Mythical or Metaphorical: Realism in Greek Mythology

© Giovanni Battista Trotti, circa 1610

In Greek mythology, gods and humans both depend and against each other. These gods are not almighty. They have emotions, community, each of them has their strengths and weaknesses, just like humans. While their godly powers rule over humans, it is possible for mortals to defy them. This gives the Greek gods a realistic touch, hence its popularity amongst fantasy fiction.


Through Madeline Miller’s reimagined gods and goddesses, Greek mythology is no longer just heroes and conquerors. Circe is a subdued tale. Circe, the mistress of natural magic and metamorphosis is most-known for turning hateful men into pigs. She is the daughter of Helios, the God of Sun. When she was born, she was despised for lacking her father’s golden looks, and she has a mortal’s voice. She has helped Prometheus when he was whipped, she has turned her first love Glaucos from a mortal to an immortal and transformed her rivalry Scylla into a monster. All these are done with a strong intention, and a magical herb called “moly”. Such forbidden acts have caused her exile from the halls of the gods, where she is put on the deserted island of Aiaia. Automatically, she is inspired by the lush greens around her and started gathering herbs to practice witchcraft. Later, she used spells to help maintain the safety of her island as well as her son, Telegonus.



© J.W. Waterhouse, Sketch of Circe, 1911-1914

Unlike other stories of Greek Mythology, glory and victory is not the theme, but rather the process of self-discovery of a woman. Born without godly powers, everyone looks down on Circe, but she never gave up seeking the acceptance and love she longs for. She has been naive and impulsive, but she keeps mitigating and does what she thinks is right. Alas in exile she realizes and embraces who she is.  The story span over thousands of years. We see Circe change from an awkward nymph to a powerful witch. This has to be the most relatable theme of the tale of Circe. Her powers mostly came from determination and endurance. Through strong will and hard work, she proves herself worthy for a place in the world. This is the case in our real world too, as those who preserve usually wins over talent. Even Albert Einstein once said, ” Genius is 1% talent, 99% hard work…” Circe is a marvelous example for us all.


Circe also crossed over a few classic Greek mythology characters, like the Minotaur, Icarus, Odysseus, etc. We often have the perception that gods are wise and jus for having lived for thousands of years. However, in Miller’s hands, they are cunning and calculating. The Titans’ and Olympians’ maintain their peace through hidden agendas, but both secretly conspiring against each other. To keep the mortals’ worshipping, the gods even cast disasters on earth. Maintaining the balance of power between different parties has always been the key to peace. The world in Circe depicts a metaphorical relationship between the authoritative figures and the general inhabitants of human society. 

by Sin Wai Ying Rachel

Categories: Books, Fantasy and Sci-fi

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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