Rage, Muse

The novels that revisit Greek myths, giving voice to the women who were scorned, wronged, or forgotten

Photo-Illustration by David Herbick. Source Photos: Ranta Images/iStock (Woman); Wikimedia Commons (Medusa)
Photo-Illustration by David Herbick. Source Photos: Ranta Images/iStock (Woman); Wikimedia Commons (Medusa)

Greek myths were among my favorite stories when I was little, thanks to Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s charmingly illustrated (and thoroughly sanitized) collection of retellings for children. When I was older, Edith Hamilton’s nonfiction and Mary Renault’s novels introduced me to the society that invented those myths. In my teens, I read The Iliad and The Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald’s poetic English renderings and was swept away by their epic accounts of heroism and adventure. Several decades later, however, I began to have mixed feelings about these literary cornerstones. While I was reading the myths to a son not long past his toddler years, it occurred to me that the Greek gods were in essence all-powerful, immortal two-year-olds: willful, focused exclusively on their own desires, inclined to wreak havoc when thwarted and enraged. That realization amused me at first, until I thought about the fact that the havoc wrought by the gods included war, famine, and human sacrifice. The myths depict a violent, unpredictable, and fundamentally unjust world that the ancient Greeks apparently accepted as a given. Rereading The Iliad a few years ago, I was struck by it less as a masterpiece of poetry (which it is) and more as an emblem of a brutal military culture.

I am clearly not the only one to have had these thoughts in the past two decades. Since 2005, when Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad gave Odysseus’s long-suffering wife a tart voice and a skeptical view of his fabled travels, some two dozen novels have retold various Greek myths from feminist perspectives. In 2023 alone, new books by genre veterans Natalie Haynes (Stone Blind), Jennifer Saint (Atalanta), and Claire Heywood (The Shadow of Perseus) were joined by debuts from Costanza Casati (Clytemnestra) and Lauren J. A. Bear (Medusa’s Sisters) along with reissues of Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis and Jessie Burton’s Medusa. This summer brings Saint’s fourth novel, Hera, and in December, Booker Prize–winner Pat Barker will come out with The Voyage Home, the final volume in her trilogy about the Trojan War. Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles and Circe, is at work on a novel about Persephone.

Looking at ancient tales through a contemporary lens may offend some guardians of classical culture, but philosopher Simon Critchley argues in Tragedy, the Greeks and Us that this is precisely what Greek dramatists of the fifth century BCE did. “Tragedy arises at the point when a gap opens up between the new legal and political thought of the democratic city on the one hand, and mythic and heroic traditions of the archaic past on the other,” he writes. “The hero has become a problem and heroism has become a problem, a vast question mark.” Critchley has articulated a fundamental issue that spans millennia.

The writers retelling these ancient Greek stories make up a varied group. Barker’s trilogy continues her career-long preoccupation with the effects of violence on individuals and society. Haynes, who began her professional life doing stand-up and has a long-running BBC radio show featuring comic routines about ancient Greeks and Romans, salts her books with earthy humor. She and Barker employ blunt, deliberately nonmythic prose, whereas Miller and Bear favor more lyrical styles. Saint and Heywood imbue their characters with contemporary personalities and motivations that are certainly anachronistic but make for vivid emotional drama. All these authors, meanwhile, imagine internal lives for their protagonists that are absent from the myths themselves. They also insist on the gritty realities of rape, plunder, enslavement, and murder—not for them the simple, romanticized accounts of gods falling in love with mortals and heroes fighting over a beautiful woman or performing glorious deeds. They want to make sure we see everyone in these ancient tales, not just the heroes and the gods.

And they have an explicit quarrel with the male poets who minimize or demonize women’s actions. Saint’s Atalanta is furious about being left out of most accounts of the Argonauts’ adventures and reduced to a maiden tricked into marriage with a few dropped apples. Bear, meanwhile, takes greater consideration of the Argive princess Danaë’s feelings in Medusa’s Sisters. In myth, Zeus takes the form of a golden rain shower, which falls on Danaë and enters her womb, resulting in the birth of Perseus. In Bear’s telling, the eldest Gorgon, Stheno, wonders whether Danaë actually welcomed the golden rain: “I’m sure no poet thought to ask her.” In her 2020 version of the Medusa legend, Athena’s Child, Hannah Lynn concludes mournfully, “Medusa’s truth was lost, and all that remained was the story of monsters and heroes, though the world would never truly know which was which.” Casati’s Clytemnestra knows that she will be reviled as a husband killer while Agamemnon’s murder of their daughter will be glossed over as a necessary sacrifice: “But it doesn’t matter. She was there. She knows songs never tell the truth.”

