There’s a new(ish) genre in town and its one of the most exciting things to happen in literature in a long time. Of course I’m referring to the spate of retellings of classic Greek mythology. From Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad to Madaline Miller’s Orange Prize winning book, The Song of Achilles. I read the latter in 2011, when it was published but didn’t feel compelled then to find others like it. I read Circe , also by Miller in 2021 and it ignited a something within me. A passion I didn’t know I had for these ancient tales. Of course Circe is about a woman and for me, these retellings are at their most powerful when dealing with the likes of Penelope, Helen, Klytemnestra, Cassandra, Ariadne, Briseis and the many others that are merely footnotes in the original works. I’ve written reviews of A Thousand Ships, The Silence of the Girls and Circe previously and more recently of Pandora’s Jar which is a work of nonfiction exploring the stories of 10 infamous women in Greek mythology and how their stories have gone on to influence popular culture as well as general cultural attitudes towards women.
In the last year I have read eight more of these retellings, falling more and more in love with this alternate universe where the stories of women are the centre stage. Some have definitely been better than others, Circe is probably still my favourite, but I have enjoyed them all and have recommended them all to fellow readers. Last month I read two such books: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint and Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood. Both stories are about sisters, which was a happy coincidence, and are about the value placed on women’s lives particularly by their fathers and by the virtue of their marriages. These are stories about the choices men make, and the consequences their women have to live with.
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (spoilers)
Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra grow-up in the kingdom of their father Minos, in Crete. Their childhood is full of stories about Perseus, Medusa, Artimis, and the girls quickly learn how women suffer the indignation of the gods while men commit the crimes. It is the story of their own mother, Pasiphae, that haunts them the most. After Minos incurs the wrath of Poseidon, it is his wife who pays the price. “Briny and barnacled, from the depths of the ocean Poseidon rose in a mighty spray of salt and fury. He did not level his sleek, silver vengeance directly at Minos, the man who had sought to betray him and dishonour him, but turned instead upon my mother, the Queen of Crete, and riled her to insanity with passion for the bull. Incensed with an animalistic lust, the desire made her conniving and clever and she persuaded the unsuspecting Daedalus, to create a wooden cow so convincing that the bull was fooled into mounting both it and the maddened queen, hidden within.” And thus the birth of the Minotaur. The beast is confined to a labyrinth below the palace, and after a short war in Athens, is fed once a year on seven young men and seven young women from Athens to avenge the death of Ariadne’s eldest brother.
At 18 Ariadne is betrothed to Cinyras, a marriage of convenience for the kingdom. However just before the official ceremony, the annual games are planned and Ariadne spots Theseus, a prince of Athens, who has come to face the Minotaur. She falls instantly in love with him and his “noble” endeavour to face the beast in place of his countrymen, certain he will be able to defeat it. And of course, with Ariadne’s help he does. They plan their escape from Crete, knowing how King Minos feels about women who betray their kingdoms, agreeing to take Phaedra with them and marrying when they arrive in Athens. On the night of the departure, after the killing of the Minotaur, Phaedra is nowhere to be seen, so reluctantly Ariadne sales off with her Prince after he promises to return for her younger sister.
The first part of the book is told exclusively by Ariadne but in part two the narration switches to Phaedra, with each sister narrating alternate chapters. It’s through their different perspectives we learn about Theseus’s deceit, although the sisters remain unaware until much later. Ariadne finds herself deserted on the Island of Naxos and Phaedra finds herself sailing to Athens, at the bequest of her brother, to marry Theseus in order to maintain peace between their two kingdoms.
Naxos is the Island of the god Dionysus, who falls in love with Ariadne and the once barren Island becomes plentiful with grapes and wine. He convinces Ariadne that he is nothing like Theseus, or other men (or gods) who are obsessed with power and legacy. He tells her the story of his mother and of Hera outrage at finding out about her husbands betrayal and the subsequent death she suffers, with “Zeus plucking the child from her burning body and sewing him into his own thigh, until the time came for him to be born”. Raised by nymphs, away from Mount Olympus and Hera’s cruelty, Dionysus slowly works his way into Ariadne’s trust and soon after they marry.
