The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
—from “Persephone” by Eavan Boland
The first time I had a formal introduction to Greek, and to a lesser extent, Roman and Norse mythology, was as a sophomore in high school. Using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as an introduction, my classmates and I explored the stories told about the denizens of Mount Olympus and the plethora of immortals whose interactions made for great stories. Learning this mythology became the foundation for a year’s worth of reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy, Euripides’ Medea, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and to finish the year, Beowulf.
I wanted to love mythology, but as a young woman, I found only a few stories that made sense to me. Demeter raging over the loss of her daughter, Persephone, and wreaking havoc against those who had allowed Hades to kidnap her was the first story where the actions of a female goddess made sense to me. And Antigone, whose story was told by Sophocles, was willing to die in order to defy an unjust civil law. She died a heroic death rather than allow her brother’s body to be defiled. Later in the year, the rage of Grendel’s mother against Beowulf was another example of a woman whose righteous rage matched my own sense of how women needed to act in a world that didn’t like them very much. But these were the few examples among the dozens of stories we read that year.
Thus, even in a pantheistic system full of male and female gods, it didn’t take long to figure out that goddesses took the hit for causing much of the sorrow in the world. While male gods, especially Zeus, caused harm to individuals, provoking a goddess or tempting a woman led to destruction on a massive scale.
Zeus was the Harvey Weinstein of the Greek pantheon. In countless stories, his persistence in wanting to have sex led him to dress himself up as a shower of gold, a swan, a bull, or whatever the situation might call for. Women who he desired might find themselves transfigured into cows or other creatures, so that Zeus might hide his infidelities from his wife, Hera.
Zeus never turns up in a white bathrobe, but he might as well. As an adult, reading Zeus reminds me of entitled men who are convinced that there is no greater thrill for a mortal woman than the opportunity to sleep with him. His wife, Hera, is portrayed as the jealous shrew who wants to spoil Zeus’s good time, often by punishing her husband’s lovers, many of whom had been given little choice about becoming mothers to Zeus’s children.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that I love reading new interpretations of these ancient stories. The release of Madeline Miller’s stellar Circe seemed like a good time to put together a list of some of the best of these re-tellings, which take place in a variety of settings.
This book, which appeared in 1984, was the first of these new interpretations that I experienced. Wolf gives a voice to Cassandra, the daughter of the King of Troy, who was claimed as the spoils of war by Agamemnon. Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, but she had also been cursed so that no one would believe her warnings. When readers first meet Cassandra, she is sitting outside Agamemnon’s castle, knowing that once she enters, her fate is to be killed by Clytemnestra for a crime Cassandra did not commit.
As an intellectual living in repressive East Germany, Wolf was all too familiar with silencing. In Cassandra, Wolf weights a vivid re-telling of the seer’s story with the burden of living in a land that forbids one to speak the truth.
At the end of The Odyssey, when Odysseus has made it home to Ithaca, he and his son, Telemachus kill all of the suitors who had besieged Penelope while her husband was gone. But, for reasons that are never made clear by Homer, they hang a number of Penelope’s servants and handmaids, ostensibly for the sin of having slept with the suitors.
Atwood gives a voice to Penelope, and then contrasts her voice with the collective voices of the dead maids, who plead their case and ask for explanations. Were they killed because they worked against Penelope while she waited for Odysseus? Did they sleep with the suitors in order to spy on them, thus strengthening Penelope in her resistance? Or where they treated by Penelope as some sort of scapegoat to absorb any suspicion that Penelope might have been entertaining suitors instead of remaining chaste? The songs of the doomed chorus haunt the reader long after the tale has been told.
This re-telling centers on the lonely task of Atlas, who bears the weight of the world. How burdens re-make us is part of the story, but that’s only a part of it. Half-Titan, half-man, Atlas occupies a troubling space that literally weighs on him. Being forced to hold up the world is punishment, but Atlas also bears it as a commitment to duty. Winterson imagines both the terrible loneliness and the thwarted desire at the heart of the tale. Don’t be surprised if you can’t put it down.
In the story originally told by Sophocles, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the king who, without knowledge of his deed, had killed his father and married his mother. Years later, Antigone’s two brothers have gone to war against one another. Creon is about to welcome Antigone into his family as his daughter-in-law, but when Creon decrees that the punishment for her brother’s rebellion will be to leave his corpse to rot in the sun, Antigone defies Creon in order to give her brother proper burial rites.
