If you’ve read Madeline Miller’s Circe or Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, you’ll have noticed that reception of classical mythology is taking a turn toward the feminist. Rejecting the misogynistic model presented in the ancient source material and refreshing myths through the lens of otherwise voiceless characters, reception studies are helping to decolonize Classics, providing both a method of questioning classical literature and access to the discipline for those who lack formal Classics education.
But explicitly feminist work dealing with ambiguous women requires a careful hand that, sadly, some of these newer retellings lack. A reception isn’t automatically feminist just because you’ve made women narrate the story, especially not if the story stays the same. The themes that recur in the stories of so many mythological women — from coercion to violent rape — are easily glossed over between translation and retelling. To ignore them or wilfully write them out, as several of these newer “feminist” receptions do, is at best irresponsible, because doing so continues to validate dangerous tropes and leads to actual harm.
Unfortunately, the liminal women of mythology usually don’t get a happy ending. Persephone is doomed to forever vacillate between her abductor/husband in the Underworld and her mother on the fertile earth; there is no escape for her without upsetting the very balance of the seasons. Medusa is fated always to die, a second punishment inflicted by her victim-blamer. Restoring agency to these women doesn’t happen by denying them their trauma, or by removing the label of victim. They enjoy true agency when their authors allow them to rise above their victimhood and become survivors, or at the very least become women who deal with the world on their own terms. True feminist retellings recognize and don’t repress their characters’ liminality.
The poem Persephone to Hades by British-Indian Nikita Gill, from her forthcoming collection Great Goddesses, does not celebrate this liminality. The poem has Persephone thank Hades for recognizing her innate dark power, for lifting her from a fate as a minor goddess to one as a queen. A short proem entitled Conversations with Persephone has a similarly romantic cast. To be clear, Gill’s work is excellent: much of it focuses on subverting misogynistic narratives to reveal women-centric feminist versions. She utilizes classical mythology in several older poems, to powerful, (intersectional) feminist effect. For example, An Older and Wiser Little Mermaid Speaks aligns the fairy tale mermaids with the mythical sirens, giving them back their power through their monstrousness rather than through their fragile femininity.
But Gill’s words about Persephone perplexed me, and I’m not alone. Alongside the poem she had issued a statement, in which she argues that if we remove the possibility for romance in Persephone’s tale, we also remove her agency. Instead, Gill argues, we should “unvictimize” Persephone, because in the sources she is never raped. She ends with this:
Also, this is MYTHOLOGY, not HISTORY. Learn the difference before you go guns blazing into someone’s retelling. We are going to be seeing a lot more retellings from now on from women and I for one couldn’t not be HAPPIER. It’s high time women tell women’s stories.
This statement leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, Nikita Gill is right: the retelling of these stories by women is vital for rehabilitating them. But her take on Persephone is wrong. Persephone is kidnapped and probably raped — it’s right there in our sources. In this instance, while Gill’s reception work is sound (based on her interpretation of the sources), her feminist agenda is misguided. Gill’s poem doesn’t deserve to be policed on the grounds that it changes Persephone’s story, but it does deserve critique for its suppression of themes that have the potential to be problematic today.
To recap the major sources: Persephone is violently forced into a marriage that she very clearly does not desire. Hesiod tells us that she was stolen by Hades; both the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Ovid’s Metamorphosis have Persephone clearly crying out for her mother as she is snatched away (as evinced by the use of the Latin rapio — whence the English “rape”). Ovid tells us of her anguish at the loss of her virginal state.
Despite what to us is clear evidence of rape, in the ancient context there has been no wrongdoing: Hades has been given consent to marry Persephone by her father, Zeus, either preemptively or retroactively. Nevertheless, the story stresses the violent and underhand nature of her abduction. More evidence for the forced sexual elements of Persephone’s myth can be found in her eating of the pomegranate seeds, considered by many to be a euphemism for intercourse (see, for example, Lincoln 1938: 234, Ruis 2015: 24). Different versions of the myth have her secretly forced to eat them, while others show her eating them willingly, but explicitly without knowing that doing so means she will be stuck in the Underworld with her abductor. Although Persephone’s abduction might have been unproblematic in ancient Greece, to tell it as a romance today erases the experiences of both ancient and modern women.
Given her insistence on the absence of sexual abuse in the sources, I emailed Gill to discuss her poem and ask what she’d done to research the story of Persephone. She’d done as much as could be expected, reading Ovid, Homer, Hesiod and Apollodorus — all in translation — as well as reading more modern works such as Robert Graves’ Greek Myths and Stephen Fry’s Mythos. English is Gill’s (self-taught) second language, and she is neither a classicist nor a linguist. Given that languages themselves are already part of a debate on the exclusivity of Classics, we can’t reasonably expect Gill or others to consult texts in their original languages.
Translated versions of ancient texts are crucial for the ongoing inclusivity of Classics. But, as Stephanie McCarter has shown, translation is also crucial for hiding or revealing rape in ancient text, and irresponsible translators have turned sexual abuse into a consensual or even sensual union. McCarter points out David Raeburn’s translation of Metamorphoses as one of those which take the most liberties — and yet it is an extremely popular edition. Raeburn’s translation of Persephone’s abduction makes no mention of her pain or fear of losing her virginity — elements in the original — and instead euphemizes her rape with her torn dress and dropped flowers.
Now, I’m not suggesting that knowing the classical languages automatically equates with a feminist reading — or else we wouldn’t have ended up with bad translations in the first place. Nor does not knowing them mean we don’t need to consider the issues. But knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin does allow the reader to make decisions about meaning, decisions that have already been made for them when reading in translation. When non-specialist writers want to use these texts for reception, it’s unsurprising that even thoughtful feminists can create problematic work, if they are relying on translations that make misogynistic, racist, or even just euphemistic choices.
Gill is already ahead of the curve here; the copy of the Odyssey she consults is the recent translation by Emily Wilson. But without equally progressive translations of other popular texts to consult, creatives are stuck with outdated versions of the myths they are themselves translating into art. Practically, this will often mean translating the meaning of the text rather than the words by rote — the approach taken by Wilson, and championed by Johanna Hanink.
I’ve singled Gill out because her case shows that even those with the best of intentions can unwittingly make a misogynistic mistake. But Gill is far from the only person who has envisioned a romantic element to the myth of Persephone and Hades, nor is she the only person to produce problematic feminist classical reception. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, while in many ways triumphant in pulling Penelope to the front of the Odyssey, has its own issues rooted in uncritical reworking, not least her absolute refusal to question the role of another ambiguous woman, Helen. Atwood deals excellently with classical reception elsewhere (The Elysium Lifestyle Mansions does for the Cumaean Sibyl what Troy: Fall of a City fails to do for Cassandra), including in The Penelopiad itself. But Atwood’s Helen is thoroughly slut-shamed, gelling too well with misogynistic readings of the Iliad and Odyssey. Like romantic readings of Persephone, it perpetuates problematic and potentially outdated ideas about female sexuality.
These bad takes on Persephone and Helen are not so much failures of feminism as they are illustrations of white feminism: one of the frequent problems in feminist reception. Instead of being refreshing, these versions replicate monolithic and misogynistic mythology. It’s possible to dismiss this replication as a feature, rather than a bug, of white feminism (Atwood has called herself a “bad feminist” when what she really means is a “white feminist”). But I know that Gill is trying to actively work against the misogyny often embodied in white feminism.
The issue with the Persephone poem is not that its author isn’t bothered about looking beyond a feminist agenda for the few. Quite the opposite: during our conversation, Gill made it clear that inclusive and intersectional feminism is her goal. The issue is that feminism alone isn’t enough. Giving active agency to either Helen or Persephone doesn’t empower them, it further muddies the waters of their stories, giving credence to the patriarchal chauvinism of the ancient sources — exactly what Gill is fighting against. To find a good counterexample one need look no further than Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which effectively resolves the two conflicting characterizations of Briseis as enslaved prisoner and willing concubine. It is Briseis’ lack of agency that gives Barker’s retelling its power, rather than the reverse.
If we can’t get cis, white feminism right in reception, then how can we ever hope to get intersectional feminism right? I want to see intersectional feminist reception of classical myths bloom, and to do so — I know I’m preaching to the choir here — we should recognize the need to produce intersectional feminist research and translations. Blame doesn’t lie with Nikita Gill or her poem, it lies with the failure of the discipline of Classics and its unwillingness to disengage with its traditionalist roots. Without decolonization of Classics, we can’t hope to end up with a discipline that strives to be intersectional.
It’s not all bleak: feminist scholarship is being done (for example, Daniel Libatique’s research on Ovid in the #MeToo era); this is a vital part of starting to recognize the subtleties of liminal mythical women. Yet, even with the advent of intersectional feminist research, there is a gap between production and use: unless such research is accessible, aspiring artists will not read it. Through emailing Nikita Gill, I discovered that one of the issues she had was not being able to refer to anything that told her which were the best sources. The answer to this accessibility problem might be as simple as taking ownership of Wikipedia pages or taking action to promote the status of academic blogs as scholarship.
It might look like signposting useful works: Graves’ Greek Myths is problematic and needs to be taken with a whole shaker of salt, but how are non-specialists to know this unless scholars endorse a better and yet still accessible option? Equally, Mary Lefkowitz’s seminal Women in Greek Myth is an influential and relatively accessible piece of feminist scholarship, not yet superseded by any other theoretical feminist work on the same topic. Yet it is undeniably a piece of white feminist scholarship, woefully inadequate for informing intersectional feminist work.
This is not to say that every feminist retelling of myth fails in its feminism: Madeline Miller’s Circe and Anwen Hayward’s Here, the World Entire are both very good examples of intersectional feminist retellings of myths that don’t sacrifice the ambiguity or liminality of their characters. Hayward’s novella, a semi-autobiographical retelling of the Medusa myth, is particularly successful, not only entirely decentering Perseus but also allowing for Medusa’s existence outside the “classical” world. My only quibble with Miller is her falter in the novella Galatea, where, despite her background as a linguist, she doesn’t question Pygmalion’s statue’s traditional name, ignoring the connotations of the statue’s whiteness that, along with the name, are products of eighteenth-century antiquarianism and have little to do with the myth in its ancient forms.
Both authors are classicists: Miller has a BA and MA in Ancient Greek and Latin, which she also teaches, while Hayward is currently pursuing a PhD in classical reception, and wrote Here, the World Entire after doing an MA in Myth and Narrative Theory. Miller has the tools to be able to read and make those translation decisions about the ancient sources, and Hayward’s specialist training in myth and narrative (her MA thesis was on the ways myths are reappropriated) gives her the tools to be able to use myth critically in her work.
I should stress that neither author’s work ought to be considered more authoritative than any other piece of reception in its use of classical mythology. But I do think that such work can be, especially for non-specialists who are also doing reception work, especially useful as a type of public scholarship. Non-specialists who wish to use research can only work with what we give them, and our own reception — where it is feminist, and intersectional — might prove a useful starting point.
Mythology, by its very nature as something that is mutable over time, needs us to take into account its multiplicity, and not to shy away from its ugly aspects. When artists do not address the problematic themes like sexual abuse in the myths they use, they potentially do lasting damage as their own work becomes part of the corpus on that particular myth. These issues have real world consequences, reinforcing rape culture: only 2% of rape reports end in prosecution in the UK, Brett Kavanaugh is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the US, Brock Turner’s reputation is deemed more important than the trauma of his victims. I could go on. We can’t let tired old myths about rape, abuse and women’s bodies continue to be perpetuated. And so as classicists, we can’t shy away from the ugliness in mythology either, because we can, through our work, reveal that ugliness to others.
Classics has work to do. Reception can’t fix its problems alone, and Nikita Gill sums it up best when she says that women’s stories have been told by men in a misogynistic time. That time is still now, and it’s up to us to do something about it.
Aimee Hinds is an independent scholar from the UK. She can be found buying books, drinking tea, or both. With special thanks to Nikita Gill, Anwen Hayward, Ellie Mackin-Roberts, and Adrian Earle.