Let’s make things clear right away: this article is biased. And I say this because I am a great lover of Greek mythology. Gods of Olympus coming to Earth to interfere with the lives of mortals? 10/10. Stories of heroes, and warriors, but also of women who have shown strength and courage? 10/10. Creatures crossing the boundaries of reality with snakes as hair, and 3-headed dogs guarding the underworld? 10/10. Destiny as a cause and excuse for every action? 10/10.
Greek mythology, with its characters and settings, gives us a first (and ancient-looking) glimpse of the possibilities that fantasy offers us to justify reality or to escape from it. Not only the Greek one, obviously (just think of the influence that the Nordic mythology has had, for example), although in the heart of many it is the one that has left its mark in the most permanent way. In a (perhaps excessively) rational world as ours is, Greek mythology manages to resist and spread its songs everywhere and in many ways.
Inevitably, even the books have been “touched” by this inspiration: only in recent years, just think of the “Percy Jackson” phenomenon, the pentalogy written by Rick Riordan from which two films and a Disney+ series have drawn inspiration, which is currently in production. If this young adult saga has attracted the curiosity of children towards the world of Greek mythology, the one to give a further boost was undoubtedly Madeline Miller with her novel “The Song of Achilles” which, despite being published in 2011, is still one of the most quoted and loved titles on the subject thanks to phenomena such as #BookTok or #BookTube.
Very little remains of Homer’s aulic style, but what is certain is that this collector (or should we say vase?) of stories, dynamics, and characters is still able to offer ideas that can be shaped for the contemporary public, granting itself in the process some poetic license as well, to make them more usable and immediately understandable. This article will not recommend titles such as the Iliad or the Theban Cycle, but rather some valid modern adaptations to make you discover or rediscover the beauty of Greek mythology. Ready to hear the Muses sing?
“Lore” – Alexandra Bracken
When the Hunger Games meet mythology: the story, set in New York, has as a background the creation of the Agone, a punishment wanted by Zeus against the gods following their attempt at rebellion. Every seven years, for seven days, the gods of Olympus are forced to become mortal, thus turning into the prey of the members of the ancient Houses descended from heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles, who are willing to do anything to kill them: the prize? Take their place as deities for the next seven years. The protagonist of the story is Lore, the last descendant of Perseus, who no longer wants to have anything to do with the Agone after witnessing the murder of her family. At least, until Athena, seriously wounded, proposes an unusual alliance to her: to tie their destinies, one to obtain revenge and the other to obtain protection. Accepting it, Lore finds herself involved in a deadly game, where anything is possible and where some secrets could have the power to change her fate. The book has a fast pace, with several twists and characters that, although not innovative, are well characterized: an engaging reading able to adapt Greek mythology to the New York of our days. Highly recommended if you already know the subject and if you are looking for a “different” adaptation!
“A Touch of Darkness” – Scarlett St. Clair
A necessary premise: it is a steamy saga (with 3 novels available, and the fourth scheduled for 2023) with an “enemies to lovers” dynamic. But let’s move on to the plot: the topic is the retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone in a contemporary setting. The protagonist here is the young Goddess of Spring who, unable to use her power and marked by a difficult childhood, decides to move to the city of New Athens, where she pretends to be a mortal journalist. During an evening in the club of Hades, the god of the dead, she finds herself investigating the secret gambling empire that the god has built on earth. Once discovered, Persephone makes a pact with Hades: to grow life in the Underworld in exchange for her freedom. Persephone, poised between maintaining her human appearance and developing her powers, soon finds herself involved in a much more dangerous game, where the focus is the attraction for the mysterious, dark, and unpredictable god of the Underworld. As the mutual feeling grows, Persephone and Hades show themselves for what they are, and in doing so, they risk going against old divine wills. Will their passion be able to resist fate and all prejudice? A light book that takes its cue from the mythological material for the characterization and background of the characters, while the dynamics are purely those of contemporary novels. That said, it’s considered the hottest-themed adaptation!
“Ariadne/Elektra” – Jennifer Saint
Published in 2021, “Ariadne” immediately made its way into the charts, attracting the curiosity of many fans of the subject for the author’s decision to give voice to Ariadne, a key character in the myth of the Minotaur but whose events are there only hinted. The Saint doesn’t agree to this feminine oblivion, thus making Ariadne the protagonist, along with her sister Phaedra. The story begins with Ariadne’s childhood on the island of Crete, where she has always lived in the shadow of her feared father, King Minos. Aware of the presence of her brother, the Minotaur, in the dark labyrinth under their palace and that, every year, 14 young Athenians are sacrificed to appease its hunger, Ariadne would like to intervene to go against her apparently decided destiny as a silenced woman. The solution is offered to her by Theseus, the young prince of Athens who, one year, shows up in Crete to defeat the monster and save his fellow villagers: Ariadne falls madly in love with him and decides to help him, betraying her family and kingdom. In doing so, she will change her fate, but also that of her sister Phaedra, who by helping Theseus will find themselves having to face the implications of their choice. First isolated and then reunited, both will discover that men and gods cannot be trusted and that the only thing they can rely on is their strength as women, daughters, wives, and mothers. What’s interesting is the desire to give a feminine and feminist imprint to the novel: sometimes, it is superficial in narrating the events and preludes a certain knowledge of the original dynamics; having said so, we certainly always need heroines capable of rewriting history and making their voices loud. Following the same dynamics, last April the author published “Elektra” to narrate the story of the Trojan War and its repercussions through 3 characters in the background, now made protagonists: Clytemnestra, Cassandra, and Electra.
