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Growing up, I was obsessed with Greek mythology. From the first time I encountered the trials of Hercules in a picture book in my school library, these ancient tales of gods and monsters had me hooked. As I grew up, my appreciation for these stories also grew beyond just the cool magical powers of angry creatures. The metaphor laced within the stories emerged and beguiled me anew (though, for the record, monsters are still awesome). However, more than 3000 years later, do these myths have a place in the modern world?

 

antigone rising by helen morales / a greek bust wearing burnt orange sun glasses against a hot pink fieldAntigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths, by Helen Morales is a witty and passionate look at the legacy of antiquity, especially the legacy of reinterpretation of ancient stories. These myths were constructed thousands of years ago, usually by men, to fulfil a social aim. They were to perpetuate a belief, or a moral, or a cause. Over time though these stories have been adopted, and adapted, and purposefully misinterpreted so that they fit a modern context or need. Even within the first thousand years of their existence, tales were retold to fit a Roman perspective rather than a Hellenic one. 21st century interpretations of Tiresias as a trans idol, or the titular Antigone as a feminist icon are the result of careful selective reading of what are largely misogynist texts.

 

women and other monsters by jess zimmerman / an artist's rendering of a half woman, half squid creature against a green field and behind a green fog Morales considers this the intrinsic power of these stories. They are not set in stone, demanded to be read as scripture. These are stories from the oral tradition, and were meant to be fluid based on audience and the creativity of the teller. Rather than be restricted to telling stories that are internally inconsistent and demeaning to every character other than the hero, authors throughout history have breathed life into the minor or the mistreated and discovered new facets to explore in them. Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology is a feminist analysis of the prominent female monsters that are prolific throughout Greek Mythology. Where as the “traditional” view of Medusa is of a horror turning men to stone with her gaze, a deeper analysis of her story reveals a victim of abuse and a woman who is tormented by constant unwanted advances from men.

 

Circe by Madeline miller / an drawn golden face wreathed in leavesThis trend is nothing new in modern fiction. More than a decade ago, Margaret Atwood gave us The Penelopiad, a contemporary and feminist look at the Odyssey, from the perspective of Odysseus’ long waiting and long suffering wife, Penelope. The Odyssey is rife with opportunities for re-examination, as Madeline Miller did with her novel Circe, a likewise feminist reinterpretation, this time from the perspective of the witch Circe with whom Odysseus spends several years during his journey. This was Miller’s follow-up to her debut The Song of Achilles, which was a Queer reinterpretation of the Iliad, and both of them are fantastic piece of literature. I wait with baited breath for whatever Miller releases next.

 

ariadne by jennifer saint / a drawn woman's face with greek columns and a sun blast behind her headPerhaps as a response to Miller’s success, there are plenty of authors preparing feminist re-examinations of the countless other mistreated women in myth. Jennifer Saint has her debut with Ariadne, which takes one of the most mistreated women from Greek lore and gives her centre stage in a tale of family tragedy, placing her between her brother, the Minotaur, and her younger sister, Phaedra. It also grants her agency when Theseus comes to call. In myth, Ariadne is responsible for helping Theseus defeat the Minotaur (himself the product of misogyny visited upon Queen Pasiphae), but is abandoned by the “heroic” prince on the first island they encounter heading back to Athens. She is then claimed by the god of wine Dionysus, and promptly disappears from legend. Saint returns Ariadne to the prominence deserving of a princess of Crete.

 

daughters of sparta by claire heywood / two drawn faces of women, one red haired, one brown, haloed in golden weedsAlso this summer, from Claire Heywood, is Daughters of Sparta, which tells the tale of the Trojan war from the perspective of two sisters: Helen and Klytemnestra. Helen’s involvement with the Trojan war is already fraught in the “canon” of mythology, with some saying she willing left with Paris, others saying she was kidnapped, while others still leave her abandoned in Egypt while the war rages on the Turkish coast. Klytemnestra is likewise treated an adulteress and opportunist by the chauvinists writing myth. In Heywood’s version, the women are all too familiar with the expectations of society, and all too willing to push against them for their own happiness.

 

troy by stephen fry / a minimalist drawing of a castle on fire, against a golden fieldPersonally, I hope that someone gives a modern spin to the story of Medea, one of the most misunderstood characters in myth, and all too happy to be painted a villain and a witch by years of male scholars. Definitely deserving of some re-evaluation.

 

These books all do deep dives and reform the image of specific characters. If you are looking for a modern sensibility with more of a general overview of the world of Greek myth, you could do worse than Stephen Fry’s trilogy of Mythos, Heroes, and Troy. Based on his one-man show from the Stratford festival, these are the classic versions of myths punctuated by Fry’s dry wit and cutting tongue, lacing the tales with awareness and satire. 

 

love in color by bolu babalola / a drawn black man and woman leaning in to kiss, surrounded by vibrant coloursI would be remise not to mention that for all the wonder and splendor that the Greeks contain, they are tales well worn and familiar to any Europe-centric upbringing. If you are looking for a different cultural exploration, you should check out Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola. Babalola does bring forward, and from a Black perspective, romantic tales of the Greeks. However, her purpose is to focus on tales of love from Africa, and bring them both to a wider audience and to the modern world.

 

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Fictionally Yours,

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