Modern Mythologies

We all write our own mythologies – the mythology of millennials, of instagram, of ourselves. I often say that my online life is a careful curation. I choose what to post. I only show the actions and write the captions that I wish others to see. I am in control. This online life isn’t real, it’s a myth. And isn’t that what writing is – a hundred visions and revisions of a life – until years pass and all that’s left is the story, the narrative, the mythology.

Mythologies were once an oral tradition. Then they were written. And now, now mythologies are a tradition of the online world. Of pixels. Of pictures. I constantly document, in writing and in photographs, my own mythology. I wonder what will be left and what will be remembered. I scroll through my digital history and witness myself telling the story: long days spent lounging, reading, walking. Nights of glamour and melodrama. I see the sequinned cycle home at 5am, but I don’t see myself standing in-front of a class after a mere two hours of sleep, bleary eyed and teaching of caesuras and extended metaphors through a haze of the night before. I see a hot-spring swim in the mountains, perfectly picturesque, but I don’t see the the flu that racked my lungs, and the fitful sleep that followed (and even now, romanticising the mundane in my own words). Maybe the gods of mythology had mundanity in their lives too, mundanity that was all but overshadowed by tales of power and lust.

It’s mythology that connects us, that teaches us history, and it’s mythology that is repeated over and over again. Retellings tell us not only a story, but they tell us that the issues we face today are just as horrific and human as the lives of those who lived millennia ago. In this age of storytelling, we weave our own mythologies alongside the mythologies of old. And here, here is the best, the best of the retellings. The pile of books I will read over this long and sultry summer. The books I will read to learn from history, to learn about myself, and to learn that mythology never really changes – it just manifests itself in our own narratives.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: the first Murakami I ever read. I picked it up in Borders when I was fifteen. Like Oedipus, it has been prophesied to Kafka that he will fuck his mother and kill his father. Surreal and fucked up I don’t think my reading life has ever been the same; a coming of age for myself and for the protagonist.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: a glorious retelling of Penelope as she waits for Odysseus to return from Troy. Atwood gives a voice not only to Penelope herself, but to her twelve maids who were hanged upon his homecoming.

XO Orpheus edited by Kate Bernheimer: short stories that retell our favourite myths (Galatea, Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus), and also mythologies of other storytelling traditions. XO is the signal of a goodbye to the traditional myth making and the signalling of a new beginning for mythology.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare: my absolute favourite Shakespeare and grossly underrated in academia because of its seemingly flighty subject matter. Littered with mythology, have fun treasure hunting them all (and noticing references to THE MOON in every single scene).

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: with a title taken straight from Midsummer (Approach, ye Furies fell!/O Fates, come, come,/Cut thread and thrum.) Fates and Furies is a novel that is a structural marvel. Spilt into two narratives – Fates is the story of the golden boy Lotto, and Furies is that of his wife Mathilde. The Fates and the Furies are scattered into the narrative like a Greek Chorus and aren’t the only elements of mythology that are woven into their marriage.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith: god I love Ali Smith. I love everything she does. And this retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is all kinds of modern magic. Ali makes myth new. She makes myth about gayness, about ethics, about art, about gender, about love and family and belonging. She picked the happy myth, the myth that lies among ones of tragedy, death, heartbreak. Metamorphoses is littered with unhappiness, but this one, the one of Iphis and Ianthe is happy. And that’s our world today – isn’t it? – tragedy abounds, death is on our doorsteps, and the second holocaust is nigh. But it’s the happy myths that give us hope. Not all is lost, not yet.

Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest: We are still godly;/that’s what makes us so monstrous. In poetic form Tempest realises how our modern lives mirror that of myth. Devastating.

Ponti by Sharlene Teo: inspired by South-East Asian Myth (a welcome breath among the typical Greek and Roman Mythologies), Teo’s debut novel traces the lives of three women – Szu, Circe, and Amisa – and muses on obsession, friendship, memory, and the inexplicable experience of youth. Lyrical and poignant, Ponti is a thing of beauty.

Homer’s The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson: not a retelling I know, but it’s the first female translation, and I think that’s worth reading.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson: I won’t tell you the myth that Johnson weaves into this novel of language and identity, because I think that figuring it out for yourself is part of the magic. But you can read my meandering review here.

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: this book is winging its way to me right now, and I am so excited to read it. It’s the story of a washed up Sappho scholar that falls in love with a Merman. YES PLEASE. (update: I read it. A riot of a read.)

