Why retell ancient myths?

In the ancient world, myths seem to have functioned as repositories of cultural knowledge—historical (this is where and who we came from), sacred (this is what and who we believe in), didactic (this is how we should behave), among others. History, religion, philosophy, pedagogy…these are categories that we moderns have increasingly atomized; ancient myths conflated them. Where we claim “truth” and “lies” as mutually exclusive categories, ancient myths seem not to make these same distinctions. Myths can be “true” in some sense even though their details change significantly and purposefully over the centuries.

A few examples: In Homer Aphrodite seems to be Zeus’ daughter while in Hesiod, Aphrodite belongs to an earlier, pre-Olympian generation of gods. Achilles’ invulnerability does not factor in Homer, where Achilles is decidedly mortal and subject to physical injury, but post-classical versions of his myth offer two ways that Thetis strove to make her son’s body immune to death. In some versions of Oedipus’ story, he gouges out his own eyes after learning that Jocasta is his mother; in others, they continue to live together. Heracles alternately kills Megara before or after his labors. It depends on who is telling the story, when and where the story is being told.

Apparently, stability in the details was not as important as the act of telling and retelling the stories. It’s the act itself that matters, that maintains a shared tradition, even as the stories themselves evolve and change, along with the times. Paradoxically, then, each ancient community and generation that retold the myths participated both in preserving and in redefining tradition. Competing visions—of what the myths meant, who the gods were, how they interacted with mortals—were built into the tradition’s architecture. Rather than having a stable canon, the tradition seems to be defined by flexibility and adaptability.This can give us moderns the feeling that anything goes. From this follows: since the ancients changed their myths, can’t we too tell them any way we want? My provisional answer is that, unlike the ancients who reimagined the myths, we are outside of their tradition and culture, to varying degrees. But are we?

The image above pictures a range of books that engage thoughtfully with ancient Greek myth, history, philosophy. They’re the briefest of samples that suggest we both are and are not outside the tradition of retelling ancient stories.

Is it perhaps more fitting to ask what do we want or get out of retelling ancient myths? Do we, like the ancients, want to continue a dialogue and debate—about knowledge, the best way to live, the most important values to uphold—through transcendent stories about ideas or experiences? Do we find value in preserving the stories through retelling them? Or do we have other intentions?

As always, I am interested to hear your thoughts, impressions, questions, or anything else you wish to share.

4 thoughts on “Why retell ancient myths?

  1. I LOVE this topic!

    First off, you have so many insights here – the first paragraph alone had me thinking so much about what myths meant to those who lived among them and believed in them at least to a certain extent and had their culture shaped by them in a very different way than we do today.

    As for your question: personally, I’m a reteller of stories and a fan of retellings, although for me it’s usually fairytales – many of which, of course, are probably derived from mythology and other ancient stories, at least to a certain extent.

    I like retellings because the original story was so rich and interesting to explore. By putting a new spin on it, whether in a small or large way, it brings that back into relief, and maybe also makes us question the way we read the original. I also think it’s a way to connect with humanity – or at least a large bulk of humanity. We are all so different, leading lives that can vary widely. But we all still recognize certain characters, stories, and tropes. It’s cool to be able to play with them and to take part in that with others.

    What’s also really interesting to me is that you remind us that for the ancient Greeks, myths were, of course, also religion. It’s so interesting how they reshaped and altered stories and that was okay, whereas for Christians, we take our stories very seriously – some even downright literally – and changing them would be blasphemous to most people. There are exceptions to this, but the general idea is that a book like the Bible is sacred, so we can’t just be like, “Here’s a twist!” or “What if this happened AFTER that?”

    It’s so fascinating how the ancient Greeks, who have influenced modern Western culture in so many ways, were so different from us in that one.

    1. I love all your observations and points here, especially the idea that by retelling these stories, we’re sort of rallying around a shared experience that connects us. As I understand it, that seems to be how the stories functioned in the ancient world too. It wasn’t so much important, for example, whether Heracles did his labors before or after his marriage to Megara but that people revisit his story, that they come together however often to celebrate and call on him. So there’s room for people to be different, to find different kinds of meaning and resonance in the story over time, while still being connected to a shared experience. It’s quite humane, I think. Now that I think about it, one way I see that reflected in Christianity is in the different denominations and ways of expressing faith.

      Ah, thank you as always for giving me something more to think about, Alysa! xo

    2. I agree, Alysa! There was already so much just from your intro, Sally, that had me sitting back and thinking. I love the idea that these modern-day retellings are continuing the tradition of adapting the myths through storytelling.

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