Rewriting the women of the ancient world

Elodie Harper 10 May 2021

In recent years there's been an explosion in the popularity of novels that retell significant historical periods through the lens of women. Author Elodie Harper dissects the popularity of the genre.

The current vogue for retelling ancient myths is nothing new. It has been happening since Roman times. The people of ancient Pompeii believed their town had a divine patron: Venus, the goddess of love. Wandering Pompeii’s ruined streets today, or visiting the nearby National Archaeological Museum in Naples, you are struck by the abundance of images of the goddess. She is in frescoes on the walls of grand villas, which tell the story of her birth or her affair with Mars, and she appears too on the front of shops, granting her patronage to businesses. It is not only Venus who we see in Pompeii’s ancient paintings. A huge variety of goddesses appear, along with mortals, from servant girls to courtesans, their bodies and beauty on display. The female form is everywhere in Pompeii’s artwork, even though women of the time held nothing like the power that men did.

Venus reclines on a cloud surrounded by angels blowing into conch shells. A painting by Alexandre Cabanel
The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel. Public domain

This paradox—that women are central figures, yet exist for a male audience—is one of the reasons why I think female retellings of ancient Greek and Roman myth have become so popular today. Many of the stories are familiar, and their women famous, yet until recently, we never heard what happened from the women’s point of view.

Often, the work of a female retelling is to uncover the brutality and misogyny behind the legend. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls looks at the lives of the captured "camp women" who were prostituted by famous Greek warriors during the siege of Troy. While a Roman poet like Ovid eroticises Achilles’ "lover" Briseis, Barker’s story is one that reclaims her humanity, vividly imagining her grief at losing her family and being gifted to a stranger. The novel is all the more poignant because this is not only a myth, Briseis’s story also reflects the lived reality of women enslaved during warfare throughout history, right into the present day.

In Jennifer Saint’s recent novel Ariadne, modern parallels also resonate. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way Saint depicts Ariadne’s relationship with the god Dionysus. In myth Dionysus is Ariadne’s rescuer, but in this novel, we have to confront what such a power imbalance might look like—what is it really like to be married to a god? The answer may be one familiar to many women who find themselves married to powerful men, and Saint’s portrayal is both humorous and heart-breaking.

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian: Dionysus discovers Ariadne on the shore of Naxos. The painting also depicts the constellation named after Ariadne.
Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian. Public domain

Humour is a frequently deployed tool in female retellings of ancient myth and one of the most effective. Whether it is Ariadne’s interactions with her divine spouse, or Madeline Miller’s Circe realizing her first love is a twit, male pomposity is constantly being punctured. In Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar this attitude is encapsulated in the description of Helen of Troy: “A beautiful woman whom men find all the more alluring because she is essentially mute? I know, I always think the shock will kill me too.” There are few tricks that signal more surely who is in control of a narrative than the ability to decide when we laugh—and who we laugh at.

"In writing my book, I wanted to focus not only on the obvious—that the women here were prostituted—but on all the other aspects of their lives: their hopes, loves, and ambitions"

But retelling ancient stories in the female voice is not just about humanising the women—it can also give us more empathetic versions of the men. This is powerfully apparent in Nikita Gill’s Great Goddesses, a lyrical reimagining of the gods’ lives after the fall of Olympus. Gill gives us a new perspective on the male gods, by examining the impact a rigidly patriarchal system can have on both sexes. Her approach to Hephaestus, who has long had a raw deal due to his disability and status as a "cuckolded" husband to Aphrodite, is an especially moving example. Gill’s book, like Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, does not shy away from the impact male violence and shame has on other men. With a woman’s view of events, the question of what makes a hero, often results in a different answer.

The Birth of Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Venus emerges surrounded by lovers
The Birth of Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Public domain

Much of the focus in female-centred retellings is (understandably) on historic unfairness towards women, but sometimes a female perspective can be just as hard-hitting by reimagining love and consent. In Great Goddesses Nikita Gill takes a number of unhappy love stories, and shifts the perspective, making the relationships ones in which the woman is seen, supported and loved by the man. In perhaps the most famous of the modern mythical retellings—Circe by Madeline Miller—both approaches are woven together. We see the brutality and injustice that Circe suffers, but the novel’s vision is ultimately hopeful, of a woman striving to find love and to be true to herself.

"Retelling ancient stories in the female voice isn't just about humanising the women—it can also give us more empathetic versions of the men"

In writing my own book, The Wolf Den, I chose to focus on real rather than mythological women, but the principle remains the same. Pompeii’s lupanar—or brothel—is today the most famous and most visited building at the site. People remember the place for its erotic frescoes, and for the small cells with their stone beds, left almost as if the women and their clients might return at any moment. But while we all like to stare at the paintings, the women’s perspective has not traditionally been centred. In writing my book, I wanted to focus not only on the obvious—that the women here were prostituted—but on all the other aspects of their lives: their hopes, loves, and ambitions. Not only how they survived in a hostile world, but how they might have found joy too.

Harper Eleoide author photo
Elodie Harper

In the end, the idea that the current vogue for retelling ancient stories is to give a purely female perspective is perhaps misleading. The emotions that modern writers give their ancient counterparts are not specifically female but human and universal—the need to have a sense of control over your life, to be loved and respected, to want more than what you are given. The ancient world didn’t always grant women this level of humanity. And so, the common thread running through all these retellings is the need to redress the balance.

The gaps where we are not told how a woman felt, or what she said, no longer have to be left blank. The painting on the wall can look back at us, and speak.

The Wolf Den

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper is out May 13th in hardback published by Head of Zeus RRP £16.99

Read more: The Silence of the Girls reviewed

Read more: 10 Unknown facts about Cleopatra

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