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

The classical stories of eight weaving women are depicted on their looms’ warp and weft in this thoughtful, dazzlingly illustrated collection

There is no shortage these days of lively, well-written retellings of ancient Greek and Roman myths, but Charlotte Higgins has embraced a central metaphor – weaving – that leads us through the labyrinth of interconnected stories in a startlingly fresh way. It throws radiant new light on their meanings. Although her chief model is Ovid’s phantasmagoric mythological compendium in his Metamorphoses, her voice is quite different – more tender and pensive – and she uses her considerable scholarly skills to mine many other ancient sources, rescuing some little-known stories from obscurity.

As part of her research, Higgins herself learned to weave with replicas of ancient equipment. In any pre-industrial society, textile production is socially conspicuous, if only on account of the sheer number of hours required to transform parts of plants and animals into sails, tents, fishing and hunting nets, clothing, carpets, blankets, awnings and ornamental wall hangings, with elaborate scenic designs. Male poets borrowed their creative metaphors from textiles: a Homeric singer, a rhapsode, is literally a “song-stitcher”. Potters designing intricate stick people, chariots and funeral biers on geometric pottery produced at the time of the early bards copied their grid-templates from women’s weaving patterns. Roman authors self-consciously played on the etymological relationship between “text” and “textile”. For the momentous task of creating workable threads from tufts of wool, dyeing them, and labouring at huge looms was the responsibility of women.

The vast portions of their lives women spent weaving are ubiquitously reflected in ancient mythology. Occasionally, we hear what pictures they created – Helen at Troy weaves scenes from the very war she is said to have caused – but more often we do not. Higgins describes how, when Penelope must finally complete the shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes – a fabric with “a design as intricate as her own involved, withheld mind” – she folds it up and puts it away. The design we want to hear described is left cleverly untold. It will “remain a secret, now, between her and Laertes’ corpse”.

Penelope is the last of the eight mythical weavers Higgins selects as her chapter headings; so rich is ancient mythology in these artists-in-yarn that she omits several 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 function as Higgins’ quasi-narrators, except that the stories they tell are depicted on their looms’ warp and weft and described by the ninth Muse in this collection, Higgins herself.

Inspired by the ancient world’s favourite literary technique of ekphrasis – not only describing a static tableau but telling a story that moves through time via a description of an artwork – she uses the personae of her weavers to add psychological depth, emotional clout and sometimes philosophical profundity to dozens of embedded narratives. Weaving was a metaphor at the heart of ancient metaphysics, since the Fates measure out and cut off the threads of human life itself. Arachne, the victim of Athena’s pride and self-love, depicts stories of gods committing injustices against humans; Philomela, raped and mutilated by her own brother-in-law, weaves tales of individuals damaged by sexual desire.

The importance of visualisation to the enjoyment of this book, a beautiful artefact in itself, is subtly indicated by prompts to the mind’s eye in the form of Chris Ofili’s exquisite line drawings on the dustjacket and at the opening of each chapter, and by the colour scheme. The dazzling white and blue of Aegean seascapes and the modern Greek flag are decorated with golden sequins, like those with which the women would highlight visual details. But like the ancient poets, Higgins does not neglect glorious evocations of sounds, tastes, smells and textures. Orpheus sings a heart-rending lament for Eurydice; a pale narcissus nods in the breeze, “throwing up its delicate scent”.

The book would make a perfect introduction to the entrancing world of Greek myth for any secondary school student. Its thoughtful introduction, ample notes pointing to the ancient sources, bibliography of accessible further reading, maps, genealogies and glossary make it a useful resource for far more advanced adult readers. And Higgins’s simple yet sonorous style contains treats even for those lucky enough, like her, to have read her ancient sources in the original languages. She includes deft Homeric epithets (“the deathless goddess”), unobtrusive embedded quotations of resonant couplets from Sophoclean tragedy, and luscious Homeric similes at unexpected moments. This excellent book should delight many generations of story lovers to come.

Greek Myths by Charlotte Higgins is published by Vintage (£20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Edith Hall

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