September Book of the Month – Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins

Ellie Goodson

Greek Myths: A New Retelling is an endearing reimagining of classical Greek tales putting women at the forefront. Charlotte Higgins invites the reader to explore the inherent sexism of the orthodox tellings of Greek myth, and in doing shows the importance of women in every story.

Charlotte is an award-winning writer and journalist for the Guardian, as well as a member of the Society of Antiquaries. In a meeting at an event for the book before delving into its pages, Charlotte talked about how she looked into the ancient culture by exploring Europe to get first-hand experience with ancient tools (mainly the loom).

In Greek Myths, Charlotte takes eight ancient Greek women and uses their art at the loom to weave the stories of many different females who had been side-lined in the original narrative. From the mighty gods themselves, such as Athena and Persephone, to mere mortal women like Medea and Arachne. Charlotte’s artistry forms a clear image in our minds as we read her work, placing us alongside these matriarchs who are so often subject to the tragedies of womanhood in the ancient era.

Greek Myths: A New Retelling is a gripping collection of stories

In her work, Charlotte opens new avenues of sympathy for these women who are often unsung heroines or victims. Regardless of their wealth, virtue, innocence or crimes, they are all fatalities of the male narrative as much as they are casualties of the wrath of the gods. Greek Myths: A New Retelling is a gripping collection of stories; Helen’s chapter is my favourite, with many feminist comments about the forced subordination of women in the ancient era.

The book is also a commentary on modern society, with the reader being able to draw parallels between the stories of Ancient Greek women and the stories of women today. The addition of illustrations, done by Chris Ofili, add to the elegance of the book as Charlotte tackles the issue of sexism as well as the cruelty of the gods with the sophistication you’d expect from someone so well-researched.

If I were to tackle something like this, I would use the Fates as my point of view

In the way of criticism of the book, I don’t have one per se; what I have is more of a ‘what I would do instead’. Charlotte uses eight women from Greek mythology and the tapestries they weave to tell the stories. Sometimes, this can become quite confusing, especially in the later chapters of the book when the weaving metaphor is less present. Instead, if I were to tackle something like this, I would use the Fates as my point of view, natural weavers of every life in Greek myth and thus more stable narrators.

Nonetheless, if you read carefully enough, the book is easy to follow and still incredibly enjoyable.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek mythology 

Additionally, I would comment on the fidelity of Charlotte’s retelling. A couple of her narratives deviate quite far from the standardised myths that are well known. Charlotte does have an extensive ‘Notes’ section at the end of her book, telling the reader the sources of a lot of her information. While the majority of it is derived from primary sources, sometimes the story she tells is far from what I previously knew it to be, such as who Zeus and Hera’s first child was, and thus the origins of Hephaestus.

However, I am not as well qualified as Charlotte, so perhaps she has found primary sources previously ignored and decided to use them, or perhaps she has taken artistic license with the myths. I am unsure, but this doesn’t hugely impact how I feel about the book.

Greek Myths: A New Retelling is exactly what the title of the book claims, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek mythology. This is a lovely book written by a talented woman, and I expect myself to be purchasing her other works soon enough.

Ellie Goodson

Featured image courtesy of Faith Enck via Unsplash. Image licence found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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