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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'Circe' by Madeline Miller

Title page of Ovids Metamorphses with illustrations of the stories around the border
Title page of Ovids Metamorphses with illustrations of the stories around the border

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.

Illustration of Odysseus surrounded by his men in supplicated positions with Circe behind him

Plate opposite sig. S2r (p. 127). Homer his Odysses translated…1665. Folger call number: 144- 364f

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.

Two pages of a handwritten book of recipes including a lengthy two column list of ingredients on the left hand side

Pharmaceutical recipes. ca. 1690, ca. 1750-ca. 1870, pages 42-43. Folger call number: V.b.286

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.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteRegistration for the June 3 session on David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow opens Tuesday, May 11. We hope you make a plan to join us!