Books

30 Books About (& Inspired By) Greek Mythology

From original texts to contemporary reinventions, there’s something for every kind of reader.

A selection of books about (and inspired by) Greek mythology.
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The enduring popularity of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles — a 2011 novel that reimagines The Iliad — has sparked a literary trend. There’s an abundance of new books that retell Greek myths, like Claire Heywood’s Daughters of Sparta, which approaches the Trojan War from a fresh angle, and Natalie Haynes’ works, which examine and recontextualize Greek mythology through a feminist lens. As the latter told Esquire, “It just felt to me like these women were hiding in plain sight, hidden in the margins of these stories.”

As exciting as many of these new books are, especially to readers who grew up loving Greek mythology, the concept behind them is hardly new. Greek myths have been told and retold for thousands of years, with writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and plenty more drawing inspiration from classic stories. Even feminist reinventions have been seen before: C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote a novel from the point of view of Psyche’s sister in the 1950s.

Here, you’ll find an eclectic list of old and new books about and inspired by Greek mythology, from The Odyssey itself to contemporary bestsellers to some lesser-known gems.

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1

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

If you grew up fascinated by Greek mythology, there’s a good chance you spent a lot of time poring over this classic book, first published in 1962. Richly illustrated by Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, it features short but potent retellings of the most memorable Greek myths, from Zeus’ extramarital exploits to Orpheus’ tragic pursuit of Eurydice, and everything in-between.

2

The Greek Myths

If you’re looking for a slightly more grown-up compilation of every Greek myth imaginable — from a recounting of the Trojan war to descriptions of more obscure characters like Omphale and Hesione — you can’t do better than Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. Graves was a classicist, memoirist, and novelist best known for his WWI memoir Goodbye to All That and his Roman empire novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and he brings his all of his scholarly expertise to this comprehensive survey.

3

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths

If you want a shorter book that’ll beef up your Greek mythology knowledge — and offer insightful feminist commentary on the myths — there’s no better option than Pandora’s Jar by classicist, writer, and comedian Natalie Haynes. Haynes, whose novels A Thousand Ships and The Children of Jocasta appear elsewhere on this list, is an equally adept nonfiction writer, and serves a friendly but knowledgeable guide to the major female figures in Greek mythology.

4

The Iliad of Homer

If you’re more in the mood for a primary source text, though, The Iliad of Homer is the perfect place to start, especially if you’re a fan of retellings of Greek myths; below, you’ll find several novels inspired by this epic poem. Not only does The Iliad offer context for those novels, it’s an entertaining read all on its own, full of warfare, intrigue, and tragedy.

5

The Song of Achilles

If you’ve read one book on this list, it’s probably Madeline Miller’s phenomenally popular The Song of Achilles, which received wide acclaim — and the Orange Prize for Fiction — when it was published in 2011, and experienced another surge in popularity last summer when it went viral on TikTok. Though Miller’s approach to The Iliad, which tells the classic story as a romance between Achilles and Patroclus, isn’t exactly new — as she herself explains, “Many Greco-Roman authors read their relationship as a romantic one” — her psychological and emotional acumen make this novel feel both fresh and heart-rending.

6

The Silence of the Girls

Many contemporary retellings of The Iliad focus not on the male warriors who occupy most of the poem’s action, but instead on the female characters who are affected by the conflict. Pat Barker, best known for her award-winning Regeneration Trilogy, set during the WWI, brings her perspective to this ancient, legendary war and the women who would have suffered through it in The Silence of the Girls. Her protagonist is Briseis, a woman given to Achilles as a concubine, who finds herself witnessing the war’s key events.

7

A Thousand Ships

This novel by Natalie Haynes also approaches the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women affected by the conflict. Haynes, though, isn’t as interested in the brutality of war as Barker is, even if she doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of the story. Instead, she presents a kaleidoscopic view of the war and the women involved, presented as a series of vignettes and narrated by Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry.

8

Daughters of Sparta

Classicist Claire Heywood takes a more focused approach to the Trojan War in her debut novel Daughters of Sparta, which tells the story of The Iliad from the points of view of Helen of Troy and her sister Klytemnestra, both of whom are married to powerful kings who aren’t very good husbands. Heywood focuses on their early lives, rather than on the fallout from the war, in building her portrait of these legendary characters.

9

House of Names

This novel by Irish writer Colm Tóibín offers yet another a starkly different approach to remixing ancient material. In House of Names, Tóibín presents a thoroughly human version of the house of Atreus, stripped of references to the Greek gods, in the bleak aftermath of the Trojan War. Here, these characters, who were given life by Greek tragedy writers Aeschylus and Euripides, feel startlingly real: Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, attempts to cope with his betrayal of her family, while her children Orestes and Electra reckon with a betrayal of their own.

