The Enduring quality of Greek folklore has ensured a perpetual flow of literary works
The phenomena of Greek mythology is unparalleled. From Disney’s singing Hercules and Brad Pitt’s smouldering Achilles to the Venus de Milo and some of Rembrandt’s most famous work, elements of the ancient world are everywhere.
Greek myth is the most well documented canon of literature we have, which goes some ways to explaining its timeless popularity and importance to Western culture. Last month, national treasure and Classics connoisseur Stephen Fry released the latest instalment of his Mythos series. The books retell classic Hellenic myths and have proven popular, but are not the first to give a new spin on old stories.
On screen epics inspired by Greek mythology have always been popular, full of violence, deception, mystery and magic. In the 1960s alone, multiple cinematic retellings of myth were released, including Electra (1962), Oedipus Rex (1968) and Medea (1969). Troy (2004) and 300 (2006) depicted the bloody ancient battles of Troy and Thermopylae, followed by a remake of Clash of the Titans in 2010 and its sequel Wrath of the Titans (2012) which are loosely based on the characters and events of Greek mythology. For the most part, these stories focus on male heroes, their enemies and the conflicts they are embroiled in. In 1941, Wonder Woman burst onto the scene. Although a DC comic character and wholly original feminist icon of the 20th century, her name and elements of her origin story are inspired by Greek myth. Diana was a Roman deity, originally Artemis in Greek mythology, who was the goddess of hunting, nature and childbirth. In the 2017 film, this identity is conflated with that of the Amazonians, a matriarchal tribe of warrior women who also existed in the world of Greek myth.
Although it permeates pop culture, Hellenic folklore has a complicated relationship with women, fraught with misogyny and sexism. Countless works of fiction are inspired by or directly include elements of myth – Greek or otherwise – and every literary period in history will feature some kind of reference to it.
MACKAYAN: GREEK MYTHS, THE GIFT THAT KEEPS GIVINGTweet
By joanna davies: literature Columnist
The Canongate Myth Series is an initiative that retells myths from various cultures, with authors like Philip Pullman and Jeanette Winterson taking on “bold retellings of legendary tales”.
Among them is Margaret Attwood whose contribution confronts one of Greek myth’s biggest shortcomings. Her novella The Penelopiad (2005) breathes life into the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who was previously entrenched in the monolith of put-upon wives of heroes, perennially tearful and endlessly committed to their husbands. The Penelopiad gives a voice and personality to Penelope and her maids, telling the story of the silenced and dispelling the misconception that women in Greek mythology were passive fodder to the predation of their male counterparts.
Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018) endeavours to do the same thing, retelling the story of Briseis, a former princess who was captured as a prize of war for Achilles. The novel turns the tables on the belligerent, petulant heroes of The Iliad, instead giving centre-stage to the heart-breaking experiences of the oppressed and marginalised women. While maintaining the structure of Homer’s poem, Barker writes an epic of her own, exposing the hidden side of stories that have survived for millennia. Gut-wrenching, rage-inducing, tear-jerking narrative from Briseis’ point of view is punctuated by touching insight and uplifting female camaraderie.
After nearly 3,000 years, it doesn’t look like humanity’s fascination with Greek myth is going anywhere. In fact, Netflix has commissioned “genre-bending” series Kaos, slated for release this year, that will put a modern spin on classic tales. Exactly what keeps us interested in Greek myth is not something that can be answered by a single explanation. Instead, everyone finds something within the tradition which ignites their intrigue; whether it’s the politics, conflicts, feminism, or the ineffable charm of the stories themselves, myths transport us to unrecognisable places while reminding us of the timeless and inescapable reality of being human.