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Madeline Miller on Circe, Aeneas, Homer, and Virgil

Octavian Report: How did you first become interested in Homer?

Madeline Miller: I have loved Homer since I was a young child. My mother used to read to me bits of the Iliad and the Odyssey as bedtime stories when I was young. I have a memory of her reading the first line of the Iliad to me — “Sing, Goddess, of the destruction and rage of Achilles” — and feeling like I had touched this thing that I had never experienced before.

I read the Odyssey when I was in eighth grade and loved that, and then went on to high school where I had this wonderful Latin teacher who saw that I was obsessed with the Aeneid and all things Trojan War and Homeric and epic. He offered to teach me Greek and to start reading the Iliad with me, which was really this transformative experience. I had loved the story, but what really hooked me was the poetry. The poetry was so powerful it felt like this electric current going right into my brain.

Heading off to college, I already knew that I wanted to study this stuff. I actually picked my college based on the fact that it had, according to my teacher, one of the best Virgil scholars in the country. As I was studying Homeric epic in college, Achilles and Patroclus kept recurring and recurring and recurring. I knew at that point I was going to get my master’s in Classics. I was planning to write my thesis on interpretations of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship through the centuries and looking at all the different ways they’ve been portrayed. Then I graduated from college and I realized that I didn’t want to write that as a master’s thesis. I wanted to write it as a novel.

OR: Do you think Homer is one person? Or do you think the Homeric epics are the product of many hands over many years?

Miller: If there was a Homer, I don’t believe that he was the sole creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think it’s so clear that these come out of oral tradition. Maybe there was one bard who was particularly shaping it. It’s hard to say, but I don’t think of Homer as being a historical person.

OR: Why Circe? Why did you choose her as the protagonist of your most recent novel?

Miller: I read the Odyssey in eighth grade, and as a young woman who loved these stories, I often felt very frustrated at the portraits of the female characters in the stories because oftentimes the female characters are ciphers. They’re literally just names, or they die tragically to provide motivation for the hero (if their story is really exciting). Every now and then you get the larger characters like Antigone and Medea and Clytemnestra, but they almost exclusively meet tragic ends, and oftentimes they’re cast as villains.

I knew that there was a witch in the Odyssey who turns men into pigs. I was really intrigued by that because it seemed so unusual for Ancient Greek myth. When we got to the part about her, I was really excited. I thought: here’s a female character who can really stand up to Odysseus, and this is going to be a really interesting interaction that they have. What actually happens is that she turns Odysseus’s men into pigs, then he goes to confront her. He has an herb that makes him immune to her spells, so when she tries to turn him into a pig, it doesn’t work, and then he pulls his sword on her and threatens her. All her power and strength are immediately gone in that moment. She kneels before him, she screams and begs for mercy, and she invites him into her bed.

As a 13-year-old, I was frustrated by an interesting female character immediately being shrunk down to serve the hero’s story. It felt like a very gendered moment: here’s Odysseus with his phallic sword, threatening the female character, who has to immediately get on her knees and yield to him. That hit me really hard. I thought, “Gosh, there’s so much more there.” Then as I went back as an older student looking at Circe, I was interested in the fact that she has become, in popular culture, a very villainous figure. She often gets put in the same category as Clytemnestra and Medea. She’s a villain in the Wonder Woman series.

In the Middle Ages, she was always the example of what happens if you can’t control your wife: “This is what happens. She starts turning men into pigs.” She was the incarnation of male anxiety about female power. If you look at her in Homer, though, after that confrontation with Odysseus she becomes incredibly helpful to him. She sees that he’s grieving and exhausted. She invites him and his men to stay. She takes care of him for a year. At the end of that year, Odysseus doesn’t want to leave her island — the only place that he does not want to leave in all of his travels to get home. His men have to taunt him. He goes to her, and then she immediately gives him incredibly helpful information about how he has to call the prophet Tiresias’s ghost out of the underworld and how to do that and how to get past the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis. For all of her menace, she becomes a benevolent healer and patroness. A goddess figure who is very powerful and gives him this witchy knowledge.

I think part of what I wanted to do is go back to the fact that she is much more complex than I think she’s been remembered. I think people confuse her with the Ogygian nymph Calypso. They’ve become one fused female character, but she is very different from Calypso.

