Ancient Myths Retold

Written by: Lisa Doyle

Myths from the past permeate modern society and culture to an extent that most people are not aware of. When using the word ‘mythology’, I am, in fact, referring to stories. Stories that have been told and re-told across generations. The mythological stories of Ancient Greece are the ultimate examples. Of course, many people are aware of Zeus, the god of thunder, and of heroes such as Heracles and Jason. What may not be as apparent, however, is the fact that these narratives are still being told in some shape or form today. This is the purpose of mythology, that tales are retold again and again, and are very much a part of a process of reiteration.

There are some issues that become evident when one reads Greek mythology, and those issues are namely ethical. The misogyny in these stories is plentiful. But that has changed in modern retellings of these tales, and the way women are treated in these narratives has been altered. Literary examples include Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, in which he recounts the myths of the House of Atreus, specifically allowing us to read Clytemnestra’s perspective. Madeline Miller’s Circe also foregrounds a female mythological character as we come to understand the legitimate reason for Circe’s eccentric behaviour (if that is the appropriate word for someone who enjoys turning men into animals). The explanation provided by Miller, that Circe is a victim of sexual assault, is nowhere alluded to in the Odyssey; the epic poem which tells her story.

Multiple examples of mythological influences also abound from the world of film. They include O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film by the Coen Brothers based on the myth of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey, and of course ‘Thanos’, the memorable villain from  the Marvel universe. Thanos, a character fixated on death, is based on ‘Thanatos’, the Greek personification of death. Finally, the Spike Lee film Chi-Raq is based on a play from the fifth century BC – Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – in which the all-female protagonists decide to  withhold sex from the men of the city in an effort to stop their participation in an ongoing war.

All of this leads me to Stephen Fry. He has published two volumes on Greek mythology in recent years, Mythos and Heroes. Fry’s work is both entertaining and important for a number of reasons. Throughout his book he constantly reminds the reader that it is in fact acceptable to be confused by the hoard of Greek names which these myths present. As Danny DeVito says in Hercules, ‘Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus- a lot of ‘euses’. By doing so, Fry is making Greek mythology more accessible, and less intimidating, to the reader. As he narrates these myths, he uses a casual, conversational approach, and the characters in his book adapt the same manner. As well as including helpful footnotes to orient the reader and explain etymology, a healthy injection of humour makes the reading of these books all the more enjoyable. Notable examples include the goddess Hera telling Zeus that he has a string of drool dribbling from his chin onto his lap, and Heracles referring to his failed attempt to retrieve the golden apples of the Hesperides as ‘fruitless’.  In the volume Heroes, Fry does an excellent job of rendering the personalities of heroes like Jason, Heracles and Bellerophon with such characteristics as to make them much more relatable and familiar to the modern reader. As we recognise qualities in the obstinate youths on the page, we become more connected with the story.

It is a remarkable achievement to produce a piece of work both accessible to those who are reading myths for the first time, and enjoyable to those who study Classics. Classics can be quite a ‘stuffy’ subject, so it is of paramount importance that we continue to relate these stories, which form the very foundations of Western culture, in an approachable and inspiring manner. As Stephen Fry writes in his introduction to Mythos, his focus is not on explaining these stories but telling them.

Image: Photograph of Stephen Fry, https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/review/2018/06/12/stephen-fry-tells-great-stories-in-mythos-men-at-shaw-festival-but-just-what-is-he-trying-to-say.html

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