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Are Greek Myth Retellings Problematic?

More specifically, are Greek myth retellings by non-Greek writers problematic?

These are questions asked by video essayist Kate Alexandra in her eloquent and thought-provoking YouTube project, "The Problem with Greek Myth Retellings."

After pointing out that the recent flood of Greek myth retellings hitting today's market are nothing new, she argues that they are different from their predecessors in one crucial way: they make women and other marginalized voices their focus. Describing them as "corrective" retellings, she questions whether they can really be called "feminist" while maintaining most of the patriarchal trappings that frame them. Furthermore, she wonders whether these voices were ever "really silent in the first place."

As an example, Alexandra points to A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes, which she admits is a well-written and enjoyable read. She disagrees, however, with Haynes's presumption that the stories of the women from the Odyssey are untold, citing examples from ancients texts, including The Odyssey itself. Alexandra wonders what Haynes is "fixing" with her retelling, or what new insight she is contributing with her story. Moreover, she fears that A Thousand Ships will be read by many readers in place of The Iliad and The Odyssey and may lead those readers to believe wrongly that Homer's versions are "war poems exclusively about men."

Alexandra next uses The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller to illustrate another "corrective" retelling that acknowledges the true relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as something much more profound than friendship. Alexandra points out that in order to tell her story, Miller must change the characters from their original source to make them more sympathetic to modern audiences. Alexandra further states that "the beauty of Greek myths is that they are flexible and varied enough to mold to contemporary tastes."

But then she quickly returns to this fear of modern retellings becoming too far removed from their ancient past--as if it's the responsibility of modern authors to educate readers about the myths of antiquity.

And maybe it is.

In the final part of her video, Alexandra expresses a concern that writers of these retellings are appropriating a culture to which they do not belong and gaining financially from it. And, while her video received over a thousand comments, it was this last topic that seemed to spark the most discussion.

Many commenters, especially those who identified themselves as modern Greeks, agreed that Greeks are victims of cultural appropriation by (mostly American) non-Greek writers who care more about spinning a marketable, money-making story than respecting Greek history and culture.

Other commenters pointed out that Greek mythology has been part of the Western literary canon for centuries and is taught to most Western children, including Americans, from a young age. They also point out that Greek culture--government, philosophy, language, and art--is the foundation for most of Western culture, making it part of Western culture, too.

Although, according to 23 and Me, I have Greek ancestry, I am otherwise an American, non-Greek writer who loves to author Greek myth retellings. I have been obsessed with Greek mythology since I was in middle school. And, while I do tend to write strong female characters, I never set out to "correct" ancient myths but to reimagine them. I never set out to appropriate Greek culture but to connect with it. As Americans descended from immigrants, many of us don't have an ancient mythology of our own, so we look to our ancestors from other countries.

My Underworld Saga was inspired by the movie Meet Joe Black, starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt in which Death wants a holiday. I wondered how the story would be different if based on Thanatos, the Greek embodiment of Death. My stories almost always start that way--with me wondering about something.

The cover for the book Thanatos depicts the god holding a young mortal woman.

I made a lot of changes to the old stories when I wrote my own. I made Thanatos and Hypnos, along with the Furies, the children of Hades and Persephone. I did this to make Death younger, so he would make a better hero in a young adult novel. Interestingly, I did find an Orphic Hymn which referred to the Furies as the daughters of Persephone, so maybe my version isn't so far-fetched.

But I later took even greater liberties when I wrote The Vampires of Athens, in which I designate Dionysus as the lord of the vampires. In my series, vampires come into being after Dionysus creates the Maenads, who then return home to rip their spouses and children limb from limb, and the only thing that can save them is human blood.

Would Greeks find this offensive?

The cover for Vampire Addiction depicts a gothic-looking teen.

The vampire theme continues in my series Vampire and Gods, in which Prometheus captains a ship of young gods and demigods who join forces with vampire pirates who (ironically?) work to return the cultural artifacts stolen by oppressors to the oppressed.

The cover for The Marcella II shows three teens--one girls and two boys--standing ready to fight.

Am I an oppressor who has stolen from the oppressed in writing that story?

After listening to Alexandra's video essay, I'm feeling nervous about the reception my newest Greek myth retellings will receive. I just released Athena, the first book in my Gods and Monsters Series. This book began with the question, "What if Athena was a virgin goddess because her heart was sworn to a deity she could not have? What if that deity were Prometheus? And what if after a tragic love story in ancient times, they were to find a happily-ever-after in modern times?"

The cover for Athena depicts the beautiful goddess Athena.

Is there anything unethical about me writing that story?

I've already set up the second book, Hecate, for preorder. That book also began with a question: "What if Hecate and Demeter were madly in love, and that's why Hecate agrees to watch over Persephone for Demeter in the Underworld? And what if, later, Demeter's focus on Persephone strains her relationship with Hecate and changes it and breaks Hecate's heart? But, what if later in modern times, Demeter and Hecate get their happily-ever-after?"

The cover for Hecate shows the beautiful goddess Hecate.

Isn't it okay for me to wonder these things, to write about them, and to share my writings with others for entertainment? And, since it does take work to research and write and publish and market, if I make some money (which doesn't always happen), don't I deserve to?

What do you think?


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