10

The Odyssey

Once you’ve exhausted your supply of books about The Iliad, it’s time to dive into Homer’s masterpiece, The Odyssey, which follows Odysseus, the wily king of Ithaca, on his 10-year journey home after the fall of Troy. This recent translation by classicist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the poem, is a great entry point for newbies and mythology nerds alike. Susan Chira, in the New York Times Book Review, called it “a revelation. Never have I been so aware at once of the beauty of the poetry, the physicality of Homer’s world and the moral ambiguity of those who inhabit it.”

11

Circe

If you’ve read The Song of Achilles, you’ve probably also read Madeline Miller’s follow-up, Circe — but if not, there’s no time like the present. Though many novelists have explored other elements of The Odyssey — as seen below — Miller once again shows off her talent for taking a somewhat neglected character and breathing life into them. She takes plenty of liberties with the original text in inventing a backstory for Circe, all to riveting effect.

12

The Penelopiad

Authors have more often explored the experience of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, who waits for his return for decades in Ithaca. In Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Penelope reflects on the events of The Odyssey from the underworld, as do the Greek chorus of maids who are hanged in the poem for their supposed betrayal. Atwood uses various forms of poetry for her Greek chorus, along with Penelope’s more traditional narration.

13

Ithaka

Adèle Geras offers a young adult spin on the women of Ithaca with Ithaka. This novel is told from the point of view of one of Penelope’s servants, Klymene — a granddaughter of Odysseus’ beloved nurse who pines for Odysseus and Penelope’s son, Telemachus. In this immersive novel, Geras expertly balances characters and plots of her own invention with familiar elements from The Odyssey.

14

Ithaca Forever: Penelope Speaks

For a more sober appraisal of Penelope’s experience, check out Luigi Malerba’s Ithaca Forever: Penelope Speaks. Malerba, who was a prominent Italian avant-garde novelist in the 20th century, doesn’t shy away from depicting Penelope and Odysseus’ marriage as fractured and troubled. He also, refreshingly, focuses on the anger that Penelope would have felt after Odysseus’ return — a topic glossed over in The Odyssey and often neglected in retellings.

15

Ulysses

Not every updated version of The Odyssey hews so closely to its source material. The most famous example of this approach, which continues to serve as inspiration for writers the world over, is James Joyce’s epic modernist novel Ulysses. First published in 1922, the story contains Odysseus’ world-spanning journey to the streets of Dublin. Though it’s hardly an easy read, Ulysses will reward those who stick with it, especially if they’re already experts in Homer’s poem.

16

An Orchestra of Minorities

Chigozie Obioma, like Joyce, takes inspiration from The Odyssey to tell a story about original characters set in the recent past — in this case, Nigeria in the 2000s. Obioma’s novel, which follows the story of Nonso, a poor chicken farmer who upends his life in pursuit of the wealthier Ndali, isn’t an exact recreation of The Odyssey. Instead, it weaves references to Homer together with Igbo mythology, demonstrating how classical stories can still feel relevant today.

17

Tales from Ovid: 24 Passages from the Metamorphoses

But Greek mythology isn’t limited to Homer. Many of the most familiar — and oft-retold — stories originate elsewhere, like in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a collection of 250 Greek and Roman myths that has influenced writers from William Shakespeare to Robert Graves to the English poet Ted Hughes. The latter wrote this loose translation of some of Ovid’s tales, which serves as a handy introduction to Ovid but also stands on its own as a work of art.

18

Metamorphica

If you’re looking for a recent prose version of the Metamorphoses, check out Zachary Mason experimental novel-in-stories Metamorphica. Mason, who is also a computer scientist, has written a similarly unconventional reimagining of The Odyssey, The Lost Books of The Odyssey, and his experimental approach and beautiful prose are also on display in this book.

19

Girl Meets Boy

In Girl Meets Boy, Scottish author Ali Smith brings Ovid’s myth of Iphis to contemporary Scotland. In Metamorphoses, Iphis is a child who is born female and raised male, and eventually transformed into a man by the goddess Isis so that he may marry the woman he loves. In Smith’s novel, the story revolves around two sisters, one of whom falls in love with a genderqueer environmental activist. Like many other contemporary interpretations of Greek myths, Smith’s retelling of Ovid is loose but ingenious, and foregrounds a lesser-known myth that will resonate with many readers today.

