Jennifer Saint on the Greek Myth Retellings She'd Love To Read
With its bold and fearless reimagining of the Cretan princess at the heart of the Minotaur myth, Jennifer Saint's Waterstones Book of the Year-shortlisted Ariadne was one of the breakout fiction success stories of 2021. To celebrate the novel's arrival in paperback - and its place as our January Fiction Book of the Month - Jennifer highlights the women's stories from Greek myth that she would love to see retold.
My novel, Ariadne, gives a voice to the woman who saved a hero. Theseus usually gets the credit for defeating the Minotaur, but he would never have been able to escape the twisting Labyrinth without the help of Ariadne: a princess brave enough to betray her family and kingdom to put an end to the grisly human sacrifice offered each year to the beast. She isn’t the only woman in myth who deserves the chance to tell her side of the story though – here are the top ten women of myth whose voices I’d like to hear!
Queen of the Olympians and married to Zeus, Hera has a pretty bad reputation as a petulant and spiteful goddess who takes revenge for her husband’s numerous affairs by enacting an imaginative range of cruel punishments on the innocent mortal women he preys upon or the children born as a result. It’s pretty unforgivable, though in her defence, she’s the goddess of marriage – a symbol of love and fidelity – and Zeus’ behaviour humiliates her on a regular basis. I think she at least deserves the chance to put her side of things across!
Powerful women are often vilified in stories and Medea is one of the most powerful women in Greek myth. Like her cousin, Ariadne, Medea enables a hero to carry out the legendary deeds that make him famous; in her case, it is Jason (of Argonauts fame) to whom she provides invaluable assistance. In return, he marries her and later abandons her with their two sons in order to marry a well-connected bride. Medea’s revenge is so shocking and brutal, it reverberates through history. However shocking her actions, I think she should get the chance to put her version of events across.
A witchy goddess associated with the moon, ghosts and necromancy, Hecate helped the goddess Demeter to search for daughter, Persephone, who had been abducted to the Underworld by Hades. She’s a deity associated with crossroads: a goddess who can travel between the realms of the living and dead who can see further than other immortals. She wields a dark and intriguing power that would make her a brilliant heroine of a gothic tale.
She’s the ultimate voiceless woman of myth – killed by a snakebite on her wedding day, she is pursued to the Underworld by her new husband, Orpheus, who charms Hades into allowing her to return to the world of the living. The condition is that Orpheus must trust Eurydice to follow him and not look back until they reach the surface. Of course, when he can’t resist taking a glimpse, Eurydice is sucked right back to the land of the dead. I’d love to know what she thinks of it all…
Another wronged woman who plots a brutal retribution to her husband, Agamemnon, while he is away for ten years at Troy. Clytemnestra is reviled by some as the ‘bad wife’, unfavourably compared to the faithful and patient Penelope who waits for Odysseus but given how terrible Agamemnon’s actions and character are, it’s hard not to feel sympathy and satisfaction with Clytemnestra’s revenge. I so wanted to read Clytemnestra’s story that I have in fact made her one of the narrators in my second novel!
Psyche is a beautiful woman who has the misfortune to incur the wrath of Aphrodite. Her father condemns her to death, but she is carried away by the West Wind and embarks on an unusual love affair with Eros, the son of her immortal nemesis. He visits her only in the dark so she does not know the identity of her lover. When they are separated, Psyche’s quest to find him leads her on a series of adventures across the ancient world.
Hypsipyle was the Queen of Lemnos when Aphrodite cursed all the women of the island by inflicting a terrible smell upon them. Their husbands’ response was to abduct women from nearby Thrace as they were so repulsed by their wives. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, the Lemnian women’s response was to massacre the men. Hypsiplye secretly saved her father and spirited him away and ruled over Lemnos, a society of women only (bar their dalliance with the Argonauts who visited the island on their quest for the Golden Fleece). She’s a strong, brave woman of mythology with plenty to say – I’d love to read her account.
Growing up, I knew Medusa as a monster – the terrifying snake-haired Gorgon whose gaze would turn you to stone. But Medusa’s tragic history has been more widely told in recent years (and she plays an important role in Ariadne). Originally a beautiful girl, she was raped by Poseidon in Athene’s temple and then transformed by the goddess as punishment. Medusa rightly deserves her re-evaluation in modern times and the opportunity to set the story straight.
Unfairly blamed for the existence of all the horrors of the world, Pandora is the victim of some truly misogynistic storytelling. Mythology tells that she was created by the gods as a punishment to mankind – a beautiful woman who supposedly opened a jar containing pestilence, misery and suffering which was released into the world to plague all of humanity forever. I imagine her version of the story would be very enlightening!
The subject of my third novel (which I’m currently writing), Atalanta is the only woman to join the Argonauts on their famous quest for the Golden Fleece. Her strength and courage comes from her early life – abandoned to die by her father who was disappointed to have a daughter rather than a son, Atalanta is rescued by a mother bear and nurtured alongside the cubs. Atalanta’s freedom and fearlessness make her an incredibly compelling heroine with an exciting and adventurous story to tell.
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