Storytelling is an innately human quality; one that crosses cultures and languages. Just as my sister and I huddled together as children while our mother read to us each night, so too did our forebears. “We do not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did, Greek or otherwise,” Stephen Fry writes in Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. It was the hearth where ancient humans gathered to keep warm, and as they did they talked, sang and laughed. In other words, they told stories. Myths are the most fulfilling form of storytelling: they serve to document events; explain the unexplainable; to operate as manuals for morality.
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While myths are being made new, they grow to represent both the worlds they were set in and today. Take for example the figures of Eve, Madonna, Helen, and Penelope – all embodiments of women invented by men. “Words, our primary agent of expression,” Christine C Keating points out in her essay, Unearthing the Goddess Within: “signify a discourse that has been established by a patriarchic myth.” We were given these characters, with their beauty and flaws, by men. And while feminist revisionist literature has tackled the issue, it’s never been more important – in a post-#MeToo world – to imagine new characters and rethink existing ones. Language has evolved to consider everything from the uniqueness of the feminine experience to what it means to be female anatomically. And in literature there has been a resurgence of feminist retellings of myths, especially in Classical mythology. In the original version of Virgil’s The Aeneid, Lavinia never speaks; in Ursula K Le Guin’s 2008 version, she is the titular character, this time with a voice. And Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls both made the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.