In these novels, women tell their own stories. Many of them are written in the first person, and almost all the rest are told from a woman’s point of view. (Notable exceptions are The Song of Achilles, narrated by Achilles’s male companion Patroclus, and Barker’s Trojan War novels, which alternate a first-person account by Achilles’s enslaved concubine Briseis with portions told from several male points of view.) Riffing on the famous opening words of The Odyssey (“Sing, muse”) in her account of the Trojan War’s aftermath, A Thousand Ships, Haynes has an exasperated Calliope exclaim, “If he tells me to sing one more time, I think I might bite him.” The muse continues, “I’m offering him the story of all the women in the war. … They have waited long enough for their turn.”

Heroes get decidedly short shrift in these stories. “Really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas?” Penelope inquires in A Thousand Ships. (Haynes’s sharp wit is on full display as Penelope’s initially loving letters to Odysseus grow irritable and then infuriated the longer he’s gone and the more she hears about his sojourns with sorceresses and goddesses.) In the first paragraph of The Silence of the Girls (the opening volume of Barker’s trilogy), Briseis calls Achilles—lauded by bards as the quintessential Greek hero—“the butcher.” Later, after Troy has fallen and Achilles’s son Pyrrhus is lionized for killing King Priam, Briseis comments, “You might be forgiven for wondering how many honours a teenage boy deserves for having hacked one frail old man to death.” The fabled warriors of myth are universally portrayed as men who measure their glory in piles of corpses and the verses that immortalize their feats. Perseus is “a vicious little thug” (and none too bright) in Haynes’s Medusa reboot, Stone Blind. Multiple novels depict Agamemnon hungering for Troy’s riches long before Helen runs off with Paris. In Amanda Elyot’s The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, for example, Helen remarks that Agamemnon used Greek patriotism “to conceal the shabby, all-consuming self-interest and thirst he shared with men for more: more land, more power, more goods, more slaves.” Odysseus gets some credit for choosing a smart wife, but we are reminded in several novels that he’s a serial adulterer who, upon his much-delayed return, doesn’t just kill the suitors plaguing Penelope but also orders his son to hang the 12 handmaids who had sex with them—not exactly a voluntary activity for female servants in ancient Greece.

Rapes and coerced marriages are givens in the world of myths, but such events are no mere afterthought for these contemporary writers. In Clytemnestra, Casati provides a backstory often elided by ancient sources: Clytemnestra was made to marry Agamemnon (to further her father’s political ambitions) after Agamemnon murdered her first husband and son. After Briseis’s city falls to the Greeks in The Silence of the Girls, she and the other women are paraded in front of the soldiers so that they can be parceled out as war trophies. Precisely what this means is made clear in the bitterest rejoinder to the cult of honor and male pride to be found in any of these novels. When Briseis hears Priam pleading with Achilles to return his son Hector’s corpse (“I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son”  ), she says: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” As for all those tales of sex between a god and a mortal romanticized in Renaissance paintings, Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis—no saintly, self-sacrificing wife here but a mouthy disrespecter of received wisdom—can speak for all these fed-up females: “An accepted path. A god saw a beautiful woman, desired her, raped her, and left her alone except for the half-Olympian children in her belly.”

The immortals’ bad behavior, cataloged without comment in mythology, is judged as cruel, selfish, petty, and vengeful. For starters, there’s the habit of punishing women for male misdeeds. Medusa is the prime example; multiple women novelists direct our attention to the fact that Athena turned her into a Gorgon for the sin of being raped by Poseidon in a temple dedicated to the goddess. Poseidon takes equally unjust vengeance after King Minos keeps for himself a sacred bull intended for sacrifice; the offended god punishes not the king but his wife, Pasiphae, afflicting her with an unholy lust for the animal that results in the birth of the Minotaur. Jennifer Saint has Ariadne remark angrily of her bestial half brother, “What the gods liked was ferocity, savagery, the snarl and the bite and the fear … our fear.” That’s the broader assessment: the gods thrive on human misery, yet wretched mortals continue to make offerings to those same gods. Madeline Miller’s Circe characterizes the divine order as “a great chain of fear,” and in Athena’s Child, Lynn’s Medusa offers a provocative (albeit decidedly modern) take on the fallout from the gods’ cruelty: “They show men everything they cannot have control over and, as such, force men to claim dominion over the one thing they can”—women.

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Wendy Smithis a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940.


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