Circe is also the first witch in Western literature. That was very interesting to me. What does that mean? Finally, there was this detail in Homer that kept recurring where he called her “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” I.e., like a mortal. That was a really intriguing description to me because, as a writer, I heard that description and I heard a character caught between worlds. She was born a goddess but she has some piece of her that is either yearning for or belongs to the world of humans.

OR: Are there other references to her outside the Odyssey?

Miller: There are three major myths about her outside the Odyssey. One of them is in Ovid. He included her in the Metamorphoses because she is a goddess of transformation. He’s the one who comes up with the idea that it was Circe who turned Scylla from a nymph into the monstrous, six-headed being that we see in the Odyssey. That was a great story and one that I really wanted to include, even though it’s not Homeric at all. There’s a love triangle between Circe, the nymph Scylla, and Glaucus, a sea-god who used to be a mortal. Ovid is interested in Circe as this pathetic, lovelorn figure who’s always falling in love with the wrong guy, and when he rejects her she gets angry and lashes out. It’s more about her as the woman scorned; about her power and rage. So I pushed back against Ovid a little bit. I wanted there to be a little bit more psychological underpinning for why she does what she does, but I also wanted there to be consequences that she, having done this thing, has to live with — which is not in Ovid at all.

There’s a reference to her in Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica. Jason and Medea show up on her island, looking for absolution for having murdered Medea’s younger brother. They’re there to receive Circe’s help. Circe is, of course, Medea’s aunt. That was really interesting, knowing that there’s a meeting between these two great witches (who are related) in ancient literature. I definitely wanted to include that.

Then there is the Telegony, an ancient epic that is lost. We have it in summary and we have references to it that talk about Circe’s son with Odysseus: Telegonus. He’s raised by his mother. She sends him off when he comes of age to go find his father. He and his father get in a fight, each not knowing who the other one is. Tragically, Odysseus dies, and then Telegonus brings Penelope and Telemachus back to the island of Aeaea. (All of these are terrible spoilers for the novel. On the other hand, the stories themselves are 3,000 years old, so . . . .) I knew the Telegony really covers the last quarter of the novel, and I knew that Penelope and Telemachus were waiting for me there. Other than that, everything else was drawn from inference and implication in the original text. There were a few missed references to her that I left out. There is a reference to her changing Picus into a woodpecker in Ovid and in Virgil. That myth just didn’t speak to me. Sometimes she has more than one child with Odysseus, which seems to me pretty strange given that she does not have triplets and he’s only there for a year, so I got rid of those other children. The number of siblings she has changes depending on the myth. Sometimes she has two siblings, sometimes one, sometimes three. I went with three. I got all my anxiety about having to follow the myths exactly out in writing my first novel, The Song of Achilles, so with Circe I felt like I could just choose what was useful to me and get rid of the rest.

OR: Do you have a sense of what the general view or role of women was in Bronze Age Greece?

Miller: I think when you’re reading Ovid, it’s hard to avoid that feeling that nymphs are prey, basically; that beautiful women in general are prey and that their beauty invites that and that’s what it’s for. I wanted to acknowledge this repulsive aspect of many of these stories. Many of these stories are rape narratives. I love Ovid, but when he’s talking about Daphne’s running away from Apollo and her hair gets loose and it’s flowing, and it’s even more beautiful and Apollo is even more inflamed by her beauty as she’s running away in terror from him — moments like that hit the modern ear in a very disturbing way. I didn’t want to be soft-pedaling any of that.

As I said, I think Circe is the incarnation of male anxiety about female power. I think nymphs in general are a fantasy of female powerlessness: they are like fruit to be picked, they’re there for use, and they don’t really get to have any agency over their own life. That was a really important part of the story for me. In some ways, that came out of The Song of Achilles. One of the characters I loved exploring in The Song of Achilles was Achilles’s mother, Thetis, who is a sea nymph. In The Song of Achilles, she is a terrifying figure to Patroclus, the narrator. She’s a goddess. She’s the mother-in-law from Hell. He is constantly in awe of her divinity, but although I saw her as his antagonist for a lot of the book, I never saw her as a villain. All she wants to do is save her son’s life, and she can’t do it. She is going to have to lose her son and then live without him and with that grief for eternity. That, to me, seems like a parent’s worst nightmare — that you would lose your child and then live with that grief forever.