In Athens, Phaedra remains suspicious of her husband, but throws herself into the running of the kingdom. After some years, a captain visiting the island for an annual events praises Phaedra for the wine, and flippantly comments about her brother-in-law, Dionysus, showing her favour. It is revealed through him that Ariadne lives and is married to the god of wine. As a heavily pregnant Phaedra confronts her husband she goes into labour. The first child is swiftly followed by another, thus delaying the meeting of the sisters, and we also learn that Phaedra does not take to motherhood unlike her sister, who lives for it. When the sisters finally reunite the younger sister confesses of her feelings for her step son, Hippolytus. Ariadne warns her against acting out on her desires, aware that he has sworn an oath of devotion to Artemis. and therefore remaining chaste. Phaedra, assured that Hippolytus feels the same way about her returns to Athens and reveals her desires to the young man, only for him to shun her and remind her that she is his step mother and nothing more. As he leaves Phaedra begins to worry that he will tell his father about what has transpired and Theseus will no doubt extract his revenge on her in the cruellest way, he did after all abandon her sister on an Island. Afraid for what might come Phaedra takes the decision to end her own life.
Ariadne follows her sister back to Athens, but she is too late to save her. Instead she meets Theseus. After he learns of his wife’s death, he discovers a note with Hippolytus’s name on it. Assured that this could only mean that his son killed his wife he is filled with rage. Ariadne informs him of Phaedra’s desires and her plan and reminds him of his sons loyalty to Artemis, but Theseus is overcome with rage and summons Poseidon to avenge his innocent wife, and a great green wall of water crushes the young Hippolytus to death.
The final part of the book is narrated by Ariadne as she returns to the island of Naxos and her husband Dionysus, who is embroiled in a feud with his mortal brother Perseus. Together they go to the Peloponnese peninsula, to Argos, to confront Perseus, who is a follower of Hera. Ariadne immediately understands that Perseus is torn between Hera and Dionysus and has aligned himself with the former, fearing her power to be greater. Dionysus is deeply offended by this and summons the women of Argos to leave their land and their menfolk and follow him. They refuse and so he sends upon them a madness which results in them bringing Dionysus their babies, who are then sacrificed. As Perseus gathers his army, Ariadne recalls “Pasiphae. Semele. Medusa. Now a hundred grieving mothers. The price we paid for the resentment, the lust and the greed of arrogant men was our pain, shining bright like the blade of a newly honed knife. Dionysus had once seemed to me the best of them all, but I saw him now for what he was, no different from the mightiest of the gods. or the basest of men.”
Ariadne death is followed shortly after this. She is turned to stone, assumingly by Perseus as he stands on the battleground with Hera by his side. Its such a splendidly good ending, taking us full circle back to the beginning of the book. Its such a clever book, and true to the mythology. I knew the story of each of these characters as I’d read of them in other books, but I am also familiar with the original text (I studied classics in school) and while these stories always had a pull, they didn’t interest me for long. I thought Ariadne was a brilliant reworking of the original and gave it a depth and a relatability that was lacking for me.
Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood (spoilers)
This book starts with a quote from Homers Odyssey
“For there is nothing in this world so cruel and so shameless as a woman when she has fallen into such guilt as hers was…
…her abominable crime has bought disgrace on herself and all women who shall come after – even on the good ones”
And so the scene is set for the story of two sisters, Princesses Klytemnestra and Helen of Sparta. Even as children Helen’s beauty gets her in trouble. A young prince Theseus arrives with his father and marvels at her beauty, which annoys Klytemnestra, for she is older and also taken by the young prince. Theseus, under the guise of a game leads Helen away with him, while her sister and servant girl, Agatha are distracted. Panicked, Klytemnestra tells her father and the King goes off to look for his daughter, but not before whipping Agatha and leaving her in the older princesses room, to teach her a lesson. Helen is eventually found in a cave with the the Prince, and much to everyone’s relief she is untouched (other than a kiss).
In the next chapter we learn a little about Helens birth. Her mother Queen Leda is often cold towards her and young Helen struggles with her fluctuating moods. She loves Klytemnestra and her other children, but with Helen she is often cold. On one occasion as a maid brushes Helens hair, and comments on its loveliness “I think your mother must have been visited by Zeus himself to birth a child with such fire in her” This results in the Queen attacking the maid and banishing her from the kingdom . Although the book doesn’t go into the details, the mythology around Helen’s birth is that Zeus, was so taken by Leda’s beauty that he disguised himself as a swan escaping an eagle. Leda protects the swan in her arms and it impregnates her!