20

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

This last novel by C.S. Lewis, the author best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, shows that recentering Greek myths around secondary female characters isn’t a new trend. Till We Have Faces, which recounts the story of Psyche and Cupid from the point of view of Psyche’s sister Orual, was published in 1956. Orual, who is cursed to be ugly and remains bitter about it despite her many accomplishments, is a riveting study in loneliness. Philosophically and psychologically rich, this novel will appeal to readers who want a darker or more challenging take on a familiar story.

21

Oreo

This satirical novel by Fran Ross, originally published in 1974, is based on story of Theseus. It follows Oreo, a mixed-race Black and Jewish girl growing up in 1970s Philadelphia, who (like Theseus) goes on a quest to find her father — but hers takes her all over Manhattan, rather than ancient Greece. The book, which mixes English, Black vernacular, and Yiddish, is both linguistically and narratively anarchic; it’s also very, very funny.

22

Ariadne

Fans of Madeline Miller will no doubt enjoy Jennifer Saint’s debut novel Ariadne. Saint, a former high school English teacher, explores and expands upon the familiar story of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, as well as Ariadne’s subsequent marriage to the god Dionysus. Most of the novel takes place after the dramatic and familiar events of the myths, allowing Saint to flesh out Ariadne’s relationship with her sister Phaedra.

23

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

Canadian poet and former MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Anne Carson has extensively translated ancient Greek literature, including plays by Euripides and poetry by Sappho, over the course of her career. She brings that expertise to her novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, which is based on the fragmentary poem Geryoneis by the Greek poet Stesichorus. In that poem, Geron is a monster killed by Hercules; here, Carson reimagines him as a young queer man who comes from in an abusive home and later embarks on a romance with a man named Herakles. Haunting, beautiful, and romantic, this book was a surprise hit when it was released in 1998.

24

The Darker Face of the Earth

Over the years, authors have also found inspiration in the myth of Oedipus, which most famously depicted in Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Antigone. After being exiled from his home as a baby, Oedipus accidentally kills his father as an adult and unwittingly marries his mother, Jocasta, the queen of Thebes; when he discovers what he has done, he blinds himself. In her verse play The Darker Face of the Earth, former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove adapts Oedipus Rex, setting it at a slave plantation in antebellum South Carolina instead of in ancient Greece.

25

The Children of Jocasta

Natalie Haynes’ retelling of the Oedipus story follows the pattern of her other books: It’s set in ancient Greece and revolves around the myth’s female characters, in this case Oedipus’ mother Jocasta and her daughter Ismene. Haynes focuses on Jocasta’s unhappy first marriage and Ismene’s efforts to uncover a plot to kill her. Controversially, though, Haynes has stripped the original myth of its core feature — incest — so this book will likely appeal more to readers who are looking for a grounded, historical version of the story, rather than Greek tragedy experts.

26

Home Fire

In Home Fire, British writer Kamila Shamsie brings Antigone, the sequel to Oedipus Rex, to 21st century London. This Women’s Prize-winning novel follows the orphaned Pasha siblings, who are haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. When Parvaiz, the only son in the family, tries to join ISIS, everything in the siblings’ lives goes horribly wrong very quickly. Shamsie expertly melds the Greek tragedy of Antigone with contemporary characters and political concerns, once again demonstrating the durability of these ancient stories.

27

The Bluest Eye

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison drew much looser inspiration from the Oedipus story for her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The novel takes place in the 1940s and tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young girl who has been sexually abused by her father and is now living in foster care. Morrison imbues her characters and setting with the feeling of doomed fate that haunts Sophocles’ characters, and further explores the trauma of incest and the family estrangements and rejections that result.

28

Salvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward directly invokes classical mythology in her debut novel Salvage the Bones, which went on to win the National Book Award. Although Ward doesn’t write explicit adaptations of Greek myths, her work is clearly informed by them: Her second novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, was influenced by The Odyssey, while Salvage the Bones, which tells the story of Esch, a teenager in a coastal town in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina, draws on the story of Medea. In fact, Esch spends much of the book literally reading about Medea and Jason and the Argonauts, and thinks of her unborn child as a Black Athena. Ward’s writing has the heft and scope of an odyssey all its own.

29

The Golden Apples

Anyone familiar with Greek mythology will recognize that the title of this novel is a reference to the goddess Eris’ golden apple of discord, which leads to the beginning of the Trojan War. Eudora Welty’s book, told in a series of short stories and set in the fictional Mississippi town of Morgana in the 1940s, is rife with references to Greek myths, which savvy readers will enjoy picking out.

30

Lovely War

Just because a novel alludes to Greek gods and myths, it needn’t be overly heavy or serious. Julie Berry’s clever, page-turning young adult novel Lovely War isn’t exactly a comedy — it takes place during WWI and WWII — but the way Greek gods meddle in its central romances is playful and original.