Why Greek Myths Persist

On 18th November, Charlotte Higgins joined us to discuss her latest book Greek Myths: A New Retelling, and explain, as Classics Ambassador Declan Boyd recounts, why ancient stories have such enduring power and appeal.

Higgins began by highlighting how we might be familiar with many Greek myths but that, in reality, there was never one single canonical version of these myths – not even in antiquity, when the dramatists of fifth-century Athens, for example, were continuously rewriting and reinterpreting these stories for their own purposes. Yet the versions that have stuck in the popular imagination are often focused around a virtuous hero who slays monsters and saves damsels in distress, when, again, this is not at all how the Greeks themselves conceived of the idea of a hero.

Most heroes in Greek mythology are in fact highly problematic when viewed through a modern lens: Achilles’ wrath in the Iliad results in the unnecessary deaths of vast numbers of Greek and Trojans, whilst Heracles murders his wife and children in a fit of madness. Higgins therefore decided in her book not to follow her predecessors in focusing on the admirable hero quest, but instead to focus on lost and lesser-known stories. She discussed the figure of Memnon as an example of this, whose death at the hands of Achilles and the cradling of his corpse by his divine mother Eos was told in a lost epic poem, the Aethiopis, and offers a touching contrast with the harshness of war found in the Iliad.

Memnon and Eos

Another example of the problematic nature of these hero stories can be seen in the story of Medusa, who is often thought of as a monstrous figure who had to be killed by Perseus. However, this monstrous appearance with her hair of snakes and her tusks was inflicted on her by Athena as a punishment for being raped by Poseidon in her temple; thus, Medusa can emerge from mythology as a pitiable figure rather than a monster deserving of death. Different retellings focus on different details and this ability to be reshaped by eclectic storytellers and reinterpreted by new audiences, Higgins argued, is one of the reasons why Greek mythology has persisted so powerfully.

Jan Gossaert’s painting of Hercules and Deianira

Higgins next turned to Jan Gossaert’s painting of Hercules and Deianira, which features the labours of Hercules in condensed form as a frieze at the bottom, a miniaturisation which makes them, paradoxically, more notable if not noticeable. The focus has been shifted away from Hercules’ famous deeds onto his marital relationship, as it is his wife, not his monstrous foes, who will ultimately kill him (albeit inadvertently). Hercules as a hero is therefore an idea which is dismissed as unimportant, and instead he is transformed into the tragic figure that he is presented as in Sophocles’ play The Women of Trachis, where Heracles’ labours are also moved to the background by being summed up quickly in one speech. Here too there is a transformation of a Greek myth with a different focus so that its primary character can be completely reinterpreted.

For much of the second half of her lecture, Higgins turned to the relationship between texts and textiles – a linguistic connection as well as a storytelling one. She commented on how characters such as Penelope in the Odyssey take on narrative power through weaving, as Penelope is able to delay her marriage to one of the suitors in the absence of Odysseus but also the end of the text. Likewise, Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, after being brutally raped and having her tongue cut out by her sister’s husband Tereus, is able to weave the story of what happened and thereby reveal Tereus’ crimes.

In perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the talk, Higgins explored the technique of ekphrasis, the act of telling a story in literature through the elaborate description of a piece of artwork which depicts that story (“Painting is silent poetry; and poetry is painting with the gift of speech” (Simonides of Ceos, according to Plutarch). The Greeks and Romans themselves used this technique several times in literature to great effect, for example in Book 1 of the Aeneid when Virgil describes Aeneas seeing a temple covered in murals that capture recent events in the Trojan War. In the Iliad, Helen weaves the story of the Trojan War, during the war itself; here, Homer is providing a reflection in the character of Helen of what he himself as a poet is doing, but he invites us to see the story from a different perspective, that of Helen, a character who is constantly feeling guilty for her responsibility in causing the war. Similarly, when Ovid tells the story of Arachne, in her weaving contest with Minerva she weaves images of the gods behaving in a horrific ways, again asking us to reimagine what we think about gods and whether these figures in mythology are acting in the way that we might expect a deity to do so. Once again, we see ancient storytellers challenging us to view the gods and heroes of mythology in a new light, showing again how these stories can be – and have been – reinterpreted throughout time.

The Fates: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos

To round off her lecture, Charlotte Higgins read to us a passage from the opening of her book, where the Fates are used as a framing device for the stories within through their weaving of the lives of characters. Higgins included the traditional invocation to the Muses found in Greek epic poetry, matching the ancient tradition, but by bringing to the fore female characters such as Penelope, Athena, Medusa and so on, she has made this retelling of the Greek myths truly her own. The opening was intriguing and really captures the ways in which Higgins has managed to create a truly unique retelling of the Greek myths.

We would like to give a huge thanks to Charlotte Higgins for delivering this fantastic talk, which gave us much to think about in terms of how Greek myths can be reshaped by the different societies that are retelling them. It’s also given us all a great book recommendation, and I imagine that many of us will be rushing to buy a copy of Greek Myths very soon!

You can get a 15% discount at Storytellers in St Annes with your LSA CA members card!

And, talking of ancient heroism, tell us who your unsung hero from the ancient world is and you could be in with the chance of winning a share of £550… find our more here: Classics Competition 2022!