Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles – Greek myths, women’s voices, and colonial violence

In “The Public Voice of Women”, the classicist Mary Beard writes about a text by Aristophanes: “Part of the joke was that women couldn’t speak properly in public – or rather, they couldn’t adapt their private speech […] to the lofty idiom of male politics”. Beard examines in her text how (Western) ideas about public speech and debate are infused with ideas (“conventions and rules”) developed in ancient Greece and Rome. Analyzing exemplary texts, she argues that public speaking and oratory was not only a practice women were barred from but even more so “exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender”. When I read through her analysis, I kept thinking about the project many recent novels undertake: re-imagining classical Greek and Roman stories by focussing on women’s stories and giving voice to female protagonist thus subverting these norms. 

Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls alludes to the traditional silence of women in Greek texts already through the title and sets out to rectify one of those imposed silences. This novel is about the story of Briseis, who is a minor but still significant character in the Illiad as she is at the heart of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan war. Briseis is enslaved when her home Lyrnessus is destroyed, her father and brothers killed. She is given to Achilles as a war prize but later claimed by Agamemnon (which leads Achilles to withdraw from the war). The Silence of the Girls creates a space for Briseis to tell her story – and the stories of other enslaved women; the novel even starts with a communal ‘we’. So throughout the narration, the reader discovers Briseis’ perspectives and is also led into spheres which are usually not illuminated showcasing the women’s lives in the encampment.

However, for a novel with the premise of focussing on women’s experiences, in the end, it feels lacking. The novel never manages to divorce itself from the inherent male-centric perspective of the original material. Breisis’ narrative does exist exclusively in relation to Achilles:  “Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’”, the novel begins and it ends with Achilles’ death and Briseis proclaiming: “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin”. But not only does Breisis story start and end with Achilles – and only a few flashbacks tell of her life before she was captured – but also does the novel not stay with her voice only. The narration shifts between Briseis’ I-narration and a third-person narration which follows closely the men, their experiences and feelings. Because the mode changes from first to the third person one might want to argue that that means there is no direct voice given to men. Yet the close focalization on the male characters and the fact that third-person narrators are more likely to be experienced as ‘male’ (due to the very ideas of speech and gender discussed before), make this a shaky argument at best.

There is barely a page (or maybe no page) on which Achilles is not mentioned. If one were to employ the Bechdel test based on a dialogue in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the book would probably fail: Yes, there are female characters with names and they speak to each other. But they also speak practically solely about men. This is not Briseis’ story but Achilles’ story – partially (!) – through Briseis eyes. Of course, there is a value in this reassessment of Achilles and in portraying how women are treated in captivity but it is a narrow approach. (And it might fall under one of the few cases Beard mentions in which women were socially allowed to speak in antiquity as well, as she says pretty dismissively: women could “parade their victimhood”.)

Pat Barker’s book is just one of many which find inspiration in Greek myths – some being retellings in the closer sense (Madeleine Miller’s Circe), others allude to the myth in a more subdued way (Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under). And while many of the texts are interested in critical examinations of the source material (with varying effects), the continuous retelling and reimagination of Greek and  Roman myths also perpetuate the idea of their centrality. So, this might be a good point to also think about the ways ancient Greek and Rome were re-imaged as dominantly white and void of ‘outside’ influences in order to make them as central to Western thought and self-definition as they are. In “Black Matter(s)”, Toni Morrison quotes extensively research which shows how, for example, the Egypt influences on Greek and Roman culture were hidden or at best ridiculed by later Europeans. She goes on to write: “Canon building is empire building”.

Inua Ellams’ novella in verses, The Half-God of Rainfall, follows the story of basketball prodigy Demi (“Half Nigerian mortal. Half Greek God”) who is the product of rape. His mother Modupe was assaulted by Zeus (“who had been glorified on film, song and stage”) after he had won a race against Sàngó. The novel puts Yorùbá and Greek deities into one narrative (and mentioning other deities too) and teases out some similarities but also underlying power structures and disparities. Ellams doesn’t necessarily dissect the origins of Greek myths but in his rendition Greek mythology is connected to colonial conquest and thus the use of Greek and Roman history, culture, philosophy, and mythology by Western ideologies laid bare. When Sàngó stomps into the Olymp ready to destroy it he reminds Zeus that Zeus himself had come into Sàngó’s territory repeatedly: “Let he without fault throw the first bolt!”

As much as this slim book is about Demi, and the unfair demands put on him, it is about Modupe seeking revenge. Similarly to The Silence of the Girls, Ellams’ novella also shows the repercussion of men’s violent conflicts – here one pompous thundergod against the other – for women and children. The Half-God of Rainfall shows rape and sexual violence as part of an entire oppressive system which at the same time is used within one’s own society to uphold the patriarchy and as a part of conquering other societies. (Though the way rape is discussed early on in the novella is not without its problems.)

At the end of the novella, Modupe rises above Zeus – with the help of other women/ goddesses, Yorùbá and Greek: “I’ll pour myself into you, Osún said, I’ll help,/ said Hera, if you let me / I too … a voice said / in the shadows out of which Helen of Troy stepped”. And Modupe understands her rage – grown from violence and grief – as a collective one: “This is for/ Demi, this, Helen, this Leda, Danaë, this one/ Europa, Antiope … every mortal who bore/ the scar, for the countless women she knew/ abused by men, Modupe gathered up their raw/ anguish into a primal AARGH! BANG!”. Their banding together due to the shared experience of violence is powerful but also highly utopic (given how historically white women, especially those aligned with power (which should include Goddesses), have always been known to rather stand with white men; point in case: white women voting for predator Donald Trump).

Mary Beards analysis – while full of interesting examples – sometimes falls flat because it rarely acknowledges the variety of experiences women (and people with other marginalized genders which never appear in the writing) have due to classism, racism, ableism etc.  In Women & Power, she barely interrogates who she constructs as a ‘we’ and thus some important questions are never asked. Reading all these texts together, in conversation, makes these omissions even more apparent – but it also shows that to truly question norms and narratives (supposedly) carried over from ancient Greece and Rome we need different and complex approaches. 


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