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A Wealth of Greek Mythology: Retellings Flourish on Book Lists

By Photine Liakos

Retellings of Greek myths are perhaps as old as the myths themselves. Originating in an oral tradition, myths were adapted and staged even in antiquity by playwrights who strove to highlight their deeper meanings and insights. The Romans adopted the entire pantheon of Greek gods and the mythology that surrounded them, modifying them to add to the narratives of their own locales.

From Virgil to Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis to Mary Renault, periodic retellings continually resurface in the literary world. In the form of translations, compendiums, reworkings of the old stories, or modernisations set in current times, mythology has remained relevant and immediate throughout history, and this fascination continues unabated. A look at bookstore shelves and upcoming publication lists reveals that mythology-based books are still a hot commodity.

There is a universality to stories from Greek mythology. Phrases and references have found their way into our day-to-day conversations: Achilles’ heel, Midas’ touch, Trojan horse, and odyssey. The themes of jealousy, pride, loyalty, betrayal, honor, passion, revenge, and the ravages of war were as familiar in antiquity as they are today. The moods, personalities, and flaws embodied by both gods and heroes still resonate.

There are reasons Homer’s Iliad is used as a study aid for veterans dealing with combat trauma. The experiences and emotions of the Greek and Trojan protagonists in The Iliad echo the losses that combat veterans through the ages have sustained themselves — the loss of comrades, the conflict with authority figures, the trauma of the return home and reassimilation in non-military society. Euripides’ The Trojan Women is as affecting today as it was in antiquity, highlighting the often unrecognised aftermath of war on civilian survivors. Sophocles’ Antigone feels familiar to this day in its depiction of a woman taking on an unjust patriarchy.

While past translations and compendiums focused on the gods and heroes, more recent retellings take a fresh look.

A Fresh Look at Classic Tales

Teens and young adults find an immediacy and humor in Rick Riordan’s expansive Percy Jackson and the Olympians series: a reimagining that lets modern adolescent demigods take center stage with story lines that echo those of antiquity, but with current sensibilities, experiences, and locations.

The arresting and heart-breaking prose of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles refocuses a narrative of the Trojan War to the ancient, canonical story of the queer romance between Achilles and Patroclus.

Eilish Quin’s Medea, Jessie Burton’s Medusa, Costanza Casati’s Clytemnestra, and Claire Heywood’s Daughters of Sparta, tell familiar tales from the perspective of one — or many — female leads, giving the stories a different focus than the originals and providing a view through a feminist lens to the often patriarchal mythologic inspirations.

Myth Compendiums

Compendiums are still popular. For example, Stephen Fry’s retellings —Mythos, Heroes, and Troy — are bestsellers that follow the original stories closely, with some creative embellishments and a generous dose of Fry’s dry wit. They are meticulously researched and the author’s zest for the material is evident. He has an Odyssey retelling coming out in 2024.

Charlotte Higgins takes a different approach in her book Greek Myths: A New Retelling, sharing the tales of the heroes from the vantage point of the women in their lives, as the women weave the tapestries that tell the stories. Natalie Haynes also puts the women front and center in her books Pandora’s Jar and A Thousand Ships, letting the women reveal their own tales.

A Focus on Female Characters and Point of View

Haynes takes this idea one step further in her recent book Stone Blind, which offers a focused take on the myth of the long-maligned Medusa from the main character’s own point of view. Haynes isn’t the only one to center female characters as protagonists; Jennifer Saint has done this in her three books Ariadne, Elektra, and Atalanta. Claire North gives Penelope this detailed treatment in her books Ithaca and House of Odysseus, following in the footsteps of Margaret Atwood who wrote her own version, The Penelopiad, back in 2005.

The sheer multitude of Persephone/Hades retellings is staggering: from Rachel Smythe’s graphic novel series Lore Olympus, Melinda Salisbury’s modern Her Dark Wings, Scarlett St. Clair’s A Touch of Darkness, to Katee Robert’s modern, erotic tale Neon Gods. This isn’t even a comprehensive list!

Herc by Phoenicia Rogerson, a retelling of the story of Hercules from the perspectives of his mother, his wife, his friends, his enemies, and the gods themselves, is being released later this year. Lies We Sing to the Sea, by Sarah Underwood, imagines an Ithaka long after the demise of Odysseus and Penelope but still haunted by that past. Veronica Roth’s recent release Arch-Conspirator brings the story of Antigone to a sci-fi dystopian setting.

Contemporary Translations of the Classics

Retellings and compendiums aren’t the only works being released to contemporary critical acclaim. Emily Wilson has produced inspired and detailed contemporary translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad (slated for publication in October), presented in iambic pentameter and matching the pace and line progression of Homer’s original works.

Where to start?

Where does one even start reading with this wealth of modern homages to Greek myths?

If compendiums appeal, then Fry, Higgins, or Haynes are natural starting points. If the Homeric epics are favorites then Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe are not to be missed. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy are also excellent choices.

If you are a traditionalist, you can’t go wrong with Emily Wilson’s brilliant translations.

Any of the single-name character books — Atalanta, Clytemnestra, Medusa, Medea, Herc — provide a deeper investigation into the characters, themes and forces at work in those particular tales.

If modern or alternative universe takes are more of interest, then Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Trials of Apollo series will please across multiple age demographics. Katee Robert’s novels (Neon Gods, Electric Idol, Wicked Beauty, Radiant Sin) fall in the erotic retelling category. Fit for the Gods, edited by Jenn Northington and S. Zainab Williams, is a short story anthology of gender-bent, modern queer retellings.

Greek myths are entertaining in their own right, but what they teach us about human nature is both familiar and haunting. These characters prove so recognizable and resonant, even if their stories date back to antiquity. They reveal insights into ancient cultures and civilisations, but also show us the immediacy and universality of the themes portrayed. Courage, lust, determination, loyalty, hubris — these themes and the symbolism surrounding them provide insight into current events, interpersonal relationships, and our own daily lives.

It’s a great time to be a fan of Greek mythology — the choices available are endless.


About the Writer:

Photine Liakos has spent her career as an orthopaedic surgeon. She received both her undergraduate degree in Comparative Arts and her medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Her Pushcart Prize nominated writing has been featured in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. She has essays in the book “What We Bring to the Practice of Medicine: Perspectives from Women Physicians.” Writing makes her feel like she is more than a small cog in a big machine. Baking is her love language. She is endlessly fascinated by all things related to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Beatles. Photine can be found @music_in_the_or on Instagram.


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