For centuries, ancient Greek myths have immortalised the actions of men while repeatedly marginalising women’s narratives. Even modern translations and retellings have exposed the systemic patriarchal oppression of women in these stories. They continue to reinforce misogynistic narratives, by celebrating men like Odysseus and Achilles as heroes, while women like Circe, Penelope and Briseis are villainised, confined to the domestic sphere or overlooked entirely. However, the representation of women in Greek mythology is finally changing and in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of myths being retold through a feminist lens.
It’s clear that readers desire to know more about female characters from Greek mythology, as more than ten feminist retellings have been published since 2016. These titles include best-sellers like Circe, The Silence of the Girls, A Thousand Ships and Pandora’s Jar. Jennifer Saint’s debut novel Ariadne (published 29 April) is the latest novel to join this list. Saint’s story finally gives a voice to the Princess of Crete, who is largely forgotten from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, undoubtedly one of the most famous ancient Greek myths.
The rising popularity of feminist retellings first began as a niche literary trend in the mid to late 2000s, after Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin and Amanda Elyot each wrote novels focusing on women from popular Greek myths (Penelope from The Odyssey, Lavinia from Aeneid and Helen from The Iliad). These were vastly different interpretations of the myths that had come before, purely because they put women’s voices, perspectives and experiences at the forefront of their narratives. Atwood, Elyot and Le Guin were instrumental in carving out space for women in both Greek mythology and popular culture. Previously, women were relegated to a couple of lines in between stories about male heroes and were often described through misogynistic and objectifying language. They were treated—and depicted—as subservient doormats, villains to be defeated or objects to be won and traded in war for a man’s honour.
The Penelopiad, Lavinia and The Memoirs of Helen of Troy were the first retellings that unequivocally focused on women in the ancient world. They gave voices to strong women who previously lacked any agency and only existed as part of a man’s story. The Penelopiad was arguably the most popular of these three novels, and by thoroughly exploring the complexities of Penelope’s character, Atwood proved she was much more than just Odysseus’ wife. The novel received a positive response from readers and critics, and though Atwood publicly stated that she never intended for it to be a feminist symbol, The Penelopiad became just that. Atwood’s portrayal of Penelope set off a chain reaction, paving the way for more and more retellings to focus on and celebrate female characters.
The influx of feminist Greek myths into the mainstream market is nothing short of a literary movement. This demand for feminist interpretations of Greek myths not only shows how imperative it is for women’s voices to be heard, but also just how much a contemporary audience wants and needs to hear them. They are more than just exciting new ways to retell ancient stories; they have become poignant social commentaries. Women’s voices being silenced by men feels all too familiar, so finally reading narratives about female characters who have been silenced and ignored for centuries has a significance that cannot go unnoticed.
In an article for Stylist, freelance journalist Sarah Shaffi suggested that “women are rewriting the canon, literally, by putting a feminist spin on classics from literature”. The standard for this canon has been set by men, so by retelling these ancient myths through a feminist lens we can compile a new inclusive literary canon. Feminist retellings are not a dumbing down of Greek myths, they are new interpretations that use forgotten voices to tell overlooked stories. It is essential for women to rewrite these myths, to ensure that female characters receive equal representation in classical mythology and the ancient world.
With the publication of each new feminist retelling, a new perspective on the classical world is unearthed. In A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes uses collective female experiences to expose the atrocities and after-effects of the ten-year Trojan War. Pat Barker also takes on The Trojan War in The Silence of the Girls, giving queen-turned-slave Briseis a voice to tell her story. Revealing the experiences of classical women doesn’t just come from rewriting the myths from a female character’s perspective though, adopting feminist language can also change the way we read a story. While The Odyssey will always be a story about Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca, Emily Wilson’s new feminist translation changes the way we read this ancient epic. Her interpretation gives considerable scope to the forgotten female characters, like Nausicaa and Clytemnestra, and explores Penelope’s role outside the domestic sphere.
Retelling Greek myths through a feminist lens has even resulted in the total transformation of some characters. For example, in most renditions of The Odyssey, Circe is two things: a villain and a sex object. While the language Wilson uses in her translation combats this sexist portrayal, it is Madeline Miller’s mythological retelling that finally gives a voice to this suppressed character. Miller explores Circe’s rich personality and retells her life from her perspective, according her the right to be the protagonist in her own narrative. This depiction of Circe reveals the trauma she experienced at the hands of men and portrays her as an empowered heroine. It’s important to note that Miller didn’t make any fundamental changes to Circe’s character or story, she simply reframed the perspective.
In the notes at the end of her book, Miller wrote that she “absolutely” intended for Circe to be a feminist piece. She also said: “It was a startling experience to be revisiting scenes that precisely mirrored what I was seeing on the news—but the unfortunate truth is that sexism, misogyny, and our culture’s distrust of powerful women are timeless.” Miller hoped that by bringing a woman’s perspective and internal struggle to the forefront of mythology, Circe could also be part of a wider conversation in modern society.
Circe is now one of many feminist retellings contributing to the conversation surrounding women’s rights and equality, with each of these powerful narratives proving that misogyny and sexism are timeless issues. While these retellings can’t make up for centuries of female oppression at the hands of the patriarchy, they have helped advance the equal representation of women in the ancient world. We can also hope that this re-examining of the past through a feminist lens will light the way for greater equality in the future of our own society.
Words by Catriona Mactaggart
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
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