In Bhattacharya’s re-telling, besieged soldiers in Afghanistan are confronted by the sister of a young man who has been killed in the fighting. She wants to be given her brother’s body so she may bury it according to custom, but the soldiers suspect that she could be a terrorist who wants to kill them. During the standoff, the soldiers will struggle to commit ethical actions in the midst of a war without rules.
In another re-telling of Antigone, Shamsie imagines the story against the backdrop of modern Great Britain and the United States. Isma and Aneeka are sisters who are pursuing their university educations when they meet Eamonn, the son of a politician who has made his reputation on being ruthless toward certain populations in Britain. Eamonn is ashamed of his father and hides his identity from the two women. But when circumstances lead to Eamon’s revelation, the political consequences will lead to a showdown with fatal results.
Toibin focuses his attention on the women left behind when the men went off to fight the Trojan War. Specifically, he recounts the ten years that Clytemnestra spends plotting to kill Agamemnon upon his return. Clytemnestra feels justified in her fury because of Agamemnon’s actions prior to setting sail for Troy. In an effort to appease an offended god, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. He had lured his wife and daughter to the military camp by promising Iphigenia a wedding to the great hero, Achilles. Then, while her horrified mother had watched, Iphigenia had been killed in an effort to get favorable winds for his journey.
Toibin gives voice to Clytemnestra’s rage, through which a sequence of vengeance and revenge will be enacted that will leave virtually no one standing. Toibin’s retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is a brilliant examination of the costs of anger.
The opening line of the Iliad is: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation …” In Barker’s story, readers meet the woman, Briseis, who was a huge part of the events that inspired Achilles’ fury. In The Iliad, Briseis is a virtual trinket that inspires a conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. But Barker gives Briseis her own story, and she also gives voices to the other Trojan women who were captured by the Greeks and held as sex slaves and hostages.
The idea that Achilles would sulk in his tent because of a woman is treated by Homer as evidence of a great fault within the Greek warrior. Barker’s brilliant imagining of the years of siege outside Troy’s walls restores humanity to women who were treated like throw-away dolls. By presenting the Trojan War through the eyes of captives, Barker complicates notions of what defines heroism.
Circe was another demi-goddess who was minimized in Homer’s stories. In The Odyssey, Homer presents Circe as yet another lonely goddess who attempts to keep Odysseus from getting home to Ithaca. Miller gives to readers a complex Circe, the neglected daughter of the Sun. Circe learns skills of magic and healing and becomes a powerful force in her father’s court. It’s why he exiles her, afraid that his daughter will upset the balance of power.
When Odysseus washes up on her shore, Circe interacts with him on her own terms. Miller tells a story that re-empowers a character who was humiliated by her representation at Homer’s hands. Circe is destined to be a new classic.
Angela Carter; Introduction by Joan Acocella
Angela Carter took on a lot of bad tellings of women’s stories. In the stories that comprise The Bloody Chamber, fairy queens and sleeping princesses—among others—are no longer serve at the pleasure of men. They inhabit much larger worlds and wield more power. Carter’s women are not pushovers, and the sweetness and light of your average Disney princess is nowhere to be found. Anyone searching for a grownup re-telling of familiar fairy myths and folklore will find a treasure trove here.
Maria Dahvana Headley
Beowulf’s origins are unclear. It was composed sometime between the end of the 6th-century C.E. and the year 1000, and its setting is 6th century Denmark and Sweden. In the story, Beowulf hunts and kills Grendel, the monster, that lives in the lake. Grendel’s mother is never given a name, but it is she seeks revenge against Beowulf.
Headley moves the story to present-day America. Dana Mills served her country in its war in the deserts of the Middle East. She is captured and her mock execution by her captors is watched by millions on YouTube. Years later, Herot Hall, a gated community situated at the base of a mountain, is home to people who fear living in the City, amidst its urban “chaos.” They have chosen the artificiality of a quiet life. Everything is serene until the day that Willa’s son, Dylan, makes friends with a “strange” little boy, Gren, who lives with his mother, the returned Dana, up in the woods behind the walls of the community.
Gren and Dylan’s friendship will disrupt everything around them, and it exposes how sterile and bleak the life that Herot Hall’s residents have deliberately chosen for themselves. Headley has crafted a story that operates on multiple levels. It is a feminist re-telling of Beowulf and a critique of late-stage capitalism. I found it one of the most provocative books I have read in a long time.