As the older sister, it is the tradition of the Spartans, that Klytemnestra is the heiress of her fathers throne, and her husband will become the next king. Helen is expected to marry and leave Sparta to be a queen of another kingdom. The book jumps three years into the future when the older princess is 14 years old. As her father returns from a war, he informs her that she will be married to King Agamemnon of Mycenae, therefore leaving the kingdom to Helen. Klytemnestra is distraught by this but later overhears her parents discussing Helen and the circumstances around her birth. Theseus has been spreading rumours about her and people have also been questioning her birth, calling her “Helen the bastard.” Shocked by this revelation and her mother obvious shame towards her sister, Klytemnestra accepts her fate and leaves the kingdom with her new husband.
The story jumps another two years and its Helen being told about her future marriage. This time however her father confesses to her that some of the suitors think she may be a child of Zeus, and the king encourages her to go along with this. Helen, suspicious, but also flattered by the idea of having an immortal parentage agrees to go along with it. The king then informs her that the suitors will have to win her hand in marriage by competing in games. The tournament goes on for weeks, with all the famous names in Greek Mythology making an appearance: Ajax, Odysseus, Diomedes, Antilochos. Wiley Odysseus, knowing that the King will give his daughter to Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, suggests that all the other suitors swear an oath of alliance to the winner, “moreover, make them swear that if any man does take your daughter by force , that they will aid her true husband in retrieving her”. Odysseus also asks King Tyndareos if he can marry Penelope, his niece, and Helen thinks of her cousin, whom she played with as a child. Helen marries Menelaus and Klytemnestra, in Mycenae, has her first child, Iphigenia, who is a year old at the end of part one.
Part two is set two years in the future. Klytemnestra has another daughter, Electra and her marriage with Agamemnon is strained. He is away a lot and she suspects he is having relationships with other women. On the one occasion she confronts him about this he reminds her of her place, while thanking her for giving him children. She does however start to take a greater interest in the running of the kingdom and occasionally sits in with the king as he listens to petitions. On one occasion a young man, Kalchas, a priest of Apollo, meets the king and asks him to free the young girl, Leukippe, a servant of Artemis. She is the woman Agamemnon is sleeping with and he refuses Kalchas’s request. It turns out this young woman is Kalchas sister, which we learn later as he appeals to Klytemnestra to help him. They fail in their attempt to free the girl and Kalchas appeals once again directly to the King, but again he is refused. It is only when Agamemnon has a hunting accident, and is almost killed by a boar, Artemis’s boar, that he finally relinquishes the girl.
Helen and Menelaus are made king and queen of Sparta, and Helen falls pregnant. Her relationship with her mother improves somewhat, with the older Queen even telling her that she is proud of her. Helen worries about the lack of attention she gets from her husband, although he is not cruel, she remembers men writing poetry for her and calling her the most beautiful woman in the world, Menelaus lacks all this charm. Her daughter Hermione is born and after a terrible labour in which she takes over a week to recover. Agatha, her childhood playfellow, is now the child’s wet-nurse. As the months pass, Helen avoids her husband’s attempts to sleep with her, for fear of falling pregnant again. She eventually decides to visit a woman who can help her with herbs (and sheep dung!) although she is warned that every time she sleeps with a man there is a risk. She makes every attempt to avoid her husband and part two ends with Helen finding her husband and wet nurse kissing.
Part three is set seven years in the future. Klytemnestra has two more children, a daughter Chrysothemis and later a son, Orestes. Helen, has avoided getting pregnant and her marriage is strained when a delegation from Troy arrives to the kingdom and the handsome prince Paris catches her eye. Paris doesn’t hide his intentions, and when King Menelaus is called away, he sneaks into Helens chambers and confesses his love for her. Helen, flattered by his attentions but also desperately unhappy in her marriage falls for his charms and eventually the two hatch a plan to run away together before the king returns. Naively, Helen believes that Menelaus will understand her decision and everything will be ok. Klytemnestra domestic bliss comes to an end when news of a missing Helen, arrives to Mycenae. The brothers discuss Helens disappearance, unable to conclude if she ran off willingly or was abducted. Remembering the oath all of Helen’s suitors took, they begin to assemble their armies and journey to Troy to retrieve her. Agamemnon calls for a seer as they travel to Troy, to know the gods whims, and he calls for the best in the Kingdom, Kalchas. This immediately fills Klytemnestra with fear, but Agamemnon dismisses her worries, as “women’s concerns“. Of course she was correct in her predictions as it transpires that the seers sister was pregnant with Agamemnon’s child and both died during childbirth. To get his revenge, Kalchas advises Agamemnon that in order to get good winds for the ships to sail the king needs to make a sacrifice, and Artemis, who he has previously offended, demands the sacrifice of his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon tells the young princess that she is to sail with him and to marry Achillies. One of his advisors, loyal to the queen, tell her Agamemnon’s true intention, but there is nothing to be done, as the King is adamant a sacrifice must be made. Part three ends with Klytemnestra swearing an oath to the gods that she will avenge her daughters death.
The final part of the book covers the 10 years of the Trojan war. In the first two Helen is in Troy and living with Paris and they are confident the walls of the city cannot be breached. Helen has few friends, closest of whom is Kassandra, Paris’s sister. Paris’s brother Hector and his wife Andromache are a stark contrast to her own relationship, Paris already seeming to lose interest in her. Her admiration of Hector does not go unnoticed and she makes an enemy of Andromache. Meanwhile in Mycenae, Klytemnestra mourns her children while governing her kingdom in her husbands absence. And then one day a noble visitor comes to her Island, Aigisthos, cousin to Agamemnon, and rightful heir to the throne of Mycenae. He offers to stay and rule the kingdom with her, knowing that they both seek revenge on the absent king and Klytemnestra agrees, initially to protect her remaining children from other threats across the seas, but eventually falling in love with him.
The story then leaps seven years into the future, the war is still raging on and Hector is the clear hero of Troy while Paris is absent from the battlefields. When Menelaus challenges him to a fight, Paris runs off and as the body count begins to pile up, Helen is increasingly ostracised “How does it feel to see men bleed for you” she is asked. Kassandra’s betrothed is killed in the fighting swiftly followed by Hector, who is killed by Achilles and whose body is tied to the warriors chariot and dragged around the battlefield. The next chapter is several months after, and Troy has been breached. Paris is killed and Menelaus reclaims his wife.
In Mycenae, news of the wars end brings worry to Klytemnestra and her lover, Aigisthos, but they are ready for Agamemnon’s return. When his ship docks, the queen is waiting and her moments hesitations is overcome when she sees Kassandra by his side. She ply’s him with wine and then runs him a bath, and as he lays relaxing, head back, she plunges a dagger repeatedly into his neck. Kassandra meets the same end, only at the hands of Aigisthos. The King is buried but not really mourned by anyone other than his daughter Electra.
Although I really enjoyed this book I thought it was heavy with details from the original text. I felt it could have offered more nuances in both the sisters characters. I felt like I didn’t really know either of them any better at the end of these books than I had before reading them. Both Helen and Klytemnestra are such interesting characters, and in the right hands they have the potential to be explosive, given how much happens to each of them. I enjoyed how much Claire Heywood managed to put into this book, and how she went to lengths to stay true to, and explain, the original text and the interconnectedness of each of the characters, but truthfully I wanted more about the sisters. I wanted to finish the book, either loving them or hating them, but instead I felt indifferent towards them. If I had read this book before I read The Women of Troy, A Thousand Ships or The Silence of the Girls I might have felt differently. All that being said, I did enjoy it and would certainly read it again.
Both these books were so similar that with hindsight I should probably not have read them back-to-back. I think again I would have enjoyed the Women of Sparta so much more if I had waited a bit longer to read it. Although these stories are from an entirely different time, there are so many lessons and so many takeaways from them for me. The most upsetting is definitely how women’s bodies have always been used as tools of war, and how women have suffered, from the beginning of time, because of the choices of men.
Let me know if you have read either of these books or what your favourite Greek myth is. I’m looking forward to reading Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes next.