Re-interpreting Greek myth

At this time when the world seems to be in an even more deplorable state than usual, I will use my space to be grumpy about modern literature.

I’ve been reading “Stone Blind”, by Natalie Haynes, a retelling of the Greek legend of Medusa, the Gorgon (monster) who was beheaded by hero Perseus, but whose decapitated head was still fatal to anyone who looked at it.

There seem to be quite a lot of these retellings of Greek myth about. Many of them, including this one, are lively, well-written and thought-provoking, but I’ve found myself tiring of the genre.

Long ago, legends were created. Epic poems were composed and then written down. Like all literature, they reflected their times, in good and bad ways; but because some of the poems were, to put it mildly, very good (and maybe for other reasons), they’ve become basic parts of Western cultural history.

And then people noticed that these myths were in places a bit misogynistic. Not, perhaps, surprisingly…

Feminist writers started retelling them for the woman’s point of view, and as I say, a new subgenre was born.

Another example of this is “A Thousand Ships,” also by Haynes. I haven’t read it (yet) but I was struck by Madeline Miller’s laudatory quote: “Haynes gives much-needed voice to the silenced women of the Trojan War.”

Miller’s own books (“The Song of Patroclus” and “Circe”) are excellent, and I preferred them to “Stone Blind,” but I found this quote annoying.

While I agree that many myths are unfeminist, I do not accept that the women of the Trojan War have been silenced, or not more than most people who lived a very very long time ago.

Yes, Hector is more famous than his wife Andromache, and Achilles is more famous than his captive Briseis. But is Agamemnon so much more famous than Cassandra and Clytemnestra? King Priam than Queen Hecuba? (It was Hecuba for whom the Player King wept in “Hamlet.”)

Colleen McCullough (1937-2015) is best known as the author of 20th century love/family/war drama “The Thorn Birds,” (the TV dramatization starring Richard Chamberlain was very big in my youth), but in later life she turned her hand to long, interesting, and thoroughly-researched historical novels. In 2010 she wrote “The Song of Troy,” and while it’s less angry-feminist than Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls” (2018, also about the war on Troy) it makes some of the same points. Her presentation of what presumably happened to the coastlands next to Troy before and during the siege quite took away any sympathy I might have had for the Greeks from the beginning.

And long long before Colleen McCullough, there was Euripides (c 480 – 406 BC.)

As you probably know, he was one of three Greek tragic playwrights some of whose work has survived. His most famous play is the spooky and horrific “The Bacchae,” but he was also known for writing plays about women. In particular “The Trojan Women” shows the women of Troy mourning their fate (rape and slavery), and not much happens apart from the murder of Hector’s child. Interestingly, this play was written and performed at a time when Athens was executing a merciless war against the island of Melos, and so it was already making a powerful political point about victims. (When I was at school I played the Leader of the Chorus in this play. Andromache was played by a girl called Karen, who is now an extremely distinguished theatre designer under the name Bunny Christie. This point is not relevant, and is pure name-dropping.)

Anyway… The Ancient Greeks already knew that women get a raw deal in war, and were prepared to watch plays about it. I think, therefore, that it’s a little unfair to call Cassandra, Briseis, Hecuba and Andromache “silenced,” and impliedly use this as a stick to beat Greek culture with. Reverting to Medusa, I would also note that some of the most horrific parts of her legend were apparently added in by the Roman poet Ovid, centuries after the original telling.

Maybe there’ll be a new trend for feminist rewrites of Norse sagas, or Jacobean tragedies – or the million poems where men lament the fact that cruel women won’t risk life and reputation by letting themselves be seduced?

Or maybe we’ll rewrite myth from the point of view of the genuine underdogs in society through the ages: the common soldier, the civilian and the slave.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS I know; I owe all my readers a huge apology for the lengthy hiatus of the blog. On the plus side, “Tell Me Your Name” is about to start its third and possibly (pen)ultimate draft…

1 Comment
  • Stephen Sheridan

    17th October 2023 at 3:26 pm Reply

    A great post Penelope thank you.

    The explosion of feminist re-tellings of the Greek myths in recent years has unlocked a rich seam of literature. I was fortunate enough to go to a lecture by Haynes last year and she was very amusing and very generous with book signings and answering questions. While having a very patriarchal society, the ancient Greeks had a surprising literary focus on the struggles and suffering of women – it is an apparent contradiction, but perhaps shows there was a deeper level of empathy that helped shape the good things about their civilisation.

    As well as the tales of women in Greek Tragedy plays I would also reference Greek Old Comedy plays – particularly Aristophanes’ Lysistrata where the women of Sparta and Athens go on a sex strike to try and force the men of the two cities to stop the seemingly endless war against each other.

    There is also a slightly comic element to the legend of the Judgement of Paris, when the three goddesses (Hera, Aphrodite and Athena) ask him to chose the most beautiful and offer him bribes of supremacy in their particular fields. Instead of realising that this is a dire no-win situation for him, he pushes his male prurience by saying that they must all appear naked to him for him to judge. I have seen a few Rennaissance paintings of this and it is notable that while they all take off their clothes, Athena (Goddess of war and wisdom – a bit contradictory!) keeps her helmet on and holds her spear. There is a interesting parallel here with Satan’s temptation of Jesus, but while Jesus refuses all the different temptations, Paris chooses one of the three he is offered and dooms himself to enslavement by that particular desire (love and lust) – it never occurs to him to refuse all the temptations and refuse to be the judge (albeit they might all have clobbered him then).

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