Why We Turn to Myths to Untangle Old Problems
Jennifer Saint on Feminist Retellings of Ancient Stories
Myth, in ancient Greece, was more than entertainment. The terrifying, unpredictable power of the sea—which swallowed up ships on a whim—belonged to the sullen god Poseidon, whose fury you might appease if you honored him. A constellation twinkling in the night sky was once a woman who fell prey to Zeus and was transformed into stars: a reminder of what might happen if you wandered alone into the woods. The bare, barren months of winter symbolized a mother’s grief: Demeter, the goddess of plenty, turns her face away from the world while her daughter Persephone is held beneath the earth by Hades, god of the dead. When she ascends, spring comes and crops flourish again in an annual cycle of decay, death, hope and new life. The rise and fall of great families, the establishment of towns and cities, mighty conflicts and terrible wars; they were all remembered and explained by myth.
The myths themselves were transmutable, ever-changing, spreading across a vast scope of territory far beyond what we know as modern-day Greece. They proliferated over the ancient world, the focus shifting depending on who was telling the story and why. They spilled down through the centuries; tales of the already long-distant Bronze Age recounted sometime around the 8th-century BCE in the Iliad and the Odyssey, passed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation. Fifth-century tragedians in Athens put mythology on stage, often reflecting or commenting on the political situation of the day.
The stories were adapted into Roman poetry and artwork, spreading further across the world, inspiring writers and poets and sculptors and painters, becoming irrevocably entwined with our literature and culture and history and still thriving today.
Now, a Sappho bot on Twitter will feed you tantalizing fragments—all we have left—of the mostly lost works of the ancient female poet. In school, teachers still read thrilling tales of heroes, magical fleeces, and snake-headed monsters to our children. Translators are still finding subtle nuances in those texts that change the whole meaning of a passage or phrase, often unpicking age-old biases and poking holes in the casual misogyny that has colored the view of the stories and characters for so long. And artists and writers are still reinterpreting myths for a 21st-century audience, challenging the ways in which they’ve been told before and shining a light on the thread that still links us to the ancient past.
Women writers in particular are seizing the baton to reframe the stories of female characters in mythology. The stories we are told, and those we choose to tell, shape not just the world around us, but also our view of ourselves and who we could be. We have heard the myths through a Victorian lens where heroes are brave, honorable men battling evil and defending virtuous maidens.
That story is quite a contrast to the grasping and violent Theseus of legend, who leaves a trail of destruction and broken women behind him in early myths; the Heracles who slaughters his wife and children; the Jason who lets Medea do all the work to gain him the Golden Fleece and get herself exiled from her home, and later deserts her and their sons for a more advantageous marriage. Ancient heroes kill and steal with impunity, and like the gods, they are constantly seeking fame and glory without the moral or self-sacrificing character of some of our present-day heroes today.
But we don’t want to gloss over the brutality of these stories. We don’t want to consign the women in them to the shadows any longer; we want to give them the chance to be heard. These myths are still resonant; their fantastical extremes perhaps no longer explain the rhythms of the natural world to us, but they still enable us to reflect on the terrifying and confusing aspects of what it is to be human.
There are countless ways in which the writers of today are bringing the legends of ancient Greece to a modern audience, from the colorful, vivid webtoon Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe, which casts the story of Hades and Persephone in a strikingly original modern setting, to Nikita Gill’s glorious poetry in Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters. Kamila Shamsie reimagines Sophocles’ tragedy of Antigone as that of British Muslim sisters whose brother is radicalized in her incredibly powerful and timely novel Home Fire. Madeline Miller’s recent short story Galatea depicts the repulsive Pygmalion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an all-too-recognizable incel; an inadequate man whose hatred of women leads him to create his own ideal from marble to abuse as he likes. But Miller’s Galatea wakens from stone to independent thought, a woman with dreams and desires that belong to her, and she refuses to be constrained any longer.
Medusa, in particular, is having her moment in various retellings, including Jessie Burton’s YA novel Medusa and the upcoming Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes. Historically regarded as a grotesque man-killing monster who could turn her victims to stone with a single glance, Medusa’s story is a poignant example of the ways in which women are so often punished for men’s crimes. Medusa was a beautiful girl, raped in a temple by Poseidon and then transformed into a Gorgon as punishment by Athena, who was offended by having her temple defiled but could not turn her rage to the male perpetrator.
Like Hera, the immortal wife of Zeus, who takes out her rage and humiliation on the female victims of her husband’s predatory actions, Athena gains status and security in upholding the patriarchy at the expense of women’s suffering—a version of internalized misogyny not unfamiliar in the modern world. Burton’s Medusa turns the story on its head, using it to examine gender, beauty standards, and power.
In my new novel, Elektra, I wanted to explore three ancient women whose stories have parallels to today. Clytemnestra and Elektra’s relationship is a troubled mother-daughter dynamic; when the young Elektra’s father, Agamemnon, sails away to the Trojan War and throws the world into tumult, she blames her mother. Elektra longs for the restoration of the status quo, rejecting Clytemnestra’s assumption of power and control over the city in Agamemnon’s absence and refusing to fault the father she believes to be heroic and good.
Like any rebellious teenager, she is convinced that her mother doesn’t understand; when Clytemnestra finally takes her bloody revenge on Agamemnon, it irrevocably divides them. Elektra’s futile yearning for a past that never really was ignores reality and anchors her in resentment, unable to move forward.
Meanwhile, Clytemnestra is the kind of women that the patriarchy fears: a woman who refuses to be obedient and who won’t suppress her rage. She takes control and inflicts retribution. She’s a bad wife, held up in contrast to the patient and faithful Penelope, who loyally awaits her husband Odysseus’ return from war. Clytemnestra’s burning anger and her desire for justice might have made her frightening to the all-male chorus in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon, but even if her actions are extreme, her fury at female oppression is powerfully relatable.
And in Troy, the priestess Cassandra—who is the victim of the god Apollo’s spite when she rejects him and is then cursed by him to see the future but never be believed—stands now as a figure who endures relentless gaslighting. We don’t have to stretch our imaginations to sympathize with her plight.
These are women whose stories take place against the backdrop of a legendary conflict, whose lives are ruled by gods as well as men in a world where monsters and magic exist—but their motivations, their dreams, their anger, and their rebellion are very real. Myths have existed throughout human history; the stories have so much that is new to offer each generation that reinvigorates them. Viewed through the constantly changing prism of the passing centuries, they offer new insight on humanity each time.
Elektra by Jennifer Saint is available via Flatiron Books.