Many of us will be familiar with elements of Greek mythology because of the myriad ways it is referenced and recycled in popular culture. From Classics like My Fair Lady and the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, to the 2019 Tony award-winning musical Hadestown and the Webtoon series Lore Olympus (both of which I highly recommend checking out), there is no shortage of stories inspired by these myths and legends.
Growing up, I was obsessed with Greek Mythology (I have Rick Riordan and his book series Percy Jackson and the Olympians to thank for this). To this day, I consume as much Hellenistic-inspired content as I can. When it comes to books, there are a plethora of titles old and new to choose from, which is what brings me to this post. This post is intended to be a fun little guide to the Hellenistic-renaissance the book industry is experiencing and let you know what, in my personal opinion, is good. Before I go into the details of these books, I would like to say that there should be a content/trigger warning on some of these titles.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
This is one of my favourite books. Anyone familiar with Booktok has probably heard of The Song of Achilles, and there’s a good reason for that. This book is just gorgeous. Told through the attentive and adoringly devoted eyes of Patroclus, Madeline Miller eloquently details a romance that history chose to neglect (as it so often does when Queer identities are involved). Patroclus, the shamed prince of a small Grecian kingdom, is exiled to another court where he meets the perfect, literal ‘golden boy’, Achilles, the son of King Peleus and the minor sea goddess, Thetis. Despite his initial envy of the paragon demigod, Patroclus forms a friendship with Achilles and as the pair grow up together this friendship blossoms into a passionate love for one another, much to Thetis’ disapproval. When Helen of Sparta is kidnapped by the Trojan Prince Paris (promised to him by the love goddess Aphrodite as a trophy for confirming that, yes, she is, in fact, beautiful… but that is a story for another time) Achilles and Patroclus are forced to take part of the Trojan War. I don’t want to say much more in case I spoil anything (though how do you spoil a story inspired by a myth that is a few millennia old?) however, this is a book that you will need a box of tissues for the stream of tears it will produce… maybe two boxes just to be safe. Miller’s symphonic ballad of the original Achillean romance will have you weeping.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Now, this is one of the books that I put a content warning on. The Silence of the Girls is what Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale would be if it was set in Ancient Greece. Like The Song of Achilles, The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, again with some focus on the Grecian golden boy Achilles, and again from the point of view of an underrepresented perspective in Ancient Greek tales: women. However, where The Song of Achilles is a love story, The Silence of the Girls is a reflection of masculine brutality and feminine oppression. From the point of view of the once Queen Briseis, whose family was murdered in the sacking of her kingdom by the Grecian armies as they made their way to Troy, we read the stories of the girls used as bed slaves for the Greek warriors during the Trojan war. Treated as mere spoils of war instead of an actual person, Queen Briseis is gifted to Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles, as a concubine. With resigned anger and disgust, Briseis recounts a raw history that’s unfortunately too real and common for women throughout time. Written and published in the height of the #Metoo Movement, this historical fiction finds such tragic relevance to what women go through even to this day. Barker’s hauntingly dark, feminist retelling of the Iliad is a modern classic.
Mythos by Stephen Fry
This book is a good rest stop between the heaviness of most of these titles. Brimming with humour and sarcasm, Stephen Fry beautifully and satirically documents the wanky adventures of the omnipotent Grecian deities. Where the others on the list have an expectation that you as a reader should have some basic background knowledge on the myths and legends the text is based on, Mythos is an amazing book for anyone just starting to tread the halls of the Pantheon. Informative and witty, Fry explores a myriad of myths starting from the beginning of all things. Moving somewhat linearly through the Greek myths, Fry details the birth of the personifications of Chaos, the Earth (Gaia) and the Heavens/Sky (Uranus, don’t laugh) through to the titans, giants and the Gods we all know and love, to the birth of the first humans and their own miscellaneous adventures. Some personal favourites of mine are ‘The Wedding Feast’, where we find out why bees have a stinger that will kill them if used, and the story of Psyche and Eros (one of my favourite myths in general). If you find yourself enjoying this book as much as I did, then Fry has you covered with two more, Heroes (focusing on the less divine Grecian characters) and Troy (focusing on the events leading up to and during the Trojan war, which is clearly a common inspiration for a lot of novels). With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Fry keeps you laughing while also documenting the flawed and consistently tragic lives of these mythological characters. If you need a little chuckle, Fry is your guy.
Stone Blind by Natalie Hayes
As a more recent read for me, this book is fresh in my mind and will stay there for a long time. Stone Blind details the awfulness of men and gods through the tragic story of Medusa. Usually only depicted as a monster with serpentine hair, Hayes breathes life into Medusa and paints a tragically beautiful portrait of the gorgon’s tale. Told through many perspectives, we get an over-the-shoulder view of the very flawed and very traumatised lives of the ancient Greek mythological characters we thought we were so familiar with. I do put a massive trigger warning on this book though, as Hayes does not shy away from discussing the awful acts that are done against the women in this book. Now, for a little plot summary: Medusa is a gorgon, however unlike her two older, beastly-in-appearance sisters, Stheno and Euryale, Medusa was born human (mostly, she does have wings). Protected by her two doting sisters, Medusa was kept out of harm’s way where she grew into a beautiful young woman who caught the eye of the God of the Sea, Poseidon. When Medusa visits the temple of a new goddess, Athene, she is pursued by Poseidon. Within the temple of Athene, Poseidon commits an unforgivable act against Medusa. Now, you’d think that Athene, a goddess that represents feminine wisdom and power, would be disgusted with Poseidon’s actions, however you’d be wrong. Offended not by the act but the fact that it took place in her temple, Athene takes out her wrath on Medusa. Turning her beautiful, dark locks of hair into snakes and blinding her with the paralysing gaze we are familiar with, Athene curses the victim. Hayes weaves mythological threads together into a tapestry that depicts the brutality of the Greek deities and heroes so gorgeously that Athene would be jealous (don’t curse me for saying that please).
These are so many more titles to try out from here, including a couple that will be released later this year. Keep an eye out for Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati, the story of the sister of Helen of Troy and wife of Agamemnon, coming out this April, and Orphia and Eurydicius by Elyse John, a gender-swapped retelling of Orpheus and Eurydices, coming out this May. I could honestly go on forever about all the different pieces of media inspired by this mythological pantheon, but I’ll stop myself here. I hope you enjoy your stroll through the halls of the Hellenistic Pantheon!
Written by Tyler Ryan Wood