This list of books about Greek or Roman mythology is sponsored by Little, Brown and Company, publisher of Circe by Madeline Miller.
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
A daring, dazzling follow-up to the bestseller The Song of Achilles, novelist Madeline Miller has created an epic story of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.
One thing that I am sure to teach at the beginning of every English class is that literature (in the Western world, at least) alludes to three big bodies of work: Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek or Roman mythology. Because the Greeks came before either of the other bodies of work, they’re our main staple. We reuse those narrative endlessly to show new points. One of my favorite short works is a tiny poem from Muriel Rukeyser in the California of the 1960s, called “Myth,” in which Oedipus gets the Sphinx’s riddle wrong.
If you are like me, you love revised fairytales, and the revision of Greek or Roman mythology to new purposes is just as satisfying. Below is a list of books about Greek mythology or Roman literature based on or inspired by these myths.
THE PENELOPIAD BY MARGARET ATWOOD
Based on: The Odyssey by Homer
This novel retells the story of Penelope from Homer’s The Odyssey, but from the perspective of Penelope, the wife who waits for Odysseus to return home from war for 20 years. In this version, Penelope is haunted by her 12 hanged maids, and many of the inconsistencies in the original epic are set straight.
Margaret Atwood retells one hell of a story. Check out her poem, “Siren Song,” too, if you like The Penelopiad.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Based on: The Odyssey by Homer
This novel also retells Homer’s The Odyssey, but its re-visioning focuses more on the plot points. Inman nearly dies in the American Civil War, but his love for Ada—a woman he barely knows—propels him homeward and instills in him a will to survive. This novel traces both his return and Ada’s life at home, much like The Odyssey itself.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Reminiscent of: Medea by Euripedes
The narrator of this novel, Esch, identifies with Medea in the story. Both characters are in fierce love with someone who spurns them, and the reasons both women are spurned have little to do with them personally. The other two main connections between Esch and Medea are their pregnant state and their willingness to do any crazy thing for the men whom they love.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Reminiscent of: Medea by Euripedes
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved features a protagonist that many associate with Greek and Roman myth’s Medea, but she and Sethe have different rationalizations for her actions. Medea kills her children out of spite for her spurned lover. They are objects. Sethe kills her child to prevent her from being sold into slavery. The child’s ghost haunts her and her remaining, living children, throughout the novel.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Based on: the gods on Mount Olympus
In this novel, the Greek gods live in a London townhouse together in the 21st century, and each of them has a crappy job that applies to their godly powers. (Artemis walks dogs, Aphrodite is a phone sex operator, and Apollo is a TV psychic.) The problem is that their powers wane each time the gods use them.
the Secret History by Donna Tartt
Based on: Dionysus & the Bacchanalia
This novel is a crime/thriller/mystery in which six students studying the classics are led into a world of relative morals by their charismatic professor. It loosely retells the story of Dionysus and the Bacchanalia.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Based on: Pyramus & Thisbe
What we forget when we read Shakespeare is that—while he is one of the huge bodies of allusion that the Western world references—he’s constantly alluding to Greek or Roman mythology, as well. The mistaken suicides at the end of Romeo & Juliet, as well as the forbidden love between them, was inspired by the original star-crossed lovers, Pyramus & Thisbe.
“The Mermaid in the Tree” by Timothy Schaffert
Based on: the Sirens of The Odyssey and Pyramus & Thisbe
This story is a loosely retold fairy tale that incorporates multiple retellings. Pyramus & Thisbe’s star-crossed lover archetype creates the plot of this narrative, and the mythology of the Sirens from The Odyssey fills in much of its character-development. This story was originally published in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me edited by Kate Bernheimer. If you want more Siren-y stuff, check out Margaret Atwood’s poem “Siren Song,” too, which retells the mythology of the Sirens from the perspective of a Siren herself.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Based on: Pygmaleon & Galatea and Icarus & Daedalus
Nearly everyone is familiar with Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature he creates, thereby placing himself in the position of God. In the Greek or Roman mythology, Pygmaleon pines away for the statue of the perfect woman that he has sculpted. His story has a happy ending, though, unlike Frankenstein’s, whose Creature haunts him rather than loves him.
Every mad scientist trope is based loosely on Icarus and Daedalus, as well, and the Romantics seized on this idea: these men create wings that let them fly, and the gods smite them from the sky for their arrogance. If you like the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, check out W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” or even Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice.”
“Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Based on: Theseus & the Labyrinth
One story in Karen Russell’s collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves details an American westward migration from the perspective of a family of Minotaurs. The Minotaur has been repurposed in this story—he’s no longer the beast that patrols Theseus in the labyrinth. Instead, he’s their father.
If you like Minotaurs—and who doesn’t?—Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break might be fun for you…and you can always revisit Beauty and the Beast, too.
If you’re interested in the origins of some of these myths, or if you want to try your hand at rewriting them yourself, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes is a great, comprehensive place to start…and make sure you let me know when you finish drafting.
Ed.’s Note: The original post misattributed the author of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break to Neil Gaiman.