Mythology has held a very special place in my heart for most of my life since I was taught about the clever Odysseus and his epic adventure in primary school. My passion for it has evolved over the years as different mythical figures and tales have related to times and events in my own life. I recently did an online course in Greek Mythology and I feel like its one of the only things I could happily study, read and discuss all day every day. Myths and legends are just bursting with everything I love in fiction now. Fantasy, history, adventure, mystery, romance and more. I have talked about some of my favourite Mythology books in my stories on instagram but its one of the things I get the most messages about so I thought I would share them here as well.
A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes
A Thousand Ships is a fantastic read and a really brutal but beautiful retelling of the Trojan War from the perspectives of the women involved. The endearing muse Calliope connecting the dots between the different points of view. The narrative is rather bumpy, moving between before, during and after the Great War but I feel like the author did this intentionally. It felt right to be a jarring and uncomfortable experience.
We have the faithful Penelope, writing letters to her absent husband, wondering how long she must wait for him to finally finish with his adventures and return to the home that she is struggling to hold onto alone. The young and tragic Iphigenia as she prepares for her fateful wedding day and the following consequences of that day for her mother Clytemnestra. Then there is the heartbreaking group of the women of Troy, who huddle on their war torn beach as destiny picks them off one by one.
It is an absolutely stunning read and would highly recommend.
Pandoras Jar – Natalie Haynes
This book has more of a non fiction vibe than A Thousand Ships but is such an interesting and in depth look at some of the women of Myth, who are so often portrayed as nothing but side characters in their husbands and fathers stories. It reads like a brilliant collection of essays.
I absolutely love a dark female character and this book explores exactly what lead those fascinating women like Medea, Medusa and Helen to commit those terrible crimes and a chance to explore their sides of the stories.
Circe – Madeline Miller
Circe is quite possibly the most popular and highly acclamied of all the books on this list. Miller tells the tale of the notorious nymph who has popped up as a terrible chance encounter in many stories over the years, of course most famously in The Odyssey, where she cursed Odysseus’s men into squealing pigs.
This book tells the extraordinary tale of Circe’s life, from her beginnings as a child in the court of Helios, referred to by her father as “dull as a rock” as she becomes a young woman who had a key role in some of myths greatest stories including The Minotaur before finally transforming in to the powerful sorceress who ruled over the magical island of Aeaea.
I adored the majority of this book but for some reason that I’m not too sure about, I struggled with the last third. I rarely see anything but the highest praise for it though so definitely check it out.
The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
I read The Song of Achilles in the spring of 2020 and it was the absolute best book I read in what was a truly amazing year for reading. I don’t think I had high expectations going in, Circe having ended up as a 3.5 star read but something about this story just had the most profound impact on me. It was the most raw, emotional reading experience and I truly believe that Miller has magical abilities with what she has achieved here.
Though it is the godlike Achilles who is named in the title, this story belongs only to Patroclus, as will my heart forevermore. His narration was so deeply intimate and moving I felt every one of his emotions. We follow him from a young boy, cast out from his home after committing a crime, to a teenager, suddenly favoured by the boy hero Achilles. We feel his confusion as he agonises over his feelings and his inner conflict as he faces a life devoted completely to anothers, an understanding that he can play nothing but a supporting role. We watch as he becomes a man, who has to make his own impossible decisions with their own terrible consequences and as he finds the inner strength to stand up to the one he loves.
The writing is so incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking and it is a story that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The Silence of The Girls – Pat Barker
Another deeply disturbing feminist retelling of The Iliad, this story is mainly told from the eyes of Briseis, the girl who was ‘won’ by the hero Achilles for being the fiercest warrior and murdering the most men. Briseis is quite possibly the most key character in the whole of The Trojan War. Her capture sparking the chain of events that lead to the fall of Troy as Agamemnon and Achilles childish squabbling over her held devastating consequences for all involved, yet her perspective is one that has barely been explored, being mentioned by name a mere ten times in The Iliad.
I read this book straight after reading The Song of Achilles and I think it was really good to have a very different experience with the characters that I had just completely fallen for and hear the stories of those on the other side of the war. These women, who had lost their families and homes to somebody else’s terrible war, were enslaved and abused, raped night after night by the same men who had murdered their husbands.
