Top Ten Retellings of Greek Myths and Legends

Even though the worship died out more than 16 centuries ago, the stories of the Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes remain a fixed part of Western culture. We continue to reimagine the stories and rethink their implications. Movies, music, art, even TV commercials and comedian’s schpiels—pay attention and you’ll see myth is being remade everywhere. In books too! Here’s a list of ten contemporary books about Greek myths and legends.

content.chilifresh-3The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: When he finally returned home from the Trojan War, Odysseus found his wife besieged by suitors. He killed them all, along with Penelope’s twelve maidens, whom he wasn’t sure could be trusted. They act as a Greek chorus as Penelope tells their story from the Underworld. Atwood’s signature wit and themes are at work here—women trying to find a voice in a situation that has made them voiceless, establishing their own cruelty dynamics, and revealing the way myth infuses relationships. This is just one in Canongate’s Myths Series, which gathers contemporary writers retelling myths from a variety of sources.

XO Orpheus by Kate Bernheimer: A collection of fifty short stories that reimagine the world’s myths. Daedalus is here, building a new sort of maze, and Icarus’s father, devastated by the loss of his son. Narcissus and Echo meet under very different circumstances. By retelling the old stories in unusual ways, these tales create other, new myths about how we, in our contemporary lives, influence and are influenced by the world’s troubles.

Alcestis by Katherine Beutner: Written by Euripides, Alcestis is a Greek tragedy about a princess who so loves her husband Admetus that she agrees to die for him. She is then rescued from the Underworld by Heracles. In this retelling, we learn more of Alcestis’s life, both of her childhood before marrying Admetus and the stories of their marriage. We also enter the Underworld with Alcestis, searching for the shade of her dead mother, wandering a landscape she is not quite a part of, verbally grappling with Persephone, who is both terrifying and gentle. The novel creates a vivid, faceted character out of a woman who, in Euripides’ hands, was mostly a shadow.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Kassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy (and twin sister to Paris, whose love for Helen creates an entire legend), has the unfortunate luck to catch the eye of the sun god Apollo. He bestows the gift of prophecy upon her, but when she rejects his amorous advances, he changes the gift to a curse: she will correctly prophesy the doom of her nation, but no one will believe her. Here, the incomparable Marion Zimmer Bradley uses archeological, historical, and mythological detail to bring Kassandra and her perspective of the Trojan War to life.

content.chilifresh-4Medea by Kerry Greenwood: To gain his crown, Jason, the rightful king of Thessaly, must go on a quest to find the golden fleece and—as many on such quests do—finds it to be seemingly impossible. Plow a field with fire-breathing oxen? Fight and kill a sleepless dragon? Insurmountable tasks, until a beautiful woman, Medea, offers to help him, with only one condition: he must marry her and take her with him, away on his ship the Argo, after he gets the fleece. This most-famous tale of Jason and the Argonats is only small part of Medea’s story, and yet it changes everything for her. Is it love that drives her choices? The meddling of the gods? Her own sorcery? Kerry Greenwood recreates Medea’s world and life, exploring the sensual and tragic details of her exploits.

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin: In Virgil’s Aeneid, a war is fought over a briefly-mentioned woman, the Latium Lavinia who becomes Aeneas’s wife. Part fantasy, part history, Lavinia reimagines the world of ancient Italy’s customs, religion, and living places. As she worships at the sacred Albunea, Lavinia speaks not with the gods but with the image of the poet Virgil, who tells her her own story. In this way, the novel becomes not only about the story, but also about how stories are made. “It is not death that allows us to understand one another,” Lavinia realizes, “but poetry.” Like the literature of antiquities she takes her spark from, Le Guin raises issues that still resonate today.

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis: C. S. Lewis grappled with issues of faith by writing about them. In any of his novels, you’ll find a faith motif, and the haunting Till We Have Faces is no exception. It is the story of Cupid and Psyche, retold through the perspective of Psyche’s older sister, Orual. Although she is the queen of Glome, Orual is intensely needy and insecure, possessively protective of her younger and beautiful sister, Psyche. Orual’s transformation interacts with Psyche’s story, bringing her to a realization about the nature of God, faith, and herself.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: Even the classic Greek scholars have debated about the relationship between Achilles and Patroculus: friends or lovers? In her retelling of The Iliad, Madeline Miller suggests that it was actually both, and then illustrates how the power of this relationship infuses the events of the war with a meaning not immediately apparent. Told from Patroculus’s perspective, the novel also includes some of the women in the tale, Briseis, Iphigenia, and Thetis, creating a fully-developed exploration not just of war, but of love, friendship, and the human condition.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips: The Gods aren’t living on Olympus anymore—since the Black Plague, they’ve been living in London, trying to reestablish themselves. Now their power is diminishing and they have to find jobs to support themselves. Artemis walks dogs, Dionysus manages a nightclub, Eros is a born-again Christian. When Apollo (TV psychic) gets hit by one of Eros’s arrows, he falls in love with an ordinary mortal named Alice, and adventures ensue. The Pantheon is just as selfish and meddling in contemporary times as in Homer’s, it seems, but also funnier.

content.chilifresh-5The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth: “People intent on war always need a story.” Uttered by Calchas the Diviner, this idea is the central core of Unsworth’s novel about a specific part of the Trojan War. Halted by unfavorable winds, the Greek army cannot sail across the Aegean Sea. Odysseus suggests a solution: a sacrifice to Zeus of King Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. The winds change before the murder, but the politics have been set in motion, and as the army needs a story to unite its effort, Iphigenia is killed. While retelling this part of The Iliad, the story examines what motivates men, and what true moral courage is, and how a nation can spur itself to war.


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