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.
  • Yet, as strange as it sounds, even in such extremities of misery I was not wholly miserable. I was used to unhappiness, formless and opaque, stretching out to every horizon. But this had shores, depths, a purpose and a shape.

Last Lines

  • Overhead the constellations dip and wheel. My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands. All my life I have been moving forward, and now I am here. I have a mortal’s voice, let me have the rest. I lift the brimming bowl to my lips and drink.

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