It was immensely difficult to read at times but felt very important and to me, it is the best of the ‘feminist’ retellings.
The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood
This is a strange but fiercely clever little book. The other side of the Odyssey, this tells of Penelope’s struggles on the Island of Ithaca through those long years that her husband Odysseus was off winning wars and leading heroic adventures.
Penelope is quickly becoming one of my favourite characters from myth and this sarcastic, dry and resentful version is definitely my favourite yet. There is a dual perspective where Attwood switches between the main story, where Penelope is holding the home and outsmarting the suitors, to the afterlife where the characters are all very much dead, wandering around the underworld trying to avoid each other or having awkward (but hilarious) encounters. Those passages made the book something truly special for me.
Atwood also spins a very dark twist as she gives a chilling voice to the twelve hanged maidens. Their chants and songs haunting you the reader as much as they haunt Penelope.
The Penelopiad reads like a short story and is definitely one that you could devour in an afternoon. I loved it.
Mythos, Heroes, Troy – Stephen Fry
I adore the wit and charm that Stephen Fry brings to his storytelling. I switched between the physical copies and the audiobooks and spent many happy hours last summer listening to them whilst building my huge lego Hogwarts castle and they made a truly perfect soundtrack.
Mythos was the first I read and definitely my favourite of the three. It entertains us with the stories of the infamous Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus and their sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrific encounters with mortals.
In Heroes we follow those household names on their various, egotistical quests for eternal glory. Jason and his argonauts quest for the Golden Fleece and the twelve labours of Heracles being highlights.
Troy didn’t quite hit the spot for me and I’m not sure why. I read a lot of books about The Trojan War last year so I don’t know if it just couldn’t compare to them but I found it a bit jarring and the humour actually got on my nerves a little which was maybe down to having previously read those experiences in a much darker way.
Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
I absolutely loved this book and it really left me wanting more so I would love for Gaiman to follow it up one day. I had very basic knowledge of Norse mythology going in and I feel like it was the perfect place to start.
A collection of short stories imbued with such atmosphere you can almost see the stars and hear the crackling of the campfire. We follow Odin, Thor, Freya and of course the trickster Loki who is undoubtedly the star of the show. Gaiman does a masterful job of weaving the infamous tales like the theft of Thors hammer and the building of the wall into a highly entertaining novel with anticipation and suspense building all the way through to the stunning conclusion of Ragnarok.
Lord of The Silver Bow – David Gemmell
Another Trojan War retelling, this time packaged in an epic high fantasy trilogy. I’ve only read the first in the series but remember being completely in awe of the stunning prose. This is also the only David Gemmell book I have read in general but I know that he was widely renowned as one of the masters of historical fantasy and I can’t wait to experience some more of his highly acclaimed works.
The first half is slowly paced as the story builds which I personally loved, the writing doing all the work of preparing you for an incredibly explosive climax. The last third of this book was truly something special and the battle scenes throughout were some of the best I have ever read. Cannot wait to continue.
Mythology – Edith Hamilton
No bookshelf is complete without an anthology collection of myths, my own shelves nearly cracking under the weight of the ridiculous amount I own but this one has to be my favourite. Easy to read summaries of all of our favourite stories and beautifully illustrated it makes for the perfect luxury treat. If I’m ever feeling a bit stressed and not in the mood for my current read I will take this book down and read two or three of the stories and it really is the perfect tonic to chill and entertain.
The Iliad/ The Odyssey
I have always lusted after the idea of reading these books but stupidly didn’t think I had the ability to understand them and am so glad that I finally had a word with myself and dived in.
I started with The Iliad which I loved. As I have said many times, The Trojan War is in my opinion the greatest story ever told. It has each component that I look for in a good book. I read the Robert Fitzgerald edition which I found to be powerfully poetic, tragic and heartbreaking.
The Odyssey however completely surpassed every expectation that I had going in. It was utterly breathtaking. The Emily Wilson translation, the first translation by a woman, was an absolute pleasure to read and definitely a book that I will read again and again throughout my life. I bloody love a good quest story and The Odyssey really is the ultimate.
It was fascinating to see how both of these books have shaped storytelling in to what we are lucky enough to be surrounded by today.
Please do message me if you have an other mythology recommendations! I am always on the look out 🙂