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It's Time to Get Into Mythology

Greek and Roman retellings have everything: heroes, villains, monsters, magic, sex. And they’re about to be everywhere.
IMAGE ELAINE CHUNG
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When Ayman Chaudhary discovered The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s ravishing reimagination of the Iliad, centered on the tragic romance between mythological warrior Achilles and his doomed lover Patroclus, she knew she knew it deserved its own Tiktok. Chaudhary, a 20-year-old student based in Chicago, fell hard and fast for The Song of Achilles. After a breathless cover-to-cover reading session spent underlining countless passages, Chaudhary recorded her seven-second TikTok: a confessional video depicting her reaction to the novel, and, captioning her cries as “dramatic wailing and yelling.” That TikTok has now been viewed over 67,000 times, while the #SongOfAchilles hashtag boasts a staggering 58.4 million views on TikTok.

In other words, mythology is back, baby. It’s a testament to the popularity of The Song of Achilles that, when a content creator shares mere seconds of “wailing and yelling” about the book, tens of thousands of readers find it instantly, intimately relatable. Literary novels seldom amass online followings, but The Song of Achilles is different: it simultaneously racked up literary prizes and spawned a bona fide fandom, and it’s not even particularly new. In the years following its 2011 publication, the novel’s fans gathered on Tumblr to share their enthusiasm and publish fanfiction; now, this large and loving community has migrated to TikTok, where new fans are discovering the book every day. Chaudhary, who has fallen down the #SongOfAchilles rabbit hole for hours at a time, describes the fandom as “its own aesthetic, its own genre, its own community.”

The Song of Achilles

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Photo by Ecco Press.

Don't think this is a Song of Achilles-specific phenomenon. In fact, it’s just one of many touchpoints in an exploding genre of fiction: the mythological retelling. In recent decades, classical mythology has been rightly criticized as too white, too male, too heteronormative, too inaccessible, too exclusionary, too played out. Now, a new wave of novels are reclaiming familiar stories and excavating unknown ones to reveal mythology like you’ve never seen it before: inclusive and accessible, capable of page-turning thrills and edge-of-your-seat surprise, even if the spoilers are thousands of years old. These retellings are challenging our assumptions about some of the world’s most well-worn narrative building blocks, inviting readers to ask centuries-old questions. At the heart of it: Who gets to tell mythological stories? Who is mythology even for?

It may seem counterintuitive that millennia-old stories can reduce readers to viral tears, but that’s the thing about mythology: these stories have survived the centuries because of their enduring appeal to something fundamental about our human nature. Claire Heywood, the author of Daughters of Sparta, a vivid reimagining of the Siege of Troy told through the eyes of the infamous Helen and her sister Klytemnestra, notes that neither the ancients nor the modern reader can resist a story with good bones. And what fantastic bones these stories have: monsters, magic, palm-sweating action sequences, flawed heroes, delicious villains, romances to root for, forbidden love, acts of god(s), fantastical landscapes. What’s not to like? The stories age, but the storytelling never gets old.

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Daughters of Sparta

If an extended universe of heroes, villains, and magic sounds familiar, it’s because modern storytellers have taken the baton and run with it. You don’t have to look too far to see mythology’s fingerprints on some of our most popular and profitable entertainment franchises: consider the landscapes of fantasy and comics, where storytellers create their own pantheons and send them adventuring through a fantastical world. Julie Barer, a partner at The Book Group and agent to Miller, argues that mythological retellings can go toe-to-toe with Marvel, offering similar escapism and entertainment value, as well as “abnormal and attractive” world-building. Could these novels be poised to become a Marvel-style Mythology Cinematic Universe? We’ll soon find out when Circe, Miller’s celebrated 2018 reimagination of The Odyssey’s misunderstood sorceress, becomes an eight episode HBOMax series. If HBOMax’s Circe succeeds, it may open the floodgates for more on-screen adaptations of mythological retellings, just like the novel opened doors in book publishing.

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“When Circe sold like crazy, that was a signal to other writers,” said Gerald Howard, a retired publishing veteran who worked as an editor at Doubleday for over two decades.

Circe

Photo by Back Bay Books.

Like Marvel, which brought legions of comics fans to its on-screen crossover, HBOMax’s Circe will come with a sizable built-in audience. Meanwhile, the social media enthusiasm for The Song of Achilles has translated to a quantifiable spike in sales, with the book now selling around 10,000 copies weekly—roughly nine times what it sold when it won the prestigious Orange Prize in 2012.

But for most of recorded history, for the average reader, mythology was rarefied and inaccessible. For one thing, only scholars who could read Latin and Greek got to enjoy it. So for some, the very term “classics” smacks of privilege—the privilege of an expensive private education, available only to the white, the male, and the wealthy. Though mythological retellings are making headway in bringing these stories to the masses, the same problems still persist in academia—so much so that some academics are calling to do away with the term “classics” and rebrand the discipline entirely. As the world wrestles with a global reckoning surrounding how cultural narratives are shaped and gatekept, novelists are doing their part to jailbreak mythology out of the ivory tower.

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“These stories belong to humanity,” Heywood said. “They're interesting, whoever you are, whether you know all the backstory or none of it. It doesn't matter whether you’ve read Euripedes and Homer. I hope people don't feel like it's a specialized collection of knowledge that they aren't allowed to access, because with the classics, it can feel like that. That’s why it’s important to create these more accessible routes into classics.”

Today’s mythological retellings are for a broader audience. These novels are crafted with low barriers to entry, meaning that newcomers needn’t have a classics education or an encyclopedic knowledge of mythology to dive in. They are, in other words, for you.

Photo by ELAINE CHUNG.

“I wanted The Song of Achilles to be a novel with open arms,” Miller said. “It was a vital part of both my novels from the very beginning that they'd be welcoming for everyone, because there can be a lot of alienation in classics. I never wanted my novels to make people feel like they had to do homework first. No one is going to look down their nose at you if you don't know who the god of archery is. In doing that, I honestly feel like I'm going back to Homer. These were stories told in the oral tradition. They were for everybody.”

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Liv Albert, the host of Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby, a popular mythology podcast, and the author of Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook, notes that today’s novelists have both a duty and an opportunity to dismantle a long inheritance of mythological whitewashing. Centuries of visual art have sought to erase the Blackness of some Greek mythological figures—like Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess rescued from ritual sacrifice by Perseus, and Memnon, the Ethiopian warrior king who fought in the Trojan War, only to be slain by Achilles. Whitewashing these myths, Albert argues, has kept them front and center in the Eurocentric cultural lexicon. The proof is in the pudding: centuries of whitewashing gave Andromeda enough notoriety to lend her name to a galaxy, while the story of Memnon, which was less frequently whitewashed and therefore less frequently depicted, remains something of a mythology lover’s deep cut.

Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook

Photo by Adams Media.
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As centuries of adaptation whitewashed Greek mythology, so too did they sideline women—if not through malicious intent, then through gradual erosion. Classicist Natalie Haynes, the bestselling author of mythological retellings including The Amber FuryThe Children of Jocasta, and A Thousand Ships, sought to redress the imbalance of women’s stories in her most recent work of nonfiction, Pandora’s Jar.

But in some stories, women were sidelined from the very start. Haynes remembers her visceral reaction to reading Oedipus Rex as a schoolgirl, when she immediately felt that Jocasta, the doomed wife and mother of Oedipus, was underserved by the playwright Sophocles.

“I thought for a long time that the story was too focused on Oedipus,” Haynes said. “I thought, ‘But she's standing right there.’ We're told all the way through this play that he's really clever, but Jocasta works out what's happened way before he does. It just felt to me like these women were hiding in plain sight, hidden in the margins of these stories.”

The women characters who were permitted to remain in view cried out for a reckoning. Miller notes that even mythological women who took center stage, like the powerful sorceress Medea, received poor treatment from playwrights like Euripedes, who demonized his protagonist as a vengeful and murderous woman scorned. The stories of women like Medea are chewier and more nuanced than generations of retellings would suggest, inspiring today’s writers to flip the tired script.

Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths

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“There’s an overwhelming feeling when you're looking back at the ancient world that female characters are often very flat or sidelined,” Miller said. “They don't get to have agency. When they do get the kind of attention that Medea gets from Euripides, they become villains who killed their children. I love that people are pushing back at the tradition, trying to expand it. I love that oftentimes people are looking at marginalized characters who were silenced, giving them voices, and trying to expand the field of vision.”

For Claire Andrews, the quest to challenge mythology’s misogynist undertones started young. When Andrews was in seventh grade, she fell in love with the myth of Daphne, the beautiful daughter of a river god, who rejected every suitor. When the lustful god Apollo chased Daphne relentlessly through the forest, she prayed for rescue, and was transformed forever into a laurel tree. Andrews found the myth “profoundly terrible,” and with the encouragement of her mother, set pen to paper on a retelling. Many years and countless revisions later, that retelling hit shelves as Daughter of Sparta, an empowering young adult novel that transforms Daphne not into a tree, but into a headstrong teenage warrior traveling through ancient Greece on a high-octane hero’s journey.

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Daughter of Sparta

In The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy, Pat Barker inhabits the psyches of familiar mythological women, like Achilles’ concubine Briseis and the Trojan queen Hecuba, while also pulling back the curtain on the thousands of anonymous women who were footnotes to legends of the Trojan War, from nurses to concubines to enslaved women. The fiercely centered interiority of these women characters, from the famed to the unknown, marks a new direction in the long history of mythological retellings.

Though these totemic tales are ancient, they can reverberate across centuries to ring depressingly true to the struggles women still face. In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint reimagines the life of the Cretan princess who aided Theseus in his quest to defeat the fabled Minotaur, only for Theseus to leave her for dead on a remote island, where she would later be rescued and married by the god Dionysus. Pairing Ariadne’s revealing journey with the ill-fated arranged marriage of her beloved sister Phaedra, Ariadne highlights how women all too often pay the price for the acts of gods and men, then and now.