Weight by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson is a wordsmith. Read in one sitting. Be reminded of how beautiful and how terrible the gods are. This novella is a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles; demigod Atlas is (literally) holding the weight of the world on his shoulders, when the original lad Heracles shows up to ask for a favour. I don’t usually read introductions to books, but this one’s perfectly poetic prose is worth the weight.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: in the days leading up-to Hurricane Katrina, and in the wake of her destruction, Salvage the Bones focuses on a group of teenaged siblings trying to fend for themselves. Led by pregnant fourteen-year-old Esch, who’s obsessive reading of classical myth allows for echoes of the tragedy and heroism that abounds in myth to reverberate in their own lives, the motherless siblings’ bond is strengthened in mud and myth.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: this book slayed me. Absolutely devastating. But, it’s a retelling of Antigone, so what did I expect? Winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction Home Fire is one that speaks to the heart of home and belonging and it is so terrifyingly NOW.

The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot: Ovid! Virgil! Homer! Sappho! Sophocles!

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman: this ‘equal’ to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Volume One of The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, takes place when Lyra is an infant. Centred on young Malcolm Polstead, we find out more about the Magesterium, Dæmons, and Dust as he navigates a flooded Thames valley in a dreamlike Odyssey of a new world.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley: a suburban Mom retelling of Beowulf. The suburbs are terrifying, and a haven for secrets that seem to come to light against the perfection of autonomy.

Daphne by Will Boast: I’ve never really liked my name, until I found it had roots in mythology. Literal roots too, as it comes from Daphne’s Laurel tree. Boast reimagines the Daphne myth in a character who suffers from paralysis when faced with intense emotion.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis: a relatively unknown C.S. Lewis work overshadowed by his more famous texts, this novel is a retelling of Psyche and Cupid from the perspective of Psyche’s sister Orual. Till We Have Faces is his last, and what he believes, his best novel. My copy is second hand, and there is an inscription inside the front cover: To Catherine; Philosophy does not have all the answers and I, as a philosopher, knew that only too well. When philosophy falls silent, silence itself may take over. As always, [illegible], March 1995. The inscription is a myth in itself, and I wonder what they had done or said or thought to warrant the gifting of this book. And why this one in particular? I hope Catherine read it, and that it’s now a tether of friendship (or love) between them.

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt: I love any A.S. Byatt, and this Norse retelling may provide a different perspective on Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. Part autobiography, it speaks of comfort that can be found in stories of war, when war is waging all around.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read. The Song of Achilles gives life to the relationship between Achilles and his lover Patroclus. Lyrical and wonderful, it’s myth and magic wrapped into one.

Circe by Madeline Miller: I lazed for one hot day with Madeline Miller’s newest novel Circe, a retelling of The Odyssey’s witch of Aeaea. The new hardback bent and warped in the heat, and my damp hands made imprints on the pages – puckered them like petals and smudged the ink. Myth and solitude and witchcraft and power and transformation and a narrative voice that had me obsessed. This novel was everything.

Ulysses by James Joyce: An Irish Odyssey spanning the length of one day. I think Ulysses will always be on my to-read list, and maybe one day I will actually read it.

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra: in the wake of the #metoo movement and endless narratives about campus rape, Henstra’s The Red Word is a poignant modern myth that challenges the rape culture that is so firmly rooted in myth (I think we like to forget how accepted rape is in classical myth), and so firmly rooted in modern universities.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: not out until the end of Summer (to prolong it perhaps), The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the women who find themselves war prisoners in the camps beyond the walls of Troy. In a war of men fighting for the ownership of women (one in particular, we know), the women have been silent for centuries, silenced by the writes of man. But Barker gives them a voice, and not a voice to Helen, where all eyes were turned, but a voice to the women who until now, have been forgotten.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy: possibly maybe my favourite poetry collection. Ever. Carol Ann Duffy gives voice to women in history who, until now, have not had one – Mrs. Darwin, Frau Freud, Queen Herod, and most brilliantly, the women of Mythology. There’s Mrs. Midas who cannot believe the stupidity of her husband’s choices; Penelope (of course), forgotten by Odysseus and history itself; Pygmalion’s Bride is all kinds of haunting; and Eurydice loved the underworld and actually never wanted to come back.


Image description: THE MYTHS series, sent to me by the lovely folk over at Canongate – thank you!

One thought on “Modern Mythologies

  1. Great list! I’m adding some of these to my TBR. Interested to read your Everything Under review (I’ve just finished it). I was in Greece recently so am about to compile a list of ‘Greek reads’ – one that I haven’t got to yet but a beautiful Pushkin Press edition is ‘A Tale Without A Name’ by Penelope S. Delta.


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