In Circe, I think part of what also drew me to her character is that she is born one of these nymphs, these completely powerless figures who really cannot defend themselves in any way unless they get a greater god to do it for them. Yet somehow she invents her own power. That’s, for me, where the witchcraft comes in: she goes around the system. She says, “Okay, I don’t have any divine power, but I can create this other path to power and dissent and independence through my witchcraft.”

OR: How did you think about creating the world of Circe?

Miller: I definitely wanted it to feel immersive and strange and alien and bizarre. I love looking at mosaics of Oceanus with the sea creatures all around his head. I looked at a lot of stuff like that because I was working with the Titans. A lot of the early scenes are set in the halls of either Oceanus, Circe’s grandfather, or in her father’s hall with Helios, the god of the sun. The Titans are older, almost chthonic divinities who are associated with nature in a stronger, different way from the Olympians. Both their palaces are underground. There’s this kind of surreal-ness to some of the characters who are part person, part fish. There’s an overwhelming sensory power: the glittering of the gold, the outlandish wealth, these bizarre figures who are river gods and sea gods and don’t really look like humans. It was something I thought a lot about and I could see very vividly myself. I’m a theater director. That’s my other background, and so I always want the audience to feel like they’re on the stage and the action is happening around them.

OR: How was Odysseus viewed by pre-modern readers?

Miller: I really love Odysseus’s complexity. That was something that I wanted to bring in. Nowadays, we love Odysseus. I don’t know if that’s because of James Joyce or if it’s because he’s the brains and we love brains over brawn. I think we can all imagine ourselves as Odysseus more easily than we can imagine ourselves as Achilles or Ajax. We all like to think we could use our wits. He’s also very sympathetic. He’s the underdog through much of the Odyssey. He has a great wife, Penelope, whom he rejects a goddess and immortality for. There’s a lot of really appealing parts of the story that, I think, have made him feel like a modern hero.

But the ancients were very mixed on him.

I would say that the Odyssey is the most positive portrait of him, and everything else is much more negative. Certainly the Iliad is. Consider the scene where he slaughters the sleeping Trojan allies. Yes, that’s how you win wars. If you find your enemy sleeping and unarmed, you kill them. But we also can’t really imagine Achilles or Ajax doing something like that, so there’s clearly this difference. He’s the great pragmatist, which makes him a good leader in some respects, but also not always the best or most honorable person. In Sophocles’s Philoctetes, he’s the villain. There he represents corrupt middle age, when you’ve sold out everything for self-interest, as opposed to the noble, older generation represented by Philoctetes and idealistic youth in the character of Neoptolemus. He’s in the middle representing all the moral degradation that happens as you grow older but before you have wisdom.

There are so many portraits of him where he’s a liar and a double-dealer and treacherous. I would argue that even in the Odyssey, the portrait is very mixed. We see him as proud — as proud as Achilles is — and very angry at moments and unable to let go of that anger. After confronting Penelope’s suitors, he can’t stop killing. He wants all of the people who helped the suitors to die as well. He wants to murder the female slaves who slept with them even though they would’ve had no consent to give in this. When the families of the suitors come to confront him, his first thought is to kill them too.

I really wanted to bring that out. As well as the fact that Circe meets him at a low moment in her life. Although he has all these dark parts to him, he is also incredibly charismatic, incredibly charming and smart. He’s not a person who is ever cruel for cruelty’s sake. It comes out of anger or pragmatism. He clearly appreciates intelligent and complex women because he adores his wife Penelope, which I think is a real mark in his honor and favor. It was fun to write the scenes between them — to pore over those lines in the Odyssey and try to imagine how these two people would talk to each other and how Circe might see him as opposed to how Achilles and Patroclus saw him in The Song of Achilles. They see him as much more of an antagonist where she, in that moment, is able to find something kindred in him. They’re both keeping a lot of secrets. Later on, it was fun to have Penelope and Telemachus tell their versions of him. You get all these different versions of Odysseus. Which is the real one? Maybe he doesn’t even know anymore. I really enjoyed exploring that as well, that he has all these different sides to him. Not to forget the fact that this is a man who has seen 20 years of brutal violence, both in war and then before he comes home. That changes a person. There’s a wonderful author, a psychiatrist who works with Vietnam veterans in Boston. His name is Jonathan Shay. He has written a book, called Odysseus in America, about how many of Odysseus’s struggles to get home mirror the struggles of Vietnam veterans reintegrating after the war. It’s a fascinating thought.

Shay brings up some really interesting points, one of which is that Odysseus is actually a terrible commander: he’s the only one who makes it home. All of his men die. Today he would be court-martialed for that. But there is also this idea that even someone like Odysseus is marked by that violence. When you have lived the life that he has lived, can you go home again to Ithaca and herd goats, or is that gone forever?

OR: What drew you to Virgil, and which of his works do you admire the most?

Miller: I love them all. But I always have to have the Aeneid first in my heart. I would say that the Aeneid is one of the most amazing pieces of complex, subtext-filled poetry that I have ever read. It functions on so many levels. I think when you compare the Iliad and the Odyssey to the Aeneid, you can really see that oral tradition versus one intellect shaping a poem obsessively over 10 — or maybe more — years, and building in all these very deliberate echoes, resonances, and links between sections. When I was first reading it in high school, I finally understood how to analyze poetry in English by working with Virgil because it was like working with this complete masterpiece of poetry which succeeds at every possible level. It’s an exciting and moving story, and an interesting story. It has really big ideas. It’s absolutely gorgeously written, both in meter and in how Virgil rings the chimes of the Latin language all the way through. It’s a masterpiece of poetry.

I am definitely one of those people who believes that this is not a piece of pure Augustan propaganda, but is in fact in many ways questioning some of Augustus’s ideas and message and some Roman cultural methods and ideas. One of the things I find so interesting about Virgil is that he was born into a republic when Catullus could write a nasty, smirking poem about Caesar and not be the worse off for it but he himself had to write the Aeneid with Maecenas and Augustus literally breathing down his neck: funding him, sponsoring him, wanting to see early drafts. I am fascinated by what it means as a poet to go from writing in a republic to writing under an empire — indeed, under the first emperor of Rome — and how he must’ve felt constricted and watched and aware.

Of course there are moments where you see really fulsome praise of Augustus or of Roman progress; at the same time, Aeneas himself is such a flawed hero. He fails in his mission, which his father gives him at the end of book six: “[Your art] is to rule the people with power . . . to place a custom for peace, to spare the suppliant, and war down the proud.” Again and again in books seven through 12, we see Aeneas fail to spare those who have been made subject and cast down. What does that mean about Roman mercy? I think Virgil tells us at the beginning of the Aeneid. “Of such a weight it was to found the Roman race.” This is the story of what the cost was of founding Rome. For me, the implication is always, “It had better be worth it. Here is what had to go on in order for Rome to come into being.”

I love all those aspects of it. I love that it ends on such a disturbing note, that it ends with Aeneas in a moment of rage killing someone who has surrendered to him. I know people have made the argument that it’s not finished. I believe that is absolutely where Virgil meant to leave it. The Italian poet Maphaeus Vegius tried to write the 13th book, where everything ended happily. But what a great moment Turnus’s death is to end on! If you are going to rule by conquest, that means things might be good for you, but they’re not good for everybody.

OR: What do you make of the fact that at the height of its power, Rome was tracing its founding to the Trojans — the losers in the Iliad?

Miller: I think the Romans always felt a little bit inferior to the Greeks culturally, which Virgil acknowledges in that same passage: “Others are going to be better astronomers. Others are going to be better artists, but we’re going to know how to rule.” I think partially it an impulse to say, “We have a part of this grand history. We have a piece of this story, too.”  The Iliad and the Odyssey and the story of the Trojan War were such forces in culture. The Romans wanted to write themselves into that, I think, and be part of it. Of course, there is an interesting question here: what does it mean if you are a huge empire that wants to cast itself as the original underdog? I think that’s a very interesting and complicated question with not just one answer.

OR: Do you have a favorite character and/or a favorite moment in the poem?

Miller: I think one of the characters that I really appreciate the portrayal of — I will not say I enjoy him because he is a horrendous and morally repulsive character — is Pyrrhus, Achilles’s son, who is very memorable in book two. He has an almost comic-book-villain dialogue with Priam where Priam tries to say, “Your father respected me,” and he says, “If you don’t like it, you can go tell him so. Now die.” He kills him in this brutal way. We find out later he has cut off his head and thrown the body on the shore.

Virgil is so good in other places at bringing out the good in his villains, like Mezentius. They have these very human characteristics. We see that Mezentius is a father who loves his son at the same time that he is this terrible enemy. Virgil is, in my opinion, the great humanist. He’s always looking to complicate the picture and make the heroes have flaws and the villains have things that make them sympathetic. Pyrrhus is a pure villain, I would say. It’s really a terrifying portrait. It’s how human nature can become so overfilled with violence and sociopathy that they became like a force of nature. Pyrrhus is a chilling portrait of a person who has no empathy, who has no ability to feel for anyone else other than himself. My portrait of Pyrrhus in The Song of Achilles was very influenced by that. I used Virgil’s portrait of Pyrrhus because it spoke to me so, so much as a portrayal of what happens when you get raped by the gods. In my version, he’s raped by Thetis.

I, of course, love Dido. I think she is a wonderful character. People have often focused on her as a character who is tragic in love, but some of my favorite parts are the scenes in book one before she and Aeneas really know each other, where we see her in her element as this incredible leader who has survived adversity: her brother murdering her husband, her flight from him, bringing her people safely to a new home, negotiating for land, earning the respect of the people around her. She is building this beautiful, idyllic city in complete, benevolent control of her people. It’s such an amazing portrait of this strong woman that it really makes what happens in book four when she ends up killing herself all the more tragic. I love the contrast of what Virgil does there with creating such a great leader but with such psychology. We can see why she — meddling goddesses and Cupid aside — would fall in love with Aeneas. These are two survivors. They’ve both lost spouses that they dearly loved. They’re refugees from their homelands. They have so much in common. It would make sense that they would find kindred spirits in each other.

OR: How much of the Aeneid springs out of Virgil’s imagination? How much comes from the repository of Greek and Roman myths?

Miller: A fair amount comes from his imagination. He’s drawing on so many sources. There are many moments where he likes to explain the origin for things that they do now in Rome, which his audience must have loved: “Oh, I get that. That’s why we do that, because of this thing that Aeneas did.” There are lots of moments like that where he backfills the history behind some Roman ritual or Roman holiday.

Even the materials that he’s working that are well-represented in myth, like the fall of Troy — even there he is imagining things. Book two is his fall of Troy section. Even within that, it’s wonderful to see him inventing; to see the ghost of Hector appear to Aeneas. Now, obviously these are two characters who are well-established in the Trojan myths, but seeing Virgil’s version of their interaction and what Hector has to say to Aeneas is fascinating. It’s always very interesting to ask “Where is Virgil inventing and how is he changing or speaking back to the myth that was already there, speaking back to Homer?”

One of the moments I love is actually the disputed section where people are not sure if it’s really Virgil. Some people think it was added later, but I absolutely believe it’s Virgil. It’s during the fall of Troy. Aeneas sees Helen hiding as the palace is falling around her, and he has this moment of overwhelming rage where he just wants to kill her. He’s aware of the fact that it’s dishonorable to kill a woman, but he doesn’t care. He says, “I’ll be praised for this because she’s so horrible.” He goes to kill her, and his mother Venus appears and she says, “You don’t get it.” She pulls the veil of mortal sight away from his eyes and she says, “This is not about humans. This is about the gods. There is a god tearing down the city. Stop thinking about this petty mortal vengeance.” I always feel like in Virgil that the gods represent the equivalent of kings and emperors: you guys are fighting down here, but this is where the real power is. You’re being manipulated by these larger-than-life powers that you can’t even touch.

OR: Why do you think people should read the Aeneid? What do you think people get out of it? What makes it so great?

Miller: As the ancients said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Human nature has really not changed in millennia. The trappings of culture have changed, but the way humans deal with grief and love and war and hope and despair are still the same. I think in a lot of this ancient literature, you see brilliant portraits of human nature. Reading the Aeneid, I think there’s so much there that we can connect to modern moments, both in a political sense and in a personal sense, in large and small ways. Here is Aeneas who is thrust into the position of being a leader. He was always used to Hector being in charge. He has to take over and find his way when he feels very unmoored. How do you do that? How do you find your way to a new home?

The Aeneid in particular is all about refugees looking for a new homeland. What could be more modern than that? We are facing a modern refugee crisis, and that is what the Trojans were. They were refugees. I think Virgil tells that story so movingly, particularly in books one through six, of how lost and alone and hopeless and frightened and confused these people feel, completely relying upon the kindness of strangers wherever they go.

On every page you’ll find something that resonates in some way with the modern world. Virgil was a master of human nature and human psychology.