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The First Witch of Western Lit
Power and violence in Madeline Miller's CIRCE, Alex Mar's WITCHES OF AMERICA, and a writing prompt derived from Elissa Washuta's WHITE MAGIC
Welcome to The Cauldron, where we brew up witchy-pagan-magic history with a bookish bent. This month, we’re taking a look at the first officially recorded witch of Western lit—Circe.
Because I am a big ‘ol mythology nerd, I’ve read several novels that revisit figures from the ancient Greek myths and epics, like Constanza Casati’s CLYTEMNESTRA, which was praised by Jennifer Saint, author of ARIADNE, another novel which recasts familiar myth from the perspective of a marginalized female character.
I assigned CIRCE by Madeline Miller (same author as THE SONG OF ACHILLES, which I did not enjoy nearly as much TBH, the lead characters seemed a bit wooden), as non-required-but-highly-encouraged reading for my October Study Coven class on witches. The primary text is the controversial memoir WITCHES OF AMERICA by Alex Mar, which was recommended to me by booktail-ized author Steve Fox. Thanks, Steve!
In WITCHES OF AMERICA, writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Alex Mar trains in Feri witchcraft, an American-born tradition that appropriates many different practices, including Wicca, Hoodoo, and Yoruba. It’s important to note Feri’s founders and many of its followers are white. <Cringe> For Mar, the practice never quite fits. Eventually, she wonders if she would feel more comfortable with the magic of her Greek and Cuban ancestors. (Tracing your magical roots is actually a commonly prescribed method of avoiding cultural appropriation.) The Study Coven will unpack the relationship between white American witches and marginalization: the way appropriation can both empower and mask privilege.
Ok, back to Circe.
Frequently referenced as the first recorded witch in the Greek epics, Circe is best-known as a sexy sorceress who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs when they intrude upon her exile. The novelized version of Circe’s story considers the situation from her perspective: her father, the sun god Helios, banishes her to a small island, with only the beasts she’s tamed for company. Stranded sailors wash up and take stock of her wealth and aloneness. Circe may be immortal, but she can be harmed. Her spells are no use when there’s a hand at her throat.
In CLYTEMNESTRA, Casati doesn’t mince words regarding the threat of sexual assault: the story is defined by the repeated rape of nearly all the female characters, from the least powerful to the mostest. Helen of Sparta, Clytemnestra’s sister, better known as Helen of Troy, is kidnapped and raped by the so-called hero Theseus long before she meets her warmongering husband or absconds with Paris. (Theseus screws over Ariadne after she helps him defeat her brother, the minotaur. She gets exiled too. Ariadne’s mother Pasiphae is Circe’s sister, a renowned witch in her own right.)
Emily Wilson’s fantastic translation of the Odyssey (the first by a woman) likewise refers to the palace slaves in Ithaca as such, rather than covering up by labelling them “servants.” Raped by Penelope’s suitors, these women are executed on Odysseus’s orders. (When he finally gets home, he goes on a major killing spree.) It doesn’t matter that they had no choice; even queens don’t have much agency in the era of heroes and gods. And by “heroes,” I mostly mean murderous tricksters and brutes who revel in plunder. Penelope herself keeps the many suitors vying to rule Ithaca at bay through delay and deceit. It’s a cruel reality, this myth-ridden world.
In Miller’s version, what makes Circe and her siblings so extraordinary is their mastery of magic through pharmaka (‘drugs’ or ‘spells’). Witchcraft is by nature a challenge to the gods’ dominion and, by extension, the rule of men. In other words, witches are here to fuck shit up, and the pantheon is worried. Remember, “crazy-ex-girlfriend” Medea, who slays her own brother and children, first to help Jason, then as revenge against him, is Circe’s niece.
From the perspective of Witches in History, Circe is a BFD: “The Homeric portrayal of Circe is of great importance,” says Daniel Ogden, author of MAGIC, WITCHCRAFT, AND GHOSTS IN THE GREEK AND ROMAN WORLDS, “for it may be considered the first extant portrait of a witch in Greek literature.” What kinds of magic she performs—including necromancy, invisibility, and sex magick—offer clues about the amalgamated perception of witchcraft in the ancient world. Ogden notes “Aspects of her representation here correspond with the iconography of Near-Eastern ‘Mistress-of-Animals’ goddesses and with the Siduri episode in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh […]” Magic exists everywhere, sometimes by other names. Witchcraft is a matter of perception.
The Odyssey employs Circe as a device, another obstacle Odysseus must maneuver around. It’s only with the help of a god that he avoids the fate brought down on his men—imprisonment in the speechless bodies of animals awaiting slaughter. In other words, Circe is dangerous. This danger is wrapped up in sex, of course. Odysseus makes Circe promise not to un-man him once he’s naked, and the two live as lovers for a year. Through this union, Odysseus meets his end: Circe gives birth to a son, Telegonus, who grows up, sets out to meet his father, then accidentally kills him with a spear laced with a stingray’s poison, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Odysseus’s death on land, via the sea. Odysseus’s body is laid to rest on Circe’s island and she marries her son’s half-brother Telemachus, while Penelope, Odysseus’s widow and Telemachus’s mother, ends up married to Circe’s son Telegonus. “Cringe again” you say? Welcome to Greek mythology!
Violence against the femme and female-bodied is ubiquitous, happening at every level of society, both past and present. The epics may be made up, but they speak truth re: power and autonomy. And the witch’s role has been and probably always will be about power.
Other Witchy Books I Recommend:
New: Witchy Writing Prompts!
Re: witchcraft and cultural appropriation, Elissa Washuta does a deep-dive into the subject in her unusual, engrossing, and nuanced essay collection WHITE MAGIC. She writes:
Witchcraft is sold as self-help, and occultist aesthetics inspire Starbucks drinks; hardly anyone talks about covens or ‘rules.’ A witch needs only the right look, the right stuff, the right feelings. I look the part: like a Hollywood witch, dark-haired and pale-skinned (because of my European ancestry). And I’m into the Instagram-witch lifestyle: black dresses, lavender baths, affirmations about being worthy of things. But I don’t like calling myself a witch. I don’t want to be seen as following a fad, and I don’t want the white witches I resemble to take my presence in their spaces as permission for theft. Really, I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder, but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left.
The following prompt is derived from Washuta’s WHITE MAGIC:
When a spirit gets eaten, who eats it?