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"It's not just #MeToo now; it's #MeToo in the Bronze Age,” Saint said. “These attitudes, this particular brand of misogyny—you can see it three thousand years ago. Women were blamed for men’s actions. Women bore the consequences while men and gods got away scot-free. We retell the stories because they’re still so relevant to our lives.”

Photo by ELAINE CHUNG.

 While the stories feel as searingly immediate as ever, the stories today’s writers are reimagining are perhaps not the stories that were handed down over ancient hearths. Some myths have been so sandblasted by thousands of retellings as to become probably unrecognizable to the ancients, while others, we’ve perhaps lost to time entirely.

The impulse to reimagine mythology is as old as the mythology itself. Though Mary Renault popularized the novel as a medium for fictionalizing the lives of mythological men, like Theseus and Alexander the Great, our new boom of retellings show an emergence of the novel as a polyphonic medium for the mythologically marginalized. But when the writers of mythological retellings take up their pens to reshape an ancient story, they face a dizzying surfeit of choices about adaptation. How close must they hew to the source material? When they make changes, what exactly should they change, and how much should they change it? Does “accuracy” or “faithfulness” matter?

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Ariadne

Photo by Flatiron Books.

“Oftentimes in the world of classics, the word that gets used around adaptation is ‘faithful,’” Miller said. “That word reminds me of Penelope, who’s supposed to sit at home and wait for Odysseus. It’s as if our job is to serve the original material. But I think the original material has proven that it's just fine. It's lasted for thousands of years. So many people have worked with it and thought about it and changed it. What’s more important to me is being faithful to whatever your vision is.”

But no writer’s vision exists in a vacuum—it’s impossible to divorce one retelling from the generations of retellings before it. Strict traditionalists often argue that additions and changes to a myth’s basic architecture are a bridge too far. After all, mythology enthusiasts take their mythology seriously, harboring fiercely-held opinions that may or may not be rooted in scholarship. Albert has come to blows with some of these enthusiasts on Twitter, noting that men in particular are quick to anger when she exposes how their opinions are at odds with ancient scholarship. But it doesn’t have to get heated.

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“I think there's no such thing as too far,” Miller said. “There are no rules and there should be no rules. I love to see really strongly different adaptations, as well as adaptations that are woven into a version of the story that we already know, but turning the story over like we do embroidery, to show you the back side. Both can be wildly successful. These are such kaleidoscopic characters that you can just keep turning and turning them.”

Photo by ELAINE CHUNG.

While there’s no creative limit to how much we can turn and turn these characters, there remain intransigent commercial limits. As fecund as the publishing environment may seem for mythological retellings, some familiar industry guardrails prevail, stifling retellings seen as too transgressive or difficult to categorize. Scarlett St. Clair, the author of the three-part Hades and Persephone saga—in which Persephone, a goddess disguised as a mortal journalist, enters into a lustful contract with Hades, God of the Dead and tycoon of a mortal gambling empire—as well as a separate three-part Hades saga, self-published her mythological retellings when traditional publishing deemed them unmarketable.

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A Touch of Malice

Photo by Bloom Books.

“Often I've been told that I can’t write within the traditional publishing sphere because there's no market for fantasy romance,” St. Clair said. But A Touch of Malice, the third installment launched this May, already has thousands of Amazon reviews, with readers falling hard for St. Clair’s provocative brand of steamy supernatural romance.

Whether publishing writ large loosens up its genre restrictions now or later, The Great Democratization of mythology is already here. It doesn’t take a rarefied literary prizewinner to convert a new mythology enthusiast. No matter what your classics professor insisted, few people discover mythology through primary sources from the ancient world. Even video games can be a gateway to mythology, with games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inspiring newfound fans of Greek mythology every day, and sequels like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla suggesting that other mythologies may be gunning for a literary breakout of their own. With popular entertainment serving as one of the most viable paths of discovery, mythological retellings are poised to keep leapfrogging to new mediums through new storytellers, as they’ve done since time immemorial.

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“Novels”, of course, “are perfect stepping stones, because they show how fascinating and interesting and wild these stories can be,” Albert said. “Novels open the door to discovering so much more.”

“I hope we see Egyptian mythology,” Barer, Miller’s agent, said. “I hope we see Indigenous mythology. I would love to see an explosion from so many different cultures, countries, and histories. Everyone should get their opportunity, because it’s such a rich landscape.”

When Haynes satirizes and retells mythological stories on her BBC broadcast series, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, she sees this generative effect in real time. “When I do live shows and tours, or release an episode of my podcast, you can see a spike in the sales of whichever book I talk about,” Haynes said. “Everyone's going 'Quick, we've got to read Sappho!'

“I've said this before on stage, and I have meant it every single time: when somebody writes the story of Memnon, they're going to make a million dollars,” Haynes said. “We need more women and more racial diversity. People just have to find the story that sings to them and tell it accordingly.”

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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