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Greek Myths: A New Retelling, with drawings by Chris Ofili

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I’ve never read a compendium of Greek mythology quite like this; written variously from the POV’s female characters such as Penelope and Helen — they narrate their own myths as well as those of ancient gods and goddesses (and famous heroes, too! In any pre-industrial society, textile production is socially conspicuous, if only on account of the sheer number of hours required to transform parts of plants and animals into sails, tents, fishing and hunting nets, clothing, carpets, blankets, awnings and ornamental wall hangings, with elaborate scenic designs. It’s as though the author took Wikipedia pages, summarized them in third person past tense, and then at the end of every story adds “and this is what Penelope/Helen/Arachne/whomever wove“ because all the stories are supposed to be tapestries.

Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Ovid, Appollonius, Robert Graves, Stephen Fryers and now Charlotte Higgins.Some women are again, just background stories and the guys who pop up in myths are reinvented rather than the woman. What a way to revisit The Odyssey and turning her loyalty to Odysseus into something more authentic and powerful. Clair (and if you don’t like smex try Alexandra Braken or if you’re literally a child try Mary Pope Osborn). Inspired by the ancient world’s favourite literary technique of ekphrasis – not only describing a static tableau but telling a story that moves through time via a description of an artwork – she uses the personae of her weavers to add psychological depth, emotional clout and sometimes philosophical profundity to dozens of embedded narratives. In Charlotte Higgins’s thrilling new interpretation of these ancient stories, their tales combine to form a dazzling, sweeping epic of storytelling.

The premise of the book is that each chapter is one woman, who is within the myths, weaving a tapestry telling the stories of those who went before her, each chapter finishing with the myth of the weaver herself. It deserves so much praise, and I will be posting overviews of some of my thoughts (none of which are concise) over the coming weeks on a per chapter basis. Arachne who shows us the true ugliness of the gods, and in the end still loses to Athena (who honestly sucks). The myths themselves are extremely easy to read, and while the chapter title may focus on one particular character, the stories follow the characters all the way down their family trees so that you get a much clearer idea of just how interconnected they all are with each other. In this spellbinding new collection, Charlotte Higgins reinterprets some of Greek mythology’s most enduring stories.

Roman authors self-consciously played on the etymological relationship between “text” and “textile”. In this telling the female characters take centre stage as Athena, Helen, Circe, Penelope and others weave these stories into elaborate imagined tapestries. The girl was a powerful enchantress, like her aunt Circe; she knew how to find and mix herbs that bring sleep, madness and death; how to force rivers to run backwards, how to quench blazing fires, to make forests move.

This is supposed to be a ~feminist retelling~ but that is only true because 1) each chapter title is the name of a woman and 2) the author is literally just TELLING you the same Greek stories over again. If you want a general overview of Greek mythology but like with humor and wit and joviality while still focusing on the actual myths, lol THIS IS NOT THE BOOK. A young woman and her sister, Procne who long to be birds to explore the world around them, but Procne's husband has other terrible ideas about Philomela.Charlotte Higgins's previous books include the acclaimed Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, which was shortlisted for awards including the Samuel Johnson (now Baillie Gifford) Prize for non-fiction, and Red Thread, which was a Radio 4 Book of the Week and won the Arnold Bennett Prize 2019. And Higgins’s simple yet sonorous style contains treats even for those lucky enough, like her, to have read her ancient sources in the original languages. That said, it is easy to read and some parts of prose are clearly very inspired by Ancient Greek poetic voice (but the writing is, at the same time, quite clunky in parts — almost like it reads in translation. It's a powerful depiction that infuses the myths with creative new artistry and paints the female characters with bolder agency.

And in these stories, we do not see heroes and gods but patriarchs, rapists, cheats, braggarts and betrayers. Each chapter is dedicated to a woman using weaving to tell their own story and stories that they’ve heard.I sort of wish I’d come across this when I was younger — this is a great ‘introduction’ to Greek myth without having to scour and pull together lots of disparate sources.

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