There’s something to be said for the allure of the classics, stories that never get old. Time and time again we go back to Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickens, the Brontes, and of course, Ancient Myth. However, even the very best of Greek Mythology has excluded or shadowed it’s female characters to the point where their narratives are that of plot devices to further the hero’s quest, as opposed to being people with stories and agency. There has since been a window of opportunity to reclaim the narratives of goddesses, nymphs, and all the women in between to better flesh out our understanding of Ancient Mythology in an entirely innovative way. We’ve broken down a top 10 of feminist retellings, non fiction, poetry and more to whet your appetite for the stories of women in Greek Myth, they are the perfect compliment to Madeline Miller’s Circe, which we of course chose for our September read!
Silence of the girls by Pat Barker
A book that was also alongside Circe for the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award this year, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls retells the story of Briseis, a queen who was captured during the Trojan war by Achillies. She has often been romanticised and depicted as a “willing” lover to Achilles rather than the slave she was to him. Praised as a “feminist Illiad”, this retelling of Homer’s epic narrates the cost of war to women through Briseis’ character in a wholly new and very touching way.
“We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.”
Lavinia by Ursula le Guin
In Virgil’s The Aeneid, Lavinia is a silent character. She never speaks, not when the poem’s hero fights to claim her hand, and not even after when her fate is decided by everyone but her. However, in Ursula Le Guin’s novel about the princess, Lavinia is given the voice she always deserved, as well as a gripping story all fans of Circe will love.
“I am not the feminine voice you may have expected.”
Women and Power by Mary Beard
With wit and tenacity, classicist Mary Beard revisits the history of repressing powerful women. Spanning across politics, popular culture, and the classical world; Beard often draws examples from the Ancient Greeks to illustrate cultural underpinnings of misogyny, assumptions about women’s relationships with power, and how women resist being packaged into a male experience.
“More often than we realise, and in sometimes quite shocking ways, we are still using ancient Greek idioms to represent the idea of women in, and out of, power. They are not, however, role models – far from it. For the most part, they are portrayed as abusers rather than users of power.”
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
A startling retelling of Iphis and Ianthe focusing on two sisters, Anthea and Imogen, who couldn’t be more different from one another. Things complicate when Anthea falls for Iphoisol, an artist whose work is the bane of her workplace’s existence. A sharp story about transformation, love and sisterhood, Girl Meets Boy is a must read for Greek myth fans!
“And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to.”
Galatea by Madeline Miller
If you loved Circe, and perhaps you’ve read The Song of Achilles as well, you should definitely make your way towards Miller’s lesser known Greek retelling, Galatea. This feminist retelling of Pygmalion’s myth is written from the perspective of the statue who, after being given the gift of life is forced to live within one she did not choose. A captivating short story that will surely change the way you’ve read the myth.
Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill
A collection of modern poetry by esteemed poet Nikita Gill that majestically explores the untold stories of the life bringers, warriors, creators, survivors and destroyers that shook the world- the Greek Goddesses. This poetry collection vividly re-imagines and beautifully illustrates an ancient world transformed by feminist magic.
“This is the version of the tale they do not want you to know. After all, what is more powerful than women who know all about the blessed fires inside them that grow.”
Homefire by Kamila Shamsie
Another Women’s Prize for Fiction book, this time, 2018’s winner, Homefire! This book is an astounding retelling of Antigone that has been reframed to centre around an immigrant family and the man that comes into and disrupts their lives. Described as, “an emotionally riveting and beautifully written novel about love, family, power and politics, this modern Greek tragedy will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page.”
“For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.”
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Natalie Haynes’ new novel frames an all-female retelling of the Trojan War. It recounts the devastating after-effects of the 10-year-long battle, as Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash.
“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them…”
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids. In a contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In the playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
“Happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked.”
Weight by Jeanette Winterson
A hugely popular retelling of the story of Atlas, this novel’s blurb is best told by the author herself:
“When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realized I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended. If the call had not come, perhaps I would never have written the story, but when the call did come, that story was waiting to be written. Rewritten. The recurring language motif of Weight is ‘I want to tell the story again.’ My work is full of cover versions. I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently. In the retelling comes a new emphasis or bias, and the new arrangement of the key elements demands that fresh material be injected into the existing text. Weight moves far away from the simple story of Atlas’s punishment and his temporary relief when Heracles takes the world off his shoulders. I wanted to explore loneliness, isolation, responsibility, burden, and freedom, too, because my version has a very particular end not found elsewhere.”