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I doubt I would be the first person to tell you that recently I have been revisiting an old obsession. Six months of some of the most bizarre conditions in living memory will do that to people. You might have tried to get back into painting, baking or binge-watching television. Basically, returning to the familiar is a tried and true way to alleviate the stress of enduring the unknown.For me, the past few months have been characterized by one key passion: Greek mythology. When I was young, I read as much about Greek myths as I could get my hands on, which led (rather unsurprisingly) to devouring the Percy Jackson &The Olympians series and its ensuing spin-offs. Eventually, this love ebbed. I never even read the final installment in the Heroes of Olympus series. I moved on.But, as I was finishing up what can only be described as the Spring semester to end them all, news of grand import arrived. To me, this announcement felt like it was delivered by a modern-day Pheidippides, the first marathon runner who sprinted from twenty-five miles to Athens to deliver news of victory. A decade after the disastrous film adaptation was released, author Rick Riordan announced that he would be working with Disney Plus to create a Percy Jackson television series. And so, I knew what had to be done. I would spiral once again down the rabbit hole of Greek geekery.I began with a Percy Jackson reread. For me, the experience had a dual nature: I was escaping into a well-loved world again, but also reckoning with the past. When reading an old favorite, you may be tempted to avoid criticizing it. And of course, there’s a part of me that can still enjoy the series for what makes it shine. PJO is about neurodivergent kids—kids with ADHD and Dyslexia—learning that their differences do not make them failures. PJO at its best is a series about children with serious family issues (neglect, abuse, homelessness and parental abandonment) coming together to make new families. They are funny, if occasionally in a very middle-school way, and they have a cast of loveable characters that you have no choice but to care about. That’s what I continue to love about PJO.However, reading these books again as an adult has made me more perceptive to their failings. Readers have been speaking on the representation of things like race, sexuality and other identities in the Riordanverse for years. I’m white, so I’m not going to comment extensively on what is not my lived experience, but it's clearly a charged topic for fans and Riordan. In the followup to PJO, Riordan wrote the Heroes of Olympus series, incorporating into it a more diverse cast of characters. This was a good decision and an improvement from his prior works. PJO has a glaringly white cast, with a few exceptions (many of whom were killed), and had no representation for the LGBTQ community. But there were many choices made in his more diverse books that seem insensitive or stereotypical to many, myself included. Beyond this, many of his books depict age gaps in romantic relationships which, now that I am not the character’s ages, come across as normalizing unhealthy dynamics. You should read the fans Riordan is trying to represent discuss their perspective and draw your own conclusions.Now that I am older than 11 and therefore more conscientious, I want to branch out. And so, my Greek to-read list has changed to reflect my desire for stories that grapple with the more challenging material in their sources. I want to read texts that asked the questions I was interested in, and I needed to look at the sources themselves to form my own conclusions.The culture of Ancient Greece is like a hydra—just when you think you’ve addressed one aspect of it, two more reveal themselves. If you’re going to read these texts, you can’t deny their original context or the context that surrounds them in the modern-day. The ‘classics’ are a tool of Western cultural imperialism, plain and simple. The idea of ‘Western Canon’ plants the seeds for racism, patriarchy, ableism and so many of the ideologies that pervade and pervert how we see Greek myths today. You can be an asshole and ignore it, or you can try to reckon with it as you explore these texts. You can’t do both.For example, what is the value in a woman trying to reclaim the narrative surrounding the Trojan War? Most know the cookie-cutter explanation: Helen, Queen of Sparta, either runs away or is kidnapped by Paris, a Trojan prince, and all the Greek kingdoms unite to destroy Troy in her name and reclaim her. Later, in The Iliad, the loss of his war prize Briseis, a prisoner of war who we can assume he rapes, leads Achilles to stop fighting with the Greeks and causes them great suffering. How can you detangle these stories from patriarchy and sexual violence? Is there a way to recenter the women in these myths, and divorce them entirely from the sexist narratives surrounding them? Those are all good questions, and if you have the answer let me know.In Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Achilles is strictly desirous of his boyfriend Patroclus and never rapes Briseis at all. Powerfully, this novel takes one of the preeminent characters in the Western canon and makes him, functionally, a gay man. In ancient Greece, it was acceptable to have pedophilic relations between men and younger boys, provided that this did not preclude partaking in marriage and reproduction. In Miller’s text, Achilles and Patroclus exhibit non-normative sexuality by almost never engaging with women, and certainly never expressing enthusiastic consent when they are prompted to. They do not rape war prizes. Patroclus especially is a non-normative man in the novel, as he avoids the battlefield entirely until he believes he must go in Achilles’ place.All of this is a departure from The Iliad, where both characters fight and take women as war prizes. The Iliad doesn’t suggest a monogamous relationship between the two; in fact, it doesn’t directly state there was a romantic or sexual element to their bond at all. Many Greeks (like Plato) have asserted that the two men shared a sexual relationship, but through a model of affection common to the era: a young beloved and older lover. The Song of Achilles is interested in presenting Achilles and Patroclus in a relationship with a modern framework, likely because it might mean more to readers to see this relationship than another heterosexual adaptation of The Iliad. By absolving her characters from the more detestable parts of their culture, like the common rape of war prisoners, Miller creates a queer narrative with protagonists you can root for. In my opinion, this is successfully done. The book is a beautiful love story. I cried when Patroclus died, and again when he and Achilles were reunited in death. Miller makes space in the book for people who are often denied it, but does this answer for her source material or merely whitewash it?
If you’re looking for a text that doesn’t avoid the realities of ancient warfare and sexual violence, there is Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. This book is told from the perspective of Briseis, and it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of her situation. Achilles is a rapist, Patroclus is a rapist; all the male characters of Homer’s epic poems are taken to task by the women they abuse. However, this is complicated when, about a third of the way into the book, we begin to follow Achilles more closely. We switch back and forth between first-person narrator Briseis, and a third-person narrator who follows Achilles. By affording that space to Achilles, he becomes one of the most dynamic and engaging characters in the book. I still enjoyed Silence immensely. There’s never a point where I forget what he’s done, but I was shocked when I cried again for this Achilles when his Patroclus dies. Somehow Briseis’ journey was now being shared with someone who had no shortage of scenes in other works.So even though Barker’s novel is more critical of the men of these stories, and though it explicitly wants to give voice to the silenced women in them, she still circles back to the perspective of a man. The Iliad presents us with Achilles, a character so enormous he can act like a planet pulling your attention into his gravitational sway. It frustrates me, even though I enjoy him. Can you talk about the women in Greek myths without being drawn to the men, who have already been given more space for their perspective in the sources? There are many other feminist reimaginings I could discuss here, like Madeline Miller’s other novel Circe, or Margaret Atwood’s The Peleponiad, or Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. All of these also focus on the women, and some in a way I enjoy even more than the two texts I’ve reviewed, but they are still adaptations of deeply patriarchal societal myths. Each text has no choice but to wrestle with that history.This isn’t to say that Ancient Greece never afforded women space. Herein lies a wonderful truth: you can try to avoid women’s complexity and agency, but they will tenaciously refuse you. The women in these stories are rarely the focus, but what we do have is enough to enrapture a reader, even a millennia later. Part of the reason I personally return to this mythos is my interest in what is left unsaid—negative space can be just as eye-catching as positive space—and how it makes room for free interpretation. If you want it, there is space to craft any narrative in the sandbox left by Greek myths.It is true, for example, that The Iliad is a mess of male violence. The Trojan war is completely rooted in the strict codes that surrounded male honor and male aggression at the time ... and yet the Amazons fought at Troy. A group of women warriors occupies such a confusing and contradictory space in the fragile, patriarchal understanding of women Ancient Greece allowed, but there they are. Or what about the very nature of Greek polytheism, a religion which includes a cast of female deities. How could Artemis, who exists to protect young women, demand the sacrifice of Iphigenia to get to Troy? Did she perhaps save her? How could the maiden goddess Athena punish Medusa for being raped in her temple? These myths rarely illuminate the internal world of these women, so you get to decide for yourself. And when women are the focus, like in the plays Medea or Antigone, there is still room for modern analysis and nuance. Or, you could grapple with what we have of Sappho’s writing, a rich tapestry of female desire. Come to your own conclusions on the age-old debate: how gay was she, exactly?What's great about Greek mythology—the poems, plays and other texts—is it’s nebulousness. These stories bemuse and escape easy categorization. This is by no means unique to Greece, and when I’m finished reliving fifth grade I might jump over to Egyptian or Irish mythology, but it's certainly something you can find in abundance with these stories. If you are struggling with yourself and with the world, it’s nice to take a look through older eyes. The characters can be terrible and cruel, but they are deeply human (even the ones that are gods).Most of all, if you see something that lacks exploration, something that piques your interest or frustrates you, feel free to pick up a pen and write your own version. These narratives belong to anyone who wants them.
Nicole Callahan is working towards a degree at a college. She has done some things, does other things currently, and would like to do still other things in the future. When she isn’t in one place, she can often be found at another. She loves certain books, foods, and activities.
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