Why rewriting greek mythology is a DE&I initiative
I am a passionate lover of myths, fairy tales, and folklore and have returned to it with a new voraciousness during the pandemic. I am not the first to point out the racist and sexist nature of Greek myths but it is time for us question this status-quo.
Plainly, greek myths needs to be re-written with a balanced redressal of its portrayal of race, beauty, and relationships between men and women. Greek myths get a few things right — the normalization and acceptance of same sex relationships and the agency of both men and women for rage, revenge, and negative emotions. But they get more things absolutely, abhorrently wrong.
- The issue of consent and power-play: Zeus, the king of Gods, is promiscuous, driven by lust and almost all his sexual conquests involve him chasing an unwilling woman or man. So great was his desire for the women he set his eyes on, he often turned himself into animals and birds (cuckoo, bull, swan, eagle) to trick them into having sex with him. As the King of Gods, arguably the man with the most power and in the most powerful seat, his authority normalized this behavior for the other Olympians to mimic. Apollo, famously, chases Daphne until the poor girl begged for mercy and was turned into a laurel tree. He also offered Cassandra the gift of prophecy to woo her but when she spurned his advances, he cursed her and ensured that no one would believe her prophecies. These men in power have consistently abused their authority without remorse and repercussion. Consent is nonexistent.
- The portrayal of beauty: The most beautiful men and woman, as described in greek myths, use adjectives that subscribe to western standards of beauty: milk-like skin; fair complexion; white skin; full rosy lips; youthful beauty; golden hair; golden skin; lissome; golden form, skin like honey. When Hephaestus was born with a disability that was antithetical to this accepted form of beauty, he was thrown away so that his parents, Hera and Zeus, could escape the shame his ugliness would bring them. By omission, greek myths have asserted that brown, black, non-golden, non-white, and disabled qualities, are NOT beautiful. There may be exceptions, but the myths have transcended the books and become part of popular culture perpetuate these notions of beauty. There is historical evidence that Greek Gods weren’t all white but again, effort has not been made to write this into the stories.
- There is debate in the classical world on the interpretation of the descriptive words from ancient texts. For example, Achille’s hair is described as xanthos in Homer’s Iliad. This word has been translated to mean “blonde, yellow, or fair.” However, xanthos was also used to describe water in an earlier text of Homer’s. Because the myths were passed down in oral tradition for centuries, it is possible that the true intent and descriptions of changed over time to reflect the storyteller’s preferences. What matters is that the current retellings reinforce vocabulary and tropes we are actively trying to dismantle. Also, did you know that very few interpretations of greek mythology are actually by women? The issue of treatment of women classicists is a wholly another one to unpack.
- Twisted feminism: Human imagination gave Athena and Artemis masculine traits — made them feared warriors and yet decided that they would remain virgins. Why deny them multitudes of personalities? Hera and Aphrodite were given the gift of beauty and other feminine gifts but were also stolen of their agency and married to partners they did not want. Sure, they were allowed their own dalliances but also were cursed to suffer a jealous rage and revenge because of the actions of the men in their lives. Even the minor goddesses aren’t spared this hypocritical feminism. Circe, for example, is strong and independent but because she has those gifts, she is not a desired beauty. And when her strength could’ve shined, she is shown to bow to Odysseus’s sword. Pscyhe, another woman known for her beauty, was stolen by Eros against her will. As was Persephone by Hades. When Pysche expressed agency in learning about Ero’s identity, she was punished most severely and was given a terrible burden to carry for the rest of her life. Persphone was tricked into spending six months of the year underground with Hades. Both paid a high price for what they wanted. What do these double standards teach little boys and girls who devour these stories with such attention ? That a woman who dares must be punished and that she deserves the consequences. Hollywood of course, has reinforced the role of women as objects of desire and minor plot points.
As a former agency planner and a diehard Joseph Campbell fan, I believe myths are extremely important. More than that, myths are extremely powerful. They are the great origin stories of our civilizations. They they have anchored us and given us the framework for rituals and religions, a sense of identity. Every culture can trace the DNA of their greatest stories to these ancient myths. Their power cannot be dismissed but their power carries more responsibility. I recognize that myths are our creation. I recognize that they hold kernels of truth and are reflective of values and virtues of humans from a different era, That is precisely why they need to be rewritten — without distorting the true natures of these characters and the crimes they committed.
- Let’s start by making the characters three-dimensional. Myths have flat characters — the characters have a fantastical origin story, a name, gifts that make no sense, and only a few emotions — rage, revenge, anger and extreme lust. Their egos are unchecked and their actions have no consequences. In making them three dimensional, their inner dialogues must be explored. Readers must have a sense of what the perpetrator and the victim are feeling as they commit their actions and go through the pain. Rewriting all of Zeus’s exploits alone with more thoughtfulness should serve every boy a strong reminder of the destroyed lives, stolen dreams, and inner turmoil his conquests experienced. While Zeus is an immortal and incapable of dying, writers must give him a comeuppance suitable to his crimes. And yes, God or not, it must be acknowledged that what he committed were crimes.
- Secondly, let’s give women more merit, more color, more texture. Let’s fill in the blanks and give them some new stories too. Why not? Immortal lives are long and I’m sure they were as busy with their own projects and passions as the men were with their philandering and warring. Perhaps Athena and Artemis did enjoy the amorous pleasures but kept them secret. Perhaps Hera, instead of focusing on her husband’s promiscuous ways, had her own projects that kept her busy. And perhaps they weren’t all tall, white, and beautiful. Maybe they were black, brown and purple skinned. Maybe they were bald and had thick thighs. Maybe they had textured hair and freckled skin. But most of all, they had agency. They had tricks up their sleeve and if they were wronged, they found the courage to face their pain. And if they wanted to, they did something about it. At the very lease, let us give these women voices.
This type of rewriting, the filling in of the blanks, is very possible — Madeline Miller’s literary masterpiece Circe shows us that is possible. P&G’s “Like a Girl” experiment makes it clear that conditioning begins at a very young age. Children in the United States begin reading Greek mythology by the time they are in 3rd or 4th grade. I’ve seen my own precocious and highly empathetic 11 year old nephew advance pretty quickly from the relatively bland D’aulaire’s book of Greek mythology to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (which are problematic on their own, see why here and here) to the Internet rabbit holes. This, in the forgotten gullies of the Internet is where the change needs to happen.
We deserve an origin story that does not paint characters of significance in a singular white-skinned, golden-haired brushstroke. Even ancient slaves were equally light skinned as they were dark skinned. A more equitable representation would also be accurate. We deserve an origin story that does not diminish the role of women as minor plot points or as accessories but features them in wholly independent stories of their own. We owe it to our next generations to give them an origin story that has an inclusive understanding of beauty and ambitions. These re-written stories must not hide the ugliness of humanity or gloss over our terrible acts of slavery and crimes against women. But my hope is that in showing the nuances and exploring the multi-dimensionality of these characters, we create a more complete origin story. Which in turn, will inspire a new generation of storytellers to build their own stories, rituals, and religions from a more inclusive and equitable place.
More reading if you’re interested: