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“Come, weave us a scheme so I can pay them back!
Stand beside me, Athena, fire me with daring, fierce
as the day we ripped Troy’s glittering crown of towers down.
Stand by me – furious now as then, my bright-eyed one –
and I would fight three hundred men, great goddess,
with you to brace me, comrade-in-arms in battle!”

Homer, The Odyssey

Why have so many Greek mythology retellings started appearing in recent years, particularly since publication of 2012’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller? Having recently finished reading (and thoroughly enjoying!) Stephen Fry’s humourous retelling Mythos, this is something I have found myself pondering, which poses an interesting question about the popularity of Greek myths with a modern audience.

It should be noted that this is not a new genre in writing. Mythology retellings have always been prevalent as shown by Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), Christa Wolf’s Medea (1996), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1920) and even Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, written in 1602. It is clear that classic retellings have stood the test of time.

Why the undying interest in all things retellings?

To retell or not to retell, that is the question…

These retellings reveal many common themes of Ancient Greek society that are just as applicable to us today, such as birth, death, the afterlife, good and evil, as well as power, loss and love.

What is particularly interesting is that these books are showing women being portrayed as heroines rather than as victims, or simply just as the wives of heroic men. When we think of some of the women in history’s most famous tales, it can be noted that they have notoriously been regarded as vital figures in shaping Greek mythology only for the reason that they are perceived to be villainous. Medusa and Helen of Troy are likely the two most famous females that first come to mind, but recent fiction has aimed to provide a new perspective on the stories of some of the most powerful females.

In her blog, Ellie Rees touches on a difference that can be seen between the stories of King Midas (the man who seemingly had the gift of everything he touched being turned to gold) and that of Medusa’s, one which casts lights on the double standards found within ancient mythology. Here, we have Midas and his ability to turn whatever he touched to gold on one hand, and Medusa and her ability to turn anyone who made eye contact with her into stone on the other. Both powers are comparable in that they both result in a change to the victim in some way; however, our perceptions of them are entirely different.

In her book Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes uses the story of Midas and his golden touch to illustrate the mismatch when compared to that of Medusa’s. In a review of the book in the Guardian, former deputy literary editor and author, Stephanie Merritt, mentions that Haynes alludes to various images of the Medusa story to convey the way in which the male point of view is favoured, and yet this is not something we ever think to question: “it’s just a hero and his trophy”. But Medusa was not always a monster; in some versions “she’s a woman who was raped and then punished for it with snakish hair”.

This highlights the recurrent sexism rooted in these stories, where women are used merely as scapegoats for the wrongdoings of men. In other words, in these myths – which were historically told by menwomen are regarded as subordinate unless they can be blamed or vilified for something.

Many of these retellings have also woven LGBTQ+ themes into the original stories. The Song of Achilles, for example, is a reimagining of the classic story The lliad which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Whilst Homer only hints at the exact nature of their relationship, Miller fleshes out this element of the original story and explicitly depicts a gay love story between the two characters. This is something many retellings have previously neglected. As society is beginning to better promote the rights of underrepresented groups, the fact that these retellings are beginning to give more of a voice to women – as well as to marginalised characters more broadly – may be indicative of a shift in a positive direction.

Final thoughts

In sum, myths – like all folklore – were created to explain why certain unknown phenomena exist, help us better understand the world we live in, answer universal questions pondered throughout the history of humankind, and, most importantly, to shed light on the human and spiritual experience. They are embedded in every culture in the world and – reflective of our belief system and the rules and cultural norms of past societies – it is only natural that they will be reworked and take on new perspectives in view of modern values and today’s global challenges.

I would like to say that this trend for retellings is indicative of the fact that we will always have a need to explain the world around us; this is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. Only time will tell how long this trend is set to continue, but one thing is for certain though: classic stories will always resonate with us.

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