The archaeological evidence is sketchy, but the first pussy hat was probably knitted by Circe. Among nasty women, the witch of Aeaea has held a place of prominence since Homer first sang of her wiles. For most of us, that was a long time ago — 700 B.C. or freshman English — but popular interest in “The Odyssey” picked up last fall when Emily Wilson published the first English translation by a woman. Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, described Circe as “the goddess who speaks in human tongues” and reminded us that what makes this enchantress particularly dangerous is that she is as beautiful as she is powerful.
That combination of qualities has excited male desire and dread at least since Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. On papyrus or Twitter, from Olympus to Hollywood, we have a roster of handy slurs and strategies to keep women caught between Scylla and Charybdis: either frigid or slutty, unnaturally masculine or preternaturally sexless, Lady Macbeth or Mother Mary.
Now, into that ancient battle — reinvigorated in our own era by the #MeToo movement — comes an absorbing new novel by Madeline Miller called “Circe.” In his 1726 translation of “The Odyssey,” Alexander Pope claimed that Circe possessed an “adamantine heart,” but Miller finds the goddess’s affections wounded, complicated and capable of extraordinary sympathy. And to anyone who thinks that women can be shamed into silence, this witch has just one thing to say: “That’ll do, pig.”