“A Thousand Ships” – Natalie Haynes
Even Haynes, in his narrative, decides to give voice to women, indeed, to the heroines of a tragic story: the Trojan War, where it was not only men and gods who fought, lost and won. The events start from the end of the bloody 10-year conflict, and the narrator of the fate of the unfortunate Trojan women (and not only) is Calliope, the muse of epic poetry also invoked by Homer at the beginning of his poem. A woman witnessing the fulfillment of other women’s fate, Calliope decides to tell their story as well to offer a complete overview of what happened in that tragic context. To do so, it follows the thread of life of well-known names such as Andromache, Cassandra, Penthesilea, and Clytemnestra: 4 different women, daughters, mothers, and wives who entered the legend for their choices and for their destinies, so different, but have always lived with dignity and moral integrity. Moreover, to expand this chorus of female voices, there are other well-known figures, such as Penelope and Briseide, but also the Trojan women who courageously face their fate and the divine will. A moving and interesting review of the sources reminding us how we can all be winners or losers. Men, women, and divinities, without exclusion.
“Percy Jackson & the Olympians” – Rick Riordan
Come on, who doesn’t know the most famous Greek mythology-themed fantasy saga in the world? Counting 5 books (with other additional stories), if during your adolescence you have not read it, it is the right time to recover it while waiting for the Disney+ series that will be released next year. The events, set in the USA, see as protagonist the twelve-year-old Percy Jackson, who discovers that he is the son of a mortal mother and Poseidon. In his world, the Greek goods reside in a revisited Olympus, that is the six-hundredth floor of the Empire State Building, from where they control mortals, who however are not aware of their existence. Percy, once he discovers his true identity, is admitted to the Half-Blood Camp, to train himself to become a hero. And his first, involuntary mission, comes fast: someone has stolen the Lightning of Zeus and, the one who’s accused of the crime is Percy. The boy, along with friends such as Annabeth Chase and the satyr Grover, will then find himself involved in an adventure starring heroes, monsters, nymphs, and centaurs to save his destiny and that of the whole world. This is the premise of the first novel, “The Lightning Thief”, up to “The Last Olympian”, where different creatures of Greek mythology are rediscovered, in a crescendo of action, love, and twists designed not only for teenagers but for anyone who is attracted by the theme!
“The Song of Achilles/Circe” – Madeline Miller
A book that has become a literary case, a social phenomenon, and one of the most beloved coming-of-age novels of recent years. This is “The Song of Achilles”: Miller takes the most famous hero in the world, Achilles, and, through the pages of her book, turns him into a man. A man who loves, who wins, who loses, who fears fate like any other mortal. And, to do this, she tells the story of how he, “the best among the Greeks”, meets and falls in love with the clumsy Patroclus. They could not be more different from each other, yet the two boys grow up, get to know each other, and learn about the world around them always together, united by a feeling that becomes stronger as they become stronger. Patroclus lives in the shadow of Achilles, but precisely for this reason he proves to be the most trusted and experienced advisor of the hero, who would not go anywhere without him. Not even to Troy, when the call comes to participate in the most epic war in history. Both, under the city walls, will discover how far the bond that unites them can go, a bond destined to overcome death to become immortal. The Trojan War then becomes the main background, while in the foreground always remains the feeling that binds Achilles and Patroclus, and that Miller describes with passion, involving the reader until the last page. Equally deserving is the novel “Circe“, where the writer tells the story of the famous sorceress before and after the events involving Odysseus and which are narrated by Homer in the “Odyssey”. With a great study of the sources available, Madeline Miller makes a woman the protagonist, an epic figure, who finds herself between the attraction to the world of mortals and the awareness of living forever, with immortality that, often, is paid for with loneliness. We retrace the childhood and youth of Circe, a girl with a difficult character who, for her eccentric desire to get to know humans better, ends up exiled on the island of Eea: here, she learns to survive and refine the magical arts, and right here she will cross the fate of some unforgettable characters, such as Daedalus, Scylla, Medea, and Odysseus, learning to explore her feelings and abilities. From being a “woman in the background“, Circe turns into the sorceress who weaves the destiny of the Greek epic, in a narrative that leads us to empathize with her and to reconsider what we thought we knew about her figure and importance.
“Lore Olympus” – Rachel Smythe
To stay on the subject of “online phenomena”, we cannot fail to mention this webtoon with over 1 billion views, then collected into a series of comic books (the third and last is expected by the end of the year) which immediately became a bestseller. Considered a coming-of-age novel, the story revises in a contemporary key the myth of Persephone: here, the gods of Olympus love to attend wild parties and devote themselves to gossiping, between the latest fashion looks and social trends. Persephone, a young goddess of spring, arrives on Olympus after being raised in the world of mortals and is immediately dragged by her roommate Artemis to a party, where she meets Hades, the ruler of the underworld, with whom love immediately snaps. The latter, who has never overcome childhood traumas and cannot fill an emotional void, will learn to let go, while Persephone will have to discover the dynamics that govern Olympus and find his place to discover his strength and for that of the love that she feels for Hades. A nice, colorful, and engaging narrative that combines history, truth, fiction, and emotions to narrate a classic myth in a modern key. Recommended therefore also for fans of comics!
“Wrath Goddess Sing” – Maya Deane
A unique retelling full of details that revised the Trojan War in an always epic, but unpredictable key: in this novel, Achilles abandoned his people to live as a woman among the kallai, the transgender women devoted to the Great Mother Aphrodite. When Odysseus asks for him to fight against the Trojans, his mother, Athens, gives Achilles a female body, to allow her to go to war for what she really is. Together with her cousin Patroclus, Achilles sets sail for Troy, where waiting for her there will be numerous deceptions and intrigues wanted by the gods (here more violent than ever), but above all, a nemesis thirsty for blood and power: Helen. Forget the Trojan War that you thought you knew: between the pages of this novel, the story is enriched with new nuances, and the readers can rediscover the character of Achilles in new clothes and with new eyes. To read in one go!