Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins review – gloriously interwoven tales

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There is nary shortage these days of lively, well-written retellings of past Greek and Roman myths, but Charlotte Higgins has embraced a cardinal metaphor – weaving – that leads america done the labyrinth of interconnected stories successful a startlingly caller way. It throws radiant caller airy connected their meanings. Although her main exemplary is Ovid’s phantasmagoric mythological compendium successful his Metamorphoses, her dependable is rather antithetic – much tender and pensive – and she uses her sizeable scholarly skills to excavation galore different past sources, rescuing immoderate little-known stories from obscurity.

As portion of her research, Higgins herself learned to weave with replicas of past equipment. In immoderate pre-industrial society, textile accumulation is socially conspicuous, if lone connected relationship of the sheer fig of hours required to alteration parts of plants and animals into sails, tents, sportfishing and hunting nets, clothing, carpets, blankets, awnings and ornamental partition hangings, with elaborate scenic designs. Male poets borrowed their originative metaphors from textiles: a Homeric singer, a rhapsode, is virtually a “song-stitcher”. Potters designing intricate instrumentality people, chariots and ceremonial biers connected geometric pottery produced astatine the clip of the aboriginal bards copied their grid-templates from women’s weaving patterns. Roman authors self-consciously played connected the etymological narration betwixt “text” and “textile”. For the momentous task of creating workable threads from tufts of wool, dyeing them, and labouring astatine immense looms was the work of women.

The immense portions of their lives women spent weaving are ubiquitously reflected successful past mythology. Occasionally, we perceive what pictures they created – Helen astatine Troy weaves scenes from the precise warfare she is said to person caused – but much often we bash not. Higgins describes how, erstwhile Penelope indispensable yet implicit the shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes – a cloth with “a plan arsenic intricate arsenic her ain involved, withheld mind” – she folds it up and puts it away. The plan we privation to perceive described is near cleverly untold. It volition “remain a secret, now, betwixt her and Laertes’ corpse”.

Penelope is the past of the 8 mythical weavers Higgins selects arsenic her section headings; truthful affluent is past mythology successful these artists-in-yarn that she omits respective more, including the nymph Calypso who loves and loses Odysseus, and Idaea, the wicked queen who blinded her stepsons with her shuttle. Athena, Alcithoë, Philomela, Arachne, and the Homeric weavers Andromache, Helen, Circe and Penelope relation arsenic Higgins’ quasi-narrators, but that the stories they archer are depicted connected their looms’ warp and weft and described by the ninth Muse successful this collection, Higgins herself.

Inspired by the past world’s favourite literate method of ekphrasis – not lone describing a static tableau but telling a communicative that moves done clip via a statement of an artwork – she uses the personae of her weavers to adhd intelligence depth, affectional clout and sometimes philosophical profundity to dozens of embedded narratives. Weaving was a metaphor astatine the bosom of past metaphysics, since the Fates measurement retired and chopped disconnected the threads of quality beingness itself. Arachne, the unfortunate of Athena’s pridefulness and self-love, depicts stories of gods committing injustices against humans; Philomela, raped and mutilated by her ain brother-in-law, weaves tales of individuals damaged by intersexual desire.

The value of visualisation to the enjoyment of this book, a beauteous artefact successful itself, is subtly indicated by prompts to the mind’s oculus successful the signifier of Chris Ofili’s exquisite enactment drawings connected the dustjacket and astatine the opening of each chapter, and by the colour scheme. The dazzling achromatic and bluish of Aegean seascapes and the modern Greek emblem are decorated with aureate sequins, similar those with which the women would item ocular details. But similar the past poets, Higgins does not neglect glorious evocations of sounds, tastes, smells and textures. Orpheus sings a heart-rending lament for Eurydice; a airy narcissus nods successful the breeze, “throwing up its delicate scent”.

The publication would marque a cleanable instauration to the entrancing satellite of Greek story for immoderate secondary schoolhouse student. Its thoughtful introduction, ample notes pointing to the past sources, bibliography of accessible further reading, maps, genealogies and glossary marque it a utile assets for acold much precocious big readers. And Higgins’s elemental yet sonorous benignant contains treats adjacent for those fortunate enough, similar her, to person work her past sources successful the archetypal languages. She includes deft Homeric epithets (“the deathless goddess”), unobtrusive embedded quotations of resonant couplets from Sophoclean tragedy, and luscious Homeric similes astatine unexpected moments. This fantabulous publication should delight galore generations of communicative lovers to come.

Edith Hall’s The Ancient Greeks is published by Vintage. Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To enactment the Guardian and Observer, bid your transcript at