When I was about ten years old, we studied the Ancient Greeks in school. We dived into the myths and legends, and even came into school in togas one day to eat grapes. We each had to make a presentation on a Greek God, and I chose Hera, fascinated by her extreme pride and jealousy - probably a warning sign, but somehow we all missed that!
My love for Greek mythology has continued over the years, as I eagerly consume any books and films I can find on the subject. I find Ancient Greece to be a fascinating time, and I love how mythology attempts to give little answers to huge questions.
In my time, I’ve read many books relating to Greek mythology, so here are the best of my finds. Any fans of Greek mythology should definitely give these seven books a chance!
I have never been a huge fan of young adult books, particularly those that focus on fantasy elements. This isn’t to disparage them, but merely to say that I somehow skipped that phase, even when I was a young adult myself. I have two older sisters, so I read the books they were reading and started on topics I was definitely not ready for.
A friend discovered that I had never read Percy Jackson and was aghast. They insisted I try the series, even loaning me their own tattered, well-read copy. I gave in, more as a favour than anything else, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I adored this series! I devoured the five books, plus the five spin-off books, within a month. When I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was reading Percy Jackson. I even convinced my best friend to try them as well, and she was equally hooked. A year later, we’re both rereading the series already! Suffice to say, these books are great!
Rick Riordan brings Greek mythology to the modern age, whilst still acknowledging the roots of the tales. The Greek Gods exist and haven’t stopped their wild ways, sireing children in the modern day. These demi-god children often have to deal with monsters, quests and a lot of adventures! I loved the extent of Greek mythology covered in these books whilst also taking the space to create new possibilities. The characters are complex and likeable, and the plotlines somehow feel slightly believable?!
Give Percy a chance; you will not regret it.
If you’re looking to learn more about Greek mythology in their original tales, but in a more accessible format, then Stephen Fry has you covered. Stephen Fry takes us through all of the Greek myths, from the well-known to the lesser-known, starting with creation itself and finishing with the Trojan War.
I loved these books because they gave me a greater insight into myths I thought I knew, and clearly didn’t know enough about. Fry acknowledges when there are multiple interpretations of the same myth and manages to link them all into an almost-chronological order. In addition, he highlights connections between the various myths and heroes to help you further understand the context and reappearing characters. Fry’s tone is upbeat and humorous, giving that modern touch to dialogue, which makes it anything but a dry read.
I recommend starting with Mythos, which covers the basic Greek myths, and then moving to Heroes and finally Troy. Fry often references stories he mentioned earlier, but always with footnotes to explain and even provide the relevant page number. Heroes covered all of the most significant Greek heroes in meticulous detail, including the lesser-known Atalanta, a female hero to rival her counterparts. I liked that Fry took his time with each hero, contrasting Mythos, which covered so much. But my favourite had to be Troy, as this subject has fascinated me since I first watched Brad Pitt portray Achilles in his shirtless, muscled glory. Fry’s Troy stands out to other depictions in the immense level of detail provided, the context that helps us to understand characters and their actions better. He avoids taking sides and yet gives us the emotional resonance needed for the reader to feel invested in a war of history books.
So this was really three book recommendations, but I think it is best to see them as a series.
Greek mythology was often unkind to the women of their tales. They took the brunt of the burden for the actions of others. Hera punished women for catching her husband’s eye, and Medusa was punished and demonised for being assaulted by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. In Ariadne, Saint focuses heavily on this theme, giving a voice to someone easily forgotten in the glamour of the tale.
We’ve all heard about Theseus and the Minotaur, but what about the woman that made that victory possible? What about the woman that betrayed her family to do what was right? What about the woman that never got any of the credit, and who was instead left to die?
Ariadne and Circe stand out from the other books on this list because I genuinely knew so little about their stories. I had no idea what to expect. It felt like reading a true fiction novel as anything could happen. As Ariadne’s food sources dwindled, I feared along with her. As a boat approached the shore, curiosity took hold of me.
This book also focused on sisterhood, a topic I adore reading and even wrote about myself! I loved the contrast of Ariadne and Phaedra, of their temperaments and tales.
In contrast, Achilles is a story I was more familiar with, or at least I thought so. But this book showed me how much more there was to Achilles than that fateful day in the Trojan War. I went in expecting a story of adventure, a tale of war, and instead, I was drawn into a delicate love story.
I spent the whole book praying for a different ending, even though I appreciate Miller following the historical accuracy of the myth. I didn’t expect to cry so much at this book, and I still think about that final chapter.
Miller’s research is impeccable, and I can’t believe this was her debut novel. She covered the lives of Achilles and Patroclus perfectly whilst providing the sorely needed context of Greek society, including the sexism that is often missed. She also portrayed the Gods in their petty and vengeful ways, showing how greatly they differ from humans, which is something I often miss in Greek retellings.
This article could quickly become a Madeline Miller fan club, and I wouldn’t even mind. Miller is an incredible writer, and I can’t put into words how excited I am for her next book on Persephone!
I have only known Circe as a villain, and I think it is important to note that Miller doesn’t detract from that truth in many ways. She acknowledges the damage Circe does, the pain she inflicts, and yet she also provides the necessary context and experiences that accompany that narrative.
Given that the majority of the novel takes place on an island where Circe is often completely alone, you might wonder how this book could be so interesting. But Miller is like many modern writers of today in that she moves away from the dependency on plot and instead focuses on thoughts and character development. As a result, she turns the daughter of the sun God into someone refreshingly and imperfectly human.
Whilst I preferred Ariadne and Song of Achilles, I do recommend reading this powerful book.
The Trojan War was a popular subject in 2021, and this trend is continued in A Thousand Ships. This book differs from the other two Trojan mentions on the list, as it focuses on the women behind the story.
“From the Trojan women whose fates now lie in the hands of the Greeks, to the Amazon princess who fought Achilles on their behalf, to Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus, to the three goddesses whose feud started it all, these are the stories of the women whose lives, loves, and rivalries were forever altered by this long and tragic war.” - A Thousand Ships, Goodreads
This novel managed to give a broad view of the war whilst also feeling personal to each of the characters mentioned, no matter how short the chapter or story. I particularly liked how it addressed events before and after the fall of Troy, rather than just focusing on the battle itself.
This recommendation actually consists of two books, The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy, which works as a sequel to the former. The first was released in 2019 and the second in 2021, confirming that 2021 definitely was the year of Troy! Perhaps it was to mark how desolate we were all feeling in our lockdowns, wary of any gifts of temporary freedom offered by the government.
This book is described as a retelling of the Illiad; however, I found it felt more like a retelling of The Song of Achilles. It focused primarily on Briseis, the slave that he saves at camp. It offers a more personal account of life at the camp, as it is easy to forget just how long everyone lived there and its conditions. This novel doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, which is needed so that you remember at the end of their day, there isn’t really a ‘good guy’ in all of it. It’s a story that feels relevant today and in the future.
I do wish this book had given some time to other female voices other than Briseis, but I guess other novels do that, so this specific one doesn’t have to.
Well, that was slightly more than seven books, particularly if you dive into the entire Percy Jackson series, which I recommend doing! I’m not sure why Greek mythology seems to grasp a hold of so many of us. Maybe it’s how it seeks to explain questions without an answer, helping us feel more in control. Maybe it’s the way their deities and important figures are presented both as heroes and villains. They show humanity at both its bleakest and most beautiful, and I appreciate that considerably as a lover of flawed characters.
Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to live in a time when there are so many excellent Greek retellings to keep me warm on a winter night. Did I miss any Greek mythology books that you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments!
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Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
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