Yesterday, one of the last sessions of Day 3 of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s (JLF) online programming saw writers Charlotte Higgins and Arshia Sattar in a conversation called ‘Greek Myths: A New Retelling’, after Higgins’ 2021 book of the same name. Sattar, of course, has translated both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into English, and written several wide-ranging analytical essays on Indian mythologies (some of which are collected in her superb 2011 book Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish). And despite the session's stated agenda, what unfurled was really a freeform conversation about the shared rhythms and trajectories of all myths across the world.
Sattar began by noting that A New Retelling uses the recurring image of the ‘weaving woman’ as a narrative framework for the stories Higgins wants to recreate. Indeed, in the introduction to the book, Higgins writes: “Greek and Roman literature is full of metaphors that compare its own creation to spinning and weaving. Ovid describes Metamorphoses, for example, as ‘deductam carmen’, a fine-spun song. When relating how he outwitted the Cyclops, Homer’s Odysseus says: ‘I wove all kinds of wiles and cunning schemes’” During the session Higgins explained the shared etymology of the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ (from the Latin texter, ‘to weave’), and how the Greek tradition of ‘ekphrasis’ (using a visual object to convey a story) became a very popular literary device in part because of these shared origins.
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Greek mythology is, as Higgins explained, hard-wired into Greek and Roman literature (including oral texts). They’re in the temples, they’re in the plays and they’re “carved onto the crockery”, as she put it. For the ancients who created the first recorded versions of these myths, they were ways of understanding the world, which made them tremendously influential. They could be used to preserve modes and attitudes — or in the same vein, to propagate social mores and keep people in check. And because there’s “no canonical version” of these myths, as Higgins said, every writer takes the bare bones of the stories and re-creates them on all-new terms, to suit the era and the society they’re living in. “I decide which aspects of the story I want to tweak, which ones I want to amplify,” Higgins said. “I also own up to the bits I end up tweaking, through end notes.”
Before A New Retelling begins (re)telling the stories of female characters like Athena, Andromache and Helen, Higgins explains how and why Greek myths ended up being ‘hero-centric’ — she points out that this partially explains the profusion of excellent modern-day novels placing hitherto-peripheral female characters at the heart of their respective mythological texts (Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships and Madeline Miller’s Circe are all notable examples).
“A complication for the reader (and reteller) is that the ‘heros’ of ancient Greek literature was not at all the kind of person meant when the word ‘hero’ is used in modern English, – the self-sacrificing military man whom Hawthorne might have had in mind, or the frontline healthcare worker we might think of today. The heros of Greek literature was an extreme and disturbing figure, closely connected to the gods. Achilles is by modern standards a war criminal who violates his enemy’s corpse; Heracles murders his own wife and children; Theseus is a rapist.”
Interestingly, Sattar explored some very similar questions in Lost Loves, where in the introduction, she asked if we are disturbed at some of Rama’s choices in the Ramayana — or are we really disturbed at the idea that given similar circumstances, any of us could make those same choices? “As God, Rama is always right and always righteous. But if we approach him as a literary character struggling to come to terms with the hand that life has dealt him, we can try and enter his mind, try and see the events of his life as he might have seen them, and attempt to plumb the depths of his heart as he kills without justification and twice abandons the woman he loves most.”
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In the second half of the conversation, the two writers also discussed some examples from mythological texts where we can see proto-examples of devices more commonly associated with latter-day or contemporary books. In The Odyssey, for example, Penelope staves off her many suitors by saying that she will choose one among them when she has finished the weave she’s working on—she then weaves by day and un-weaves by night. Sattar pointed out that “Penelope wasn’t done because Homer wasn’t done” (because text=textile, remember?) and that Homer was putting the narrative onus on one of his own characters (“a poet talking about art in his art”); a postmodern manoeuvre if ever there was one. Sattar said: “Mythological texts are so sophisticated that I just want to tell everyone to read the epics. Postmodernism, pastiche, it’s all here, thousands of years before today… Guys, you are late for this train!”
The act of delaying is, in fact, almost a formal feature for mythological stories, the two writers observed. Achilles “sits in his tent and sulks” for over a third of The Iliad, as Higgins put it. Sattar pointed out a neat little narrative sleight-of-hand towards the end of the Ramayana, wherein Hanuman asks Lord Rama for a very specific boon—that he live until the day his stories are told by someone in the land. It’s immortality by proxy, essentially, because of Hanuman’s sheer popularity in diverse regions across the Indian subcontinent.
I’ve attended a number of online JLF sessions these last few days, but this one was by far my favourite, just because of the sheer breadth and versatility of the conversation. Mythological texts represent a fascinating confluence of several disciplines: translation, anthropology, historiography and so on. And these two writers were ideally suited to explain the basics for a general audience. “One thing that mythological texts are not is the gospel truth, literally and figuratively,” Sattar said at one point. “But they represent another kind of truth, I feel, and that’s precisely the source of their power. They tell us something about ourselves, even though they were written or said thousands of years ago, in a world we don’t recognise.”
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer