Circe by Madeline Miller

Somewhere in the middle of this book I had begun to think that Circe was a simple instrument for playing back the popular stories of Greek mythology in a short, indulgent form.

Circe, The Greek's Greatest Hits, a mixtape by Madeline Miller.

The writing is pretty and elegant (e.g. Aeetes describing his godhood as a column of water, Helios's regality, etc. gotta come back and edit in actual quotes, but don't have the text with me); the stories are familiar (e.g. Prometheus, Icarus, The Minotaur); the perspective (i.e. Circe's) feels alternative and thus fresh, but not, initially, profound. Circe is delicate and humble, and her sympathy allows the familiar stories to be told in a human, relatable way; as opposed to through the cold but momentous ethics and morals that dominate Greek mythology's traditional presentation. Given this, the book would be totally light and entertaining, but only if my described simplicity was thorough.

Look harder, Simba.

By the end of the book, when Circe realizes her true self, the entire undercurrent of her story -- the framework for all the other stories told within it -- suddenly stops being an undercurrent, and the proceeding wave of cohesion and comprehension crashes in epiphany. A stitch sewn loosely and slowly through sparse fabrics, starting with Circe's treatment of Prometheus, is cinched taught revealing a whole comprised of pieces you didn't realize were related, and it is a wonderful, proud moment to be human.

Circe is unique in that she empathizes with mortals.  While other Gods go on in their monotony, she yearns, she hurts, she doubts, she feels responsible. Grandmother rolls her eyes at another nymph asking for help with a mortal love. Helios's hall loves the gossip over Scylla's transformation, but in a petty decadent fashion. Even Aeetes, who initially consoled Circe with his comradery, becomes entranced with his endless pursuits of goalless greatness and novelty. Buy Circe continues to care. Why? Why would a god care? How could a god care? These are the questions that the book asks.

On an infinite timeline, all subplots are insignificant. It follows that, to an eternal god, everything is trivial. Significance founded on triviality is vain and pointless. No wonder the gods obsess over gossip, simple pleasures, and ranks among one another. They crave illusory novelty because true meaning is beyond them. Nothing is precious. Everything is of equal priority, and so everything is either a game or a blind expression of their singular, specific, axiomatic, self-demonstrating natures. Helios drives his chariot, Athena moves her pawns, Hermes plays his tricks, Zeus sits on his throne, the lesser gods rule their more meager kingdoms. No one asks why. Except for Circe.

Why did Prometheus decide the wrath of Zeus was a fair price for the mortals' salvation? Why did this defiance feel transcendent and righteous? The divine sacrifices himself to save mankind from its own fragility. Because they're worth it. (Everything old is new again.)

But so anyway, Circe is initially concerned with love and pity for Glaucos, and maybe you could write this off as nativity. An eternal god needs to start their eternity somewhere, and so before they become jaded and are made cynical they have to ask the initial, obvious questions. Why can't I marry this man I love?! I don't care if he's the first I've ever loved, this is the real deal! Adolescence. A few thousand generations will beat that right out of you. Except Circe weaves a persistent guilt into her core by creating the monster Scylla, and so forever has to integrate the knowledge of others' suffering into her existence. She empathizes, uniquely.

Then she graduates from indirectly affecting the lives of mortals to being explicitly involved. She helps birth the Minotaur, whose wrath she feels responsible for. She relates to Ariadne, sorry she has such uncaring parents. She mingles with Odysseus, taking comfort in his company, learning his faults, and missing his absence all the same. She learns the lessons of motherhood, the endurance of a child's needs and their simultaneous fleeting dependence. More...

At the end of all of this, her first complete pass through the struggle of living affairs, she has a choice. (a) The passive and popular: to continue with the periodic routine and undoubtedly become bored with the tedium of fleeting concerns. Or (b) something else.

And so she chooses to become mortal herself. Those last few lines of the book, where she's describing her ideal and you know it must be her inner truth, and that she's willing qualify all the inevitable tragedy as significant, just for the chance at also qualifying the slim amount of good that might be offered, too. "I have a mortal's voice, let me have the rest." ...among all those other beautiful lines.

What an empowering idea. The meager shall inherit the earth indeed.

Also, from a technical theological perspective, this book got me thinking about the lineage of gods. About how The Olympians were a sort of refinement of The Titans. Gods were the models of the world. And as our understanding grew, they gave way to more powerful, general concepts. The crude titans, Time, Moon, Sun, etc. Giving way to more abstract and generally applicable concepts, Power, War, Messenger, Beauty, Bounty.

In a way, it becomes obvious that the next step would be a single god of Greatness, cue the old testament. A series of refinements ending in a point. And yet, all these "gods" are bound by their eternity, as described above. Their greatness is defined relative to a time, and thus becomes brittle as times change. And the world is constantly changing, and so absolute claims (i.e. the word of god(s)) eventually become inaccurate, even in the abstract (abstractions just take longer to wear out).

You need pure dynamism to answer this question. You need a means for changing claims over time. Rationality and creativity, and a machine to embody them. You need the human race, passing its knowledge down and refining it generation after generation, fallible but adaptable. Us being an instance of a more general god: Evolution. The the ever expanding (i.e. refining) container of the gods (i.e. models of the world, explanative ideas) themselves. A fractal, recursive explanation of explanation.

In transcending nature and learning to abstract instead of intuit, we've simultaneously doomed ourselves to an unpredictable but exciting future, as opposed to a predictable, endless oscillation of animal instinct mixing with indifferent natural order. The garden of eden sounds a lot like Helios's halls for those who would prefer to passively behave and feast. But I want to feel and wonder.

And so Adam